Friday, March 26, 2021

Is Downtown Baltimore doomed?

Standing in Federal Hill Park on a sunny spring day, downtown Baltimore looks as scenic as always:  The peaks of glass, brick and stone towers form a gleaming skyline, mirrored in the waters of the Inner Harbor and its boats in the foreground: An iconic image of Baltimore that is known around the world.

Picture perfect: Downtown Baltimore 

Downtown is in serious trouble

But on the ground, the impressions change and the moldy scent of decay and abandonment isn't any longer limited to Baltimore's once gleaming retail district on Lexington Street but wafts far into the financial district and beyond all the way to Harborplace. 

What if vacancies won't magically disappear at the end of the pandemic when the heavy toll of hotel, restaurant, office and retail closures or restrictions will be lifted, and everything that defines downtown can breathe again? In fact, downtown is being clobbered by a multitude of factors:

  • people being tired of focusing on downtown instead of neighborhoods 
  • the ongoing loss of corporate headquarters 
  • the steady decline of retail 
  • violent crime has now penetrated the previously safe central business district
  • COVID with everything at once: work from home, restrict or close restaurants and attractions

The barrage on downtown comes when Baltimoreans are fed up by Police misdeeds and singularly focused on equity,  with attention centered on neighborhoods which lacked investment for some time, not downtown. The sense of of a division between downtown and the rest of the City even found its way into a business paper, traditionally a downtown booster: Melody Simmons of the BBJ says in a recent article of the series "the future of cities":
The lopsided focus of developing and maintaining a work, live and play vibe on the city’s waterfront has usurped energy and investment from outlier communities and left an infamous and visible divide (BBJ) 

The past responses to retail and office vacancies may not work any longer

The pandemic makes it very clear that Baltimore never had a cogent answer to the slow erosion of retail and office and the geographic shifts in our post-industrial city that moved the center of activities towards the water and ever further east, other than pumping more residents downtown. To be sure, that is a good strategy, but ultimately not sufficient as we will discuss in this article.  

the moldy scent of decay and abandonment isn't any longer limited
to Baltimore's once gleaming retail district
  (Photo: Philipsen)
Baltimore never successfully replaced the lost retail hub of Market Center with a new shopping area. Neither were there consistent, coordinated ongoing, strategic efforts of placing regional corporate headquarters inside the City. Corporations that did locate in the City did so because their employees demanded urbanity, not because there was a consistent policy. With the unabated series of buy-outs and mergers, headquarters may well be a lost cause.

Scattered attempts of establishing shopping on Pratt Street (Best Buy, Filene's Basement) failed and even Harbor East's streets never became true urban shopping destinations. For City shopping, residents drive to the suburban style Canton Crossing. 

The Baltimore Business Journal recently compiled a list of office vacancies and ruminated ominously about companies considering moving or reducing their downtown presence. The paper writes:

Transamerica's order to its 550 workers to clear out their desks by Feb. 28 posed the latest ripple in the downtown market. The move left in limbo 125,109 square feet of space at 100 Light St. in a marquee property near Harborplace. It also followed an announcement by T. Rowe Price in December that it planned to vacate 450,000 square feet at 100 E. Pratt in 2024 for a building yet-to-break-ground in Harbor Point. (BBJ)

The BBJ then notes several other companies which are "probing whether to downsize or relocate in the coming year or so", including Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Pandora. 

There can be no doubt, that the very American way of shaping a city with tall financial office towers huddling in downtown surrounded by low level density has come to an end, not only in Baltimore. The decline of downtown began when department stores and retail empires decamped in favor of suburban malls. When small mom and pop stores first became the victims first of departments stores, then of malls and finally online purchases. The ongoing consolidation and merger of corporations made the departure of corporate headquarters inevitable for many cities not running in the A league except when they positioned themselves as tax heavens such Charlotte, NC or Wilmington, Del.  
A tall crowded downtown surrounded by low level neighborhoods
(Photo: Philipsen)
But right before COVID downtown seemed to be on the mend with trendy  restaurants, downtown living and millennials opting for urbanity.

But the sudden reality of the long discussed "remote office" has made the question what defines downtown urgent again, not only in Baltimore, but all across America and even overseas. 

For example, booming San Francisco, which just had completed an entire new set of downtown towers around the "Salesforce" transit center, named after a company that serves the flourishing online services, was shaken at its core when Salesforce announced it would not lease  325,000 sqft in the yet to be built parcel F of the new Transbay neighborhood. Half  of Salesforce's workforce would continue to work from home, the company announced.

Can downtown be just another neighborhood?

Baltimore's downtown's success story is that "tract 401" has become "Baltimore's fastest growing neighborhood", recognized as such at least since 2012. With the One and 412 Light Street glass towers, and the repurposed historic NationsBank building, the downtown skyline now includes residences and is no longer the domain of banks and corporations. But all the residents that moved into high-rises or one of the apartments carved out from old class B office buildings, garment factories, or even churches, have not been able to support retail or fill the sidewalks sufficiently for coffee shops to remain open, not even before COVID. The streets became entirely deserted as soon as  office workers stayed at home in the pandemic, a clear sign that downtown remains highly dependent on the office worker. 

The remedy of converting offices to apartments will become harder and harder to realize. The transformation of vintage office icons such as the NationsBank Building, the old BGE headquarters, the Standard Oil or the Munsey Building into apartment buildings wasn't easy but proved successful and may be simple compared to the challenge of finding an appropriate future for the much more recent and numerous generation of office towers. 
Downtown residents (Photo Amy Davis, SUN)

These buildings either have floor plates that are too large for residences (which need to be strung along windowed facades for light and ventilation) or their lower floors may be crowded against busy streets with little daylight or sun. There is also this: Many of these buildings are plain ugly with their cold and uninviting imitation modernist architecture, which is  not readily suitable for residential use without a drastic makeover. Practical issues include badly insulated, fixed, sometimes tinted, glass curtain walls and lack of nearby green spaces. Baltimore has begun to tackle those conversions with the Baltimore Harbor hotel south tower and the former PNC tower, both on Baltimore Street. But is there sufficient demand for more downtown living? Is an entirely residential downtown which is sprinkled with a few restaurants and shops really still a "downtown"? 

Downtown as a "Third Place"

In his latest commentary in a March edition of the BBJ, former Baltimore Development Corporation CEO and architect Jay Brodie mused about the question of downtown. Aside from describing downtown still in terms of Petula Clark's 1964 song "Downtown" and giving friendly nods to the urban renewal he accompanied in leading roles for 50 years or so, he brings up an important point when he defines downtown as our "shared neighborhood". This term is similar to the notion of downtown as a city's "living room" or a "third place" (urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg) or the "commons". Architects also love to talk about the "public realm".
It is precisely in these categories where Baltimore's downtown and waterfront long had deficiencies that would become even more noticeable if  downtown would become just another residential neighborhood with tall buildings. 
Mount Vernon's Washington Square (Photo: Philipsen)

The pandemic has highlighted a concern that sociologists have had for a long time about the condition of the shared space in America's cities. The book and research titles of  "Bowling Alone", the "Tragedy of the Commons", the Tragedy of the "Privatization of the Commons" or Henry Lefevbre's “The Right to the City” highlight the concerns. 

As noted, in spite of the waterfront promenade, lovely parks and great historic architecture, Baltimore is not well positioned when it comes to attractive "third places" or "commons". What the British urbanist Peter Hall called "the Rousification of America" in a chapter heading describing "the city of enterprise", Hall takes issue with making the US city a "stage" for entertainment, mostly trough undertakings by private companies, such as the Rouse Company at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. Hall and I both grew up with the European city for comparison.

To answer what a public "third place" could mean, let's take a quick look overseas: Many European and some Canadian and South American cities never segregated downtown quite as much from the rest of the city fabric, didn't create separate financial districts or put all their cultural institutions into a "cultural district".  Even the old segregation of uses through zoning has been less stringent there. My hometown of Stuttgart, for example, about the same size as Baltimore, also experiences failing retail, failing department stores and a reduction of office demand, but that isn't all there is. 

Smack in the heart of downtown Stuttgart are two historic castles, several churches, museums and a very large central park which culminates in a giant formal square in front of  the newer of the two castles. The square is the go-to place for events, demonstrations and urban people-watching, even during a pandemic. Car traffic has long been eliminated from the area, there is a tramway hub located underneath the square and city hall, the main train station and the urban university campus  are only one or two blocks away.  This particular heart of downtown can also be a stage, but it is a public stage, under public control, it consists of many layers of history and is not simply the expression of one fad of urban development  such as the private "Festival Marketplace" that was invented in Boston and Baltimore, has since failed so many cities and still dominates HarborPlace.

The combination of history and many different uses will be resilient enough to survive the pandemic, the decline of retail, and the decline of the office. The "third places" in Stuttgart are "shared" by and attractive to everyone in the city, the region or the nation.  For any real downtown, those "third spaces" are urgently needed, just as Brodie, Oldenburg or the Project  for Public Places (PPP) organization point out.
Center Plaza: Not Bryant Park (Photo Philipsen)

Why Baltimore's "commons" have a hard time

Let's see why Baltimore doesn't fare so well in that category: Instead of Times Square (New York), the Mall (DC), the Commons (Boston), Independence Hall Park (Philadelphia) Embarcadero Plaza (San Francisco), Charm City has a series of spaces that could be some sort of commons, but none of them is clearly the most important one. 

Spaces that come to mind include the historic square in Mt Vernon (Washington Square), City Hall Plaza, (those two a result of the City Beautiful movement), Harborplace and, yes, Center and Hopkins Plazas (all the result of urban renewal).  Such multitude could be an asset but is a liability if it creates uncertainty and vagueness about where the heart of this city really beats and if no space is really suitable as the dominant space. This absence of an indisputable heart facilitates the common refrain to better forget downtown and focus on "the neighborhoods", instead. By contrast, many of Baltimore's neighborhoods have a heart, frequently in the form of a commercial spine, one would recognize as a local "main street". Downtown, by contrast, has, unlike other big cities, no identifiable "main street" anymore.

Washington Square is seen by many as a very high quality public square that could easily be in Paris. Yet, it has suffered from the shift of the center of gravity to the south and the east and the City. After being a strong promoter of the square, the Downtown Partnership did help in making this heart beat less forcefully by taking the Book Festival and First Thursday events away from there and making Charles Street an artery for commuter traffic out of town. 

Then there is the Plaza between City Hall and the War Memorial Building, the subject of repeated re-design that  has done nothing to make this a go-to space except for demonstrations against City Hall. The lack of pulse comes from loveless  adjacent City administration buildings such as 417 Fayette Street and the Police headquarters as much as the many dull garages, freeway elements and surface parking lots one has to pass in order to get to this plaza. Most of the time the space is simply deserted. Now that the redevelopment of Old Town is an actual project, the gulf between Jonestown and City Hall in shape of the JFX is a looming problem to be solved.

Center Plaza and Hopkins Plaza (once the locale of the City Fair) had also various redos even enlisting the help of PPP, but unlike Bryant Park in Manhattan, neither space is a serious candidate for being our "central commons", as long as there are no active first uses surrounding them. The decades of dereliction at the site of the Mechanic Theatre radiates neglect, not a beating heart.
The beginning of a "commons" at HarborPlace (Photo: Philipsen)

That leaves HarborPlace, once well respected and now deeply troubled because of the neglect by the owner of the pavilions, Ashkenazy, now in receivership. Ever since the Rouse company conceived of the two "market" sheds as the ideal way of defining the reclaimed waterfront, these commons were privatized, which ultimately became their downfall. The same applies to any of the "piers" that could become "third places", including Pier 5/6 where the failed Columbus Center takes up valuable space and where the  prime spots are taken up by a steakhouse and a mostly empty concert tent. Imagine what an attractive waterfront park these areas could make if the uses were fully public and open to all! 

Heart surgery needed

Aside from finding new uses in old downtown shells, and adding "program" to oldretail areas (such as the "Bromo" arts district designation) finding, defining and reinforcing and enforcing the actual "heart of the city" will be one of the central strategic moves that need to be tackled to give Baltimore's downtown a future and a "commons" for all City residents and those of the entire region. 
ASG rendering showing a connected McKeldin Plaza for a stronger
"public realm" (ASG Architects)

Given the ongoing geographic shifts of shops, restaurants and offices, HarborPlace plus Rash Field,  plus all the piers may seems to have the biggest potential for truly becoming Baltimore's "commons".  A great city shouldn't be afraid of creating a big commons.

For this to happen, Baltimore would need to take possession of the pavilions, demolish at least one of them, and reclaim much of the surrounding street pavement for pedestrians. 

The goal would be a large, contiguous public space (connected to the McKeldin Plaza) surrounded by a mix of vibrant private, public and institutional activities and easily accessible from several neighborhoods.  

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See related previous articles on this blog:

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