Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Old meets new: The new Constellation ticket building is now open

The name of the new Inner Harbor attraction is nearly as long as its gestation time: We are talking about the "The Historic Ships in Baltimore USS Constellation Education Center and Inner Harbor Water Taxi Terminal" and the 22 years it took to get it finished. And we are talking about the Constellation, built in 1854, Baltimore's historic flagship.
Front entrance of the new HarborPlace facility
(Photo: Philipsen)

On a breezy and sunny early summer day the pair looked inviting and just right in its relationship, the building's lightweight wooden skin, the low, modern nautical look, the structure holding a respectful distance from the ship which is bridged by two stainless steel gangways. The three mast Constellation spry as if ready to sail.  One can see the historic ship from the inside and across the new visitor's and ticket building and also above the building. By sitting on a ramp equipped concrete plinth, the building also complies with current "freeboard" requirements that are intended to prevent buildings at the Inner Harbor to be flooded when seawaters rise.

In short, the new building does everything that the old one didn't do. The now demolished first ticket building opened in 1991 and was demolished in 2019; its lifespan of 28 years only slightly exceeding the time it took the new project conceived, funded, constructed and completed. One can expect that the new structure will have a better future and will be much better liked than the structure of the late Harvard trained and noted local architect Mario Schack who also served on Baltimore's design review panel. His slightly post modern stucco clad beige two story building had been considered an abomination right after it was completed.

Ed Gunts, Baltimore's foremost architectural critic who in the 1990s was still writing architectural reviews for the Baltimore SUN (he now writes for the Baltimore Fishbowl) called it a "peanut butter butter colored [center] thrown up in 1990" and "one of the biggest architectural blunders in Inner Harbor history... an aesthetic and economic disaster from the start. Intended to promote the U.S.S. Constellation, it ended up blocking views of it instead." Christopher Rowsom, executive director of Historic Ships in Baltimore, part of Living Classrooms, said about the old visitors center which he had inherited from the Constellation Foundation at the time when the restoration of the Constellation had been completed, as really" not meeting the architectural design aesthetic for the Inner Harbor — past, present or future", "it was the building that everybody loved to hate.”

The new building's design didn't come easy. The Constellation Foundation which merged with the Living Classrooms Foundation in 1999 initially wanted an even bigger program for the new structure, an almost impossible task if one wanted to avoid again blocking the view of the ship. Thanks to the design review panel which rejected original two story designs and thanks to a slow flow of funding the design eventually shrank to a simple single story rectangle steel frame structure clad in narrow horizontal wood planks and white stair enclosure "bulkheads" popping up on the roof.  The stair bulkheads elegantly enclose the rooftop equipment needed for heating and cooling which sits in a small green roof area. Two observation decks on the roof  feature stainless railings and checkerboard wood plank decking. They can also host modest roof-top parties. It is from these decks that one enters and exits the Constellation via stainless steel gang-way bridges. 
Giving the historic ship breathing room is part of the design intent
(Photo: Philipsen)

Funding had to be scraped together from many sources including half a million from Baltimore City, one million from the State, the Maryland Historical Trust, the Baltimore National Heritage Area, and a foundation. What lifted the project into reality were $1.8 million from the U. S. DOT after it was also considered a water tax terminal. 

The building becomes welcoming by offering various views of its inside and even across corners. It allows space to buy tickets for the Constellation or the Water Taxi, offers bathrooms and features a small exhibit area about the history of Constellation with a focus on the ship's role as flagship of the US African Squadron. This ship was heavily involved in finding and capturing slave trade ships. 

To get to the stairs leading up to the Constellation one has circulate through most of the building from the ticket area along the core with bathrooms and elevator through the exhibit area to the stair leading up which is very reminiscent of a stair in a ship.  Coming back from the Constellation after the tour one is lead to the second stair leading straight to the exit. A thoughtful and practical progression that makes the building feel larger than it is.
A ship-like stair leading up to the roof deck
from where one can access the Constellation
(Photo: Philipsen)

The designer and architect of record is Barbara Wilks, an architect and landscape architect, formerly a partner in Baltimore's architecture form of Cho, Wilks & Benn (CWB) and now operating in New York's Brooklyn as W Architecture & Landscape Architecture LLC. At this time she hasn't even seen the finished Inner Harbor project, being busy with other water oriented projects such as the much larger River Learning Center in St. Paul. Wilks emphasizes that this is a small, 4,500 sf, no frills building and that the $5 million price tag is not the result of luxurious materials but stems from the complications of building on a pier with limited access and practically no construction staging area. The process of conceiving the new building goes so far back, that it dates to a time when Wilks was still partner and CWB and Mario Schack was invited alongside CWB to contribute design ideas. (He died in 2010, age 81).

