Saturday, April 24, 2021

Port Covington - on course or a vanishing dream?

Bait and switch the ploy of offering a person something desirable to gain favor (such as political support) then thwarting expectations with something less desirable (Merriam Webster)

There is no ploy, but it is easy to get confused in the $5.5 billion story of Port Covington which is told in chapters and sub-chapters that shift with the times. The multitude of players alone can make one's head spin: There is Kevin Plank, the former Under Armour CEO, who was first front and center and acts now as a background figure. He has his hands in a conglomeration of businesses that are called Plank Industries, Under Armour, Sagamore (now Weller Development) and then there is Goldman Sachs, a partner and funding source. Then there are potentially significant tax increment financing benefits, a community benefits agreement for seven communities dubbed SB7.

The book of modern day Port Covington doesn't only fall into "chapters" but also into parts: The "World Headquarters" of Under Armour, and then the rest of Port Covington. Both parts and their chapters have changed a lot since the book went first on sale and was eventually "bought" by Mayor and City Council in 2016 for as much as $660 million, a price tag that would only come due if the new developments are fully built and all tranches of the TIF would have been issued. In Baltimore not all bought the story, to this day there are friends and foes of the big Port Covington vision. Are foes who say: I told you so correct? Was the whole thing simply a mirage, distracting the City from more important tasks?
Baltimore Magazine title story  Dec. 2017 showing the full Port Covington
rendering prepared by Sagamore

Certainly, a full build out is very likely much further away than originally imagined. Real construction is limited to what is called "chapter 1B" , a chapter that keeps getting new titles. Lets recap: Port Covington sits on the "wrong" side of I-95, facing the Middle Branch but was forgotten and cut off from thriving Federal Hill ever since it ceased to be an important coal transfer station between rail and ships. In spite of various past attempts of putting stuff there such as the Baltimore SUN printing facility and a Sams Club and Walmart, the site remained grungy and more characterized by Baltimore's bygone industrial past than any kind of revival. 

There was a still active factory (Locke Insulators), a popular seafood bar and then the failed big boxes sitting idle. The SUN plant sat surrounded by not much. Then Kevin Plank incongruously built a large whiskey distillery with a posh restaurant there which was designed half urban, half suburban and even rural, including a rural water tower. Plank also acquired the empty suburban waterfront big box stores and converted them to what was described as temporary facilities for the staff that didn't fit any longer into Tide Point. When Plank unveiled his aspirations for an entire new town covering all of Port Covington those early projects certainly didn't give a hint of the scale he now had in mind. Tide Point in itself reflects the ever shifting history of big visions and industrial conversions. The former Proctor and Gamble soap factory had once been envisioned by developer Bill Struever as the crown jewel of a "digital harbor". But the bubble burst and so did the idea of a "digital harbor". Struever managed to fill the vast soap complex with more conventional tenants anyway, until the Financial Crisis of 2007 cut the legs off from under the Struever empire and forced him to divest from some of his most valuable assets. Meanwhile Under Armour had became the darling of Baltimore's tenuous economy. Kevin Plank took advantage of Struever's troubles by seizing control over large parts of the Tide Point complex. Now its brand name was installed on the roof broadcasting the success of the miraculously growing apparel company across the harbor. But soon even Tide Point was considered as too small for the want to be juggernaut.
Current Tide Point UA Headquarters
Plank's big visions for Port Covington were bigger than anything that Baltimore had ever seen. Bigger than Charles Center, bigger than than Harbor East and Harborpoint. Heck, with 235 acres bigger than all of those combined! The whole City went gaga over the prospect of so much development; deliberations about the plans and the cities subsidies had to be moved to the War Memorial Hall to accommodate friends and foes of the project. The project split public opinion in Baltimore which became ever more weary of its growing inequity and the ever wilder dreams of the wealthy. 

But it came as it had to come, as anybody who pays attention to biblical or fairy tale morals knows: pride cometh before the fall. The UA star did not rise indefinitely. After the earlier growth seemed to be inflated, UA got into really turbulent waters from which it is only now slowly recovering. Today the big project has slipped out of focus.

Still, optimistic press releases and happy ground breaking events kept coming and Weller, Plank and Goldman Sachs kept assuring everybody that all is going as planned and the ambitious Port Covington vision was still well on its way. 

Baltimore's officials liked nothing better than to believe that, especially after Freddy Gray, the State's cancellation of the Red Line and State Center and now during the COVID Pandemic. But there were and are growing signs of trouble: The attempt of offloading the whole site to Amazon didn’t even elicit a yawn from Jeff Bezos. Then "Chapter 1B", had a groundbreaking but was stuck on "horizontal" infrastructure work for a long time. When Weller finally cut the ribbon for "vertical" construction in March of this year with Hogan in attendance and Mayor Scott chiming in via Zoom, the mixed use complex had morphed already twice: from being a part of a new city, complementing UA's headquarters with urban vibe, to "Cyber Town USA", a dream to create a anti-hacker cybertown near NSA in the wake of spectacular ongoing hacking schemes, including an attack on the City's servers to its currently final incarnation as a speculative mixed use project. 
“With Maryland’s highly talented workforce, cutting-edge research institutions, and more and more innovative companies locating here each year, no state is better equipped or better positioned to be the cyber and innovation capital of our nation. This new development at Port Covington will further spur development of cyber companies, bringing much-needed jobs, capital investment, and business opportunities to Baltimore City and our state.” (Governor Hogan in October 2018)
The cyber dream evaporated when the envisioned key tenant, DateTribe in the end didn't sign on and 1B became a simple but still large speculative mixed use complex, which will include three boutique loft-style creative office buildings totaling 180,000 square feet, a vibrant market, restaurants, shops and shared amenitiesclearly a scary proposition in a time when the future of offices and of retail seem are in doubt thanks to adverse trends that Covid only accelerated.
Chapter 1 plan including the SUN plant (1B in red)

The new UA Headquarters after a drastic diet

For a while with UA shrinking its workforce it seemed very much a question whether there would ever be a new UA "World Headquarters" in Port Covington. The former big box there had even been turned into a vaccination center for a while and no UA employees were spotted there. But last week seemingly good news emerged: The “world headquarters” are not dead! But a closer look indicated that jubilation would be premature. What was shown as the consolidated new place for UA was smaller than Tide Point and by some estimations had shrunk by 40%. That's a lot of dieting! The company shrouds this conversion from giant to dwarf in artful words stating that they "reimagined [the headquarters] for a post COVID environment." The goal on the 50 acre potion of port Covington designated for Under Armour is still to " to “consolidate the company’s global corporate and Americas regional functions into one location, greatly enhancing operational efficiencies and innovation capabilities.”

Chapter 1 development area

This barrage of verbal smokescreens was accompanied by renderings that one could describe as shocking, especially in comparison to the renderings that had been circulated just a few years ago. The new pictures looked more like Canton Crossing than the Dubai-style UA-Tomorrowland that originally had been supposed to outdo apparel leader Nike. The once temporary Walmart and Sams Club big boxes were now permanent and the high-rises with the proud UA logo on them had shrunk to a simple 300,00 sf office building that with its five stories could probably be built out of wood sticks on a concrete podium. And yes, lots of surface parking, nothing about parking under the I-95 viaduct, a light rail extension from the Hamburg Street Station, autonomous shuttles or other progressive mobility options. 

There is a lot to unpack. Kevin Plank who owns all the land of Port Covington, Under Armour which owns the 50 acres designated for its headquarters, Weller Development responsible for all the rest, financed by Goldman Sachs. The financial partner, in full understanding that a huge development like Port Covington would need an engine, conditioned its deal with Weller Development on Under Armour building its headquarters in Port Covington.
The originally imagined UA World Headquarters

The Brew stressed this linkage between Goldman and the headquarters in a recent article and concluded somewhat hyperbolically:
"the clause effectively says that Plank could lose everything if UA fails to build its headquarters on the peninsula.  It’s a penalty, however, that Plank could escape if UA opted to build on the peninsula. He needed something – anything – to show his financiers that his shaky office-apartment project, dubbed “Chapter 1,” has a future".
Hard to say if the recent announcement about Under Armour's diminished headquarters plans is, indeed, simply a move to keep Goldman Sachs on board, or whether UA is serious about relocating the UA operations to Port Covington. There is also no way of knowing how successful "Chapter 1B will be without any major tenants having committed at this point (at least nothing is known publicly about firm tenants). There is no need for the Schadenfreude of those who never liked the UA vision in the first place. Baltimore can use a successful Under Armour and a redeveloped Port Covington more than ever. Just think of the Plank Industries owned Baltimore water taxi operation, City Garage, Nick's Fishhouse, the distillery, the posh Pendry hotel in Fells Point and all the sprinkles of the original Plank wealth that created success stories in Baltimore, not last the SB7 agreement into which Cherry Hill, Westport, Brooklyn, Curtis Bay and others put a lot of hope. Weller Development claims to have painstakingly fulfilled its obligations to date and having paid out $9 million already. Further fulfillment will depend on real development proceeds. Those are far from certain, the way it looks today. Still, the term "bait and switch" doesn't apply as long as there is no ill intent, no matter how critical many have been of Plank's intentions all along. 

Port Covington as a coal transfer station and train yard
Yet, the City better pay attention. It laid out the first $148 million tranche of TIF bonds for "Chapter 1B" for which bonds had been on sale earlier in the year. The public money will be coupled with an investment of $516 million in private funds that will be spent on the construction of three apartment buildings, two office buildings and 1,000 parking spaces. 
"Port Covington is a long-term, bold vision for helping to build a better Baltimore. The TIF bond sale was met with overwhelming demand, and the overall deal successfully closed last week, which is significant proof of institutional investors’ belief in the future success of the project. We are thrilled about this important milestone, and what it means in validating our vision." (Kevin Plank quoted in the BBJ on Jan 5, 2021)
With TIF bonds, if the repayment is not covered by the expected tax proceeds, the public will be on the hook eventually, especially in the worst case, where Baltimore City could be "the last man standing". With the new Baltimore City Comptroller Bill Henry a Sagamore TIF skeptic, it remains to be seen how future TIF tranches will fair at the City Board of Estimates.

The City doesn't release its TIF bonds all at once and the full $660 million TIF exposure may never happen. On the other hand, the economy could go into overdrive after the pandemic and Under Armour could emerge from its consolidation phase stronger than ever. The City has hired an excellent consultant team that will turn the Middle Branch into a major asset. Biden's infrastructure money could give Baltimore a real lift and possibly even fund the originally envisioned light rail extension. Port Covington development proceeds could give all the equity talk some real money to use. But at this point, all those things are just hope.
The original vision for an new city in the City

For the time being the City should insist that the overall masterplan be either legally binding or revisited and amended and ensure that some real commitments are made for any parts that are realistic in the next 10 years. Most important is that the high standards for public areas of the original masterplan will be maintained. 

And if the new UA headquarters will remain as anemic as shown last week and "Cyber Town" doesn't come to pass, Weller and the City better find a new force that can provide the necessary fuel for a full development of Port Covington. The most likely candidate? Housing. There is a huge shortage of it. And that would be not luxury housing but affordable and standard market rate housing. 

But before all attention goes again to Port Covington, the City should first see to it that its currently largest housing project, Perkins Homes and Somerset will go as planned. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Original vision for the UA campus

Chapter 1 rendering. (1B is a smaller part of this)

Overall Port Covington illustrative plan from 2016

Friday, April 16, 2021

What is the most liked building in Baltimore?

COVID has spawned all kinds of introspectives coming about when people don't get to travel or to  distract themselves in the usual ways. many people started to look at their domestic and local environment with new eyes.  The Baltimore Architecture Foundation (BAF), a sister organization of the Baltimore AIA (the American Institute of Architects) organized an especially creative introspective into  Baltimore's built environment, well known especially for its historic treasures.  The occasion is this year's 150th anniversary of Baltimore AIA which was founded in 1871. BAF asked the public "what Baltimore area building do you like the most?"
BAM poster

The BAF initially submitted a list of  64 buildings from four different time periods within the last 150 years and allowed the public to submit additional nominations. (The 150 year time limitation excluded the Basilica of the Assumption which was completed in 1821). Voting took place online with the help of survey software. Absent from the list resulting from the nomination round were notable residential structures such as the Nelson Kohl apartments, the Anthem House or the 404 Light Street tower. Also lacking votes to be listed were the UB library or any of the new campus buildings at Morgan. 

Befitting the season, the voting process was dubbed "Arch Madness" and was tailored after the NCAA's men's basketball selection process with a first and second round, a "sweet sixteen round", quarterfinals, semifinals and a championship. 
Not in the running: UB Law School

The tournament is intended to celebrate 150 years of architecture since the founding of AIA Baltimore in 1871. This is not a definitive ranking of the ‘best’ buildings in Baltimore. We want to see which buildings you love and learn why you love them.  BAF’s overall goal is to spread more awareness about Baltimore architecture. (BAF)
While the results of initially only around 500 and for the finals over 1000 votes are certainly not representative, they provide an interesting snapshot into public awareness and preferences regarding architecture, which, as Churchill observed is first shaped by people but then shapes them.  The list of buildings and structures up for vote is a powerful reminder of the rich fundus of valuable architecture in our area.
Championship Round: 1,105 votes, 
Semifinals: 884 votes
Quarterfinals: 642 votes
Sweet 16 round: 270 votes
Round of 32: 313 cotes
Round of 64: 545 votes (Source BAF)
Of the base-list of structures from different time periods, these historic structures made it to the "Sweet 16" level, representing the first half: The Peabody Library, The Howard Rawlings Conservatory, The Mount Royal Station, the Patterson Park Pagoda, the Enoch Pratt Library, Penn Station, the Bromo Seltzer Tower, the Belvedere Hotel.
Patterson Park Pagoda (Cteative Commons)

Notable structures such as City Hall, the B&O roundhouse, the American Brewery, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters or the Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church didn't make it while much more questionable candidates such as the Belvedere Hotel advanced. 

On the more contemporary side the second half of the "sweet sixteen" buildings were:  One Charles Center, the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, the Church of the Redeemer, the Temple Oheb Shalom, Camden Yards, and Clipper Mill, the American Visionary Art Museum, and the National Aquarium. 

Again, notable structures such as the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the MICA Brown Center or the Coldspring townhomes were left behind. 

Maybe the most surprising was the final winner. Eking out  a close advance ahead of the Peabody library the winner comes from the set of contemporary buildings. The winner also marks the shift of Baltimore's center of gravity further and further south towards the water. Not the BMA, not Penn Station, not the Belvedere, not the Peabody and certainly not One Charles Center where the winners. 

The Peabody was put in second place by a building sitting at the foot of Federal Hill, standing out as a pivotal solitaire where Key Highway curves, with high visibility across the Inner Harbor. A small campus that is deeper anchored in public consciousness than the famous Peabody library which is tucked away in the historic fabric of Mount Vernon Square where every single building is remarkable.

The winner that emerged as the most liked building in all of Baltimore is the Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) ! 

Designed by Alex Castro, Rebecca Swanston, and Davis, Bowen & Friedel and completed in 1995 with an addition by Cho Benn Holback + Associates (2004), the home of whimsical art in an equally whimsical shell surrounded by whimsical sculptures ("the whirlywig") matches up with Baltimore's identity as a quirky town, a fitting result for a whimsical competition. 
Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore (Photo: Timothy Kiefer)
Kiefer, a visitor in 2019: 
"The American Visionary Art Museum
in Baltimore
Changed My Life Today"

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), designated by unanimous vote of the U.S, Congress, is America’s official national museum for visionary, self-taught and intuitive art. AVAM celebrates the power of everyday people who, armed only with their tuition, do things that inspire us all…(AVAM Welcome board) 

“From the very start, I wanted a welcoming ‘wonderland’ of a campus—not an urban forbidding fortress for art. When we then won the prestigious, National Award for Excellence from The Urban Land Institute, I was thrilled. But to now win from the hometown hearts of voters in this Baltimore Architecture Foundation competition—out from 64, no less—of my own most admired architectural local treasures, is an unbelievable high and mega-honor. It is also one shared with our outdoor sculptural artists: Andrew Logan, Adam Kurtzman, Dick Brown, The Hagans, and whirligig artist/farmer Vollis Simpson, whose creations punctuate the fun and beauty of our campus! (Rebecca Hoffberger, Founder, Director and Curator of the AVAM)

Not in the running: 404 Light Street

Beaten: Historic Bank of America tower (Photo: Philipsen)

Beaten: BMA Art Museum (Iage: Ziger/Snead Architects)

Beaten: Brown Center (Photo: Philipsen)

Beaten: City Hall (Photo: Philipsen)

Beaten: Coldspring townhomes (Photo: Philipsen)

Beaten: Meyerhoff (Photo: Philipsen)

Beaten: One Charles Center (Photo: Philipsen)

Beaten: Parkway Theater (Photo: Philipsen)

Beaten: Penn Station (Photo: Philipsen)

Beaten: Mount Vernon Square Methodist Church (Photo: Philipsen)