Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Keough High: From Holy to infamous to banal - Is it inevitable?

The BBJ reports that the former Seton Keough High School campus located smack at the exit ramps from I-95 to Caton Avenue could soon be home to warehouses and distribution facilities under a plan by MRP Industrial. At stake are 43.5 acres (including two out-parcels) that have a combined assessed value of over $15 million.
From holy to scary to banal: Holy Angels Keough school (Photo: Philipsen) 

The all girls high school gained dubious fame for its role in the abuse documentary "The Keepers". The catholic school also made headlines when its closure was announced by the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 2016.  The SUN wrote about the Archdiocese's decision to close the school:
Among the affected schools, Seton Keough High School in Southwest Baltimore is likely to attract the most attention. It was formed in 1988 after the merger of Seton High School and Archbishop Keough High School, two all-girls schools that once boasted enrollments of more than 1,000 students each. Seton Keough now serves 186 girls, which limits the opportunity for the kinds of educational and extracurricular opportunities that would be available at a larger school. (SUN)
This shift from the holy to the scary to the banal would seem like a logical thing, since distribution warehouses along major transportation arteries are a hot thing in the northeast real estate market, while large Catholic girl schools in shrinking Baltimore, well, not so much. 
The setting from the north with the school complex on the
left bottom quadrant of the I-95 interchange (Google Earth)

But a closer investigation requires more complexity than just holding a finger into the air to check from where the market winds blow. 
  • Baltimore is famously a landlocked city, i.e. it has no space to grow, in fact, the City is even  prohibited by Maryland law to annex any land from the surrounding County. In light of this predicament, one has to wonder whether space consuming low labor distribution is really the right ticket for a strategically located 43 acres site in post industrial Baltimore. 
  • Baltimore has committed to sustaianbility, livability and equity including all aspects of combatting climate change and environmental degradation.  This begs the question if a largely green and wooded site which is traversed by a stream doesn't deserve more consideration than what may fetch the highest price for the land in the moment
  • Baltimore is known for its historic architecture. The about 60 year old school is a formidable example of mid-century modern architecture with some considerable qualities that only now start begin to be appreciated by the general public.
  • Baltimore has committed to improving the quality of life in its disinvested communities. The small residential pocket communities  of Violetville, Wilhelm Park (of which the site is a part) and Morrell Park, the latter located on the other side of Interstate 95 surround the Keough site all could use a shot in the arm; they especially need to be freed from the isolation imposed by the Interstate, Caton Avenue, the large St Agnes Hospital complex and the industrial uses that keep expanding in the area, including warehouses on Desoto Drive to the east. Those probably represent a precedent for the imagined new use of Seton Keough High.
But these larger aspects are not on the horizon of the current decision making process which is focused on the fact that the land isn't zoned industrial and would need to be reclassified for warehouses. The existing uses in the area provide an eclectic mix of precedents from the St Agnes hospital complex to the warehouses to the traditional Baltimore neighborhoods with rowhouses and alleys. Even a conversion of a former highschool (Cardinal Gibbons) into a mixed use center (Gibbons Commons) is planned next door. This reuse of a former high school presents a far better example than the nearby warehouses.

However, the future viability of the nearby neighborhoods with a median home value around $64,650 (Live Baltimore) doesn't seem to be on the radar this time. Not on the radar either any type of network plans: For example, how the communities could best benefit from the Gwynns Falls park to the east and the Carroll Park Golf course, elements of  the much touted Baltimore City "Green Network Plan", a work still in progress. 
Zoning Map, the pin shows the EC-1 property (Baltimore City)

Morrell Park had been in the news when the Port of Baltimore and CSX considered Intermodal Container Transfer Facility there for containers be loaded from trains to trucks to avoid the low Howard Street tunnel. After massive protests MDOT withdrew from the project in 2014. The SUN reported that "the Morrell Park facility would have been served by about 150 trucks a day delivering containers, a key reason residents opposed the facility. Another reason was that it would have operated 24 hours a day. Community activists in Morrell Park and surrounding neighborhoods, who began organizing against the project as early as 2012, said they feared it would bring few jobs but too much noise, pollution and truck traffic". Morrell Park was spared the intermodal facility, but it has apparently been forgotten again. 

With the transfer facility now off the table because the Howard Street tunnel enlargement has become an actual project eliminating the need for a truck to train transfer another set of warehouses with its mostly barren surfaces and its associated truck traffic won't improve life in the adjoining communities, even if it doesn't represent a direct burden. 
School entrance (Photo: Philipsen)

Could the high-school site be a key ingredient for the stabilization of the fragmented residential neighborhoods? The Department of Planning staff  recommended to the  Planning Commission  a rezoning resolution which was unanimously adopted. The staff report doesn't discuss alternatives, the environmental conditions or any other masterplan goals than "retaining and attracting businesses". This is what the staff report says (for full report see link):

1. The Plan: This rezoning will support the Comprehensive Master Plan’s EARN Goal 1,
Objective 1: Retain and Attract Businesses in all Growth Sectors.
2. The needs of Baltimore City: This rezoning will provide an opportunity for the
development of new light industrial uses that will replace inventory lost elsewhere in the 
City in places where residential development has displaced older industrially-
zoned land that has outmoded buildings, or properties that are either too small or that have an unusual shape.
3. The needs of the particular neighborhood: There is no current demand for schools or
additional educational programs in this area. The applicants have met with the
Violetville Community Association, and are keeping them informed of progress.

Leafy with a stream, in parts forested: The 43 acres Keough site 
(Photo: Philipsen

Such re-zoning must be justified either as a "mistake in the existing zoning classification" or "as substantial change in the neighborhood." The staff report states "The most recent developments in the area are on the campus of St. Agnes Hospital, and the mixed-use development around the Babe Ruth Field at Cardinal Gibbons. The surrounding neighborhood has been stable, with little other development in recent years". This would suggest no significant neighborhood change has taken place. The report still makes "significant change" argument based on the closure of the school itself: 

Staff recommends that the Planning Commission find that there has been a significant change in the character that would support the requested rezoning. The closure of the Seton Keough High School occurred just at the end of the Comprehensive Rezoning process of the City, which was voted through Council in December of 2016. 

The zoning change for educational to industrial still needs to be approved by the City Council. A public hearing of the Economic and Community Development Committee hearing is scheduled for April 13. The change to industrial use is likely going to be affirmed. In the big scheme of things, it won't make any waves. But it is exactly in the grand scheme of things, that this is not only a somewhat unusual quirk in the ever ongoing transformation of the once mighty industrial city of Baltimore, but decidedly a step in the wrong direction if sustainability, stabilization of poorer neighborhoods, equity and quality of life are the metrics. 

Not a bad composition: Mid century modern architecture (Photo: Philipsen)

The quirk in which an industrial use replaces education, reverses the more common pattern, which is the other way round. 

It would be nice to see this once holy mid-century modern example of architecture in its leafy setting rise to become an opportunity rather than seeing it eradicated and replaced with the dullest of all architectures: The distribution warehouse with its low wage jobs, its huge impervious surfaces and its additional truck traffic. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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