The new structure still needs its new ADA compliant water taxi floating dock at the south end of Pier One to fully justify the US DOT funding. But that is another story at a time when the Baltimore water taxi is only operating on weekends.

Meanwhile the Historic Ships in Baltimore USS Constellation Education Center and Inner Harbor Water Taxi Terminal  the lone harbinger of the better future that it is to come to the north end of HarborPlace where the two pavilions have only a few retail spaces left operating. On a sunny early summer day with visitors strolling on the promenade and tourists buying tickets for a tour of the historic Constellation one can forget momentarily the troubles this city is going through even at HarborPlace.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See also Ed Gunt's article about the new structure in Baltimore Fishbowl.

Photo Gallery:

Pier One: A sign promises "Progress ahead" and a 2020 opening 

December 2020, finally construction underway (Photo: W Architecture and Landscape LLC)

Building plan (W website)

all photos Philipsen unless otherwise noted

Friday, June 10, 2022

Paving Perryman Peninsula

 When William Donald Schaefer was Governor he wanted to empower the State to override local government zoning it was necessary to keep development out of non suitable areas. His successor Parris Glendening called it Smart Growth  but neither was able to give the State the power  to override local zoning. What passed were "7 visions" and the Economic Growth, Resource Protection and Planning Act of 1992. Local government stayed in charge and the State was only allowed to "guide" development with planning assistance materials and by judiciously limiting its own investments to suitable areas.

From the Protect Perryman website

Now 30 years later, we know that the voluntary approach was not especially effective. A blatant example how parochial local zoning can be in conflict with those protective visions is Perryman. Imagine a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the waters of the Bush River and the Chesapeake Bay that has been in large part taken by Aberdeen Proving Ground,  that has a rich agricultural history and equally rich soils and forests. 

And then imagine a company that amasses 711 acres of such picturesque lands to build five giant warehouses of over one million square feet each in the middle of this still largely rural paradise. Just to get the picture: These 5.2 million square feet of flat roofed warehouses alone seal 114 acres of land. Add loading docks, driveways and parking spaces for 6000 tractor trailers and cars and almost all 7,000 acres of land will be affected, not to say ruined. Anybody who has seen warehouses from above, say,approaching BWI in a plane knows how charming the are.

Maryland's largest warehouses: The last crop

The development would forever seal the soil, and create an urban heat island that is more than 1/3 the land area of Bel Air, where Harford County's government is seated. According to the project engineer, 10% of the 711 acres are in the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area, Designated as "Limited Development Area", and "Resource Conservation Area", nearly a full third is located in the Water Source Protection District of the Perryman well field and 116 acres are forest with 115 specimen trees.  (attempts are made to keep some trees between the warehouses).

The county council voted recently 7:0 to put a moratorium on the development but the Republican Executive coolly vetoed the unanimous council vote and the council then cut tail and didn't override the veto. There is probably hardly a planner or regular Marylander who thinks that paving this much open space on low-wage low-workforce warehouses with their ensuing truck congestion, air and water pollution and massive amounts of dirty run-off is a really splendid idea or that the Perryman peninsula is the best place to build warehouses, even if they are in high demand. Especially since Perryman has a comparatively higher segment of black residents (10% above County average). But this isn't what matters here. Instead, it is all about private property rights, zoning and a short-lived windfall on taxes.  What also matters is jurisdictional competition. Harford County has more residents than businesses. Baltimore County with its about 4000 acres of brownfields at what used to be Sparrows Point and its re-use of that polluted land for warehouses with excellent highway connections is stimulating a competing jurisdiction.Trying to dig off the water "upstream" on I-95 in the fashion how Ethiopia cuts off Nile water going to Egypt apparently a temptation. 

1996 land use plan: Mostly "light industrial"

Ok, admittedly, everyone ordering stuff online or buying it in big box stores is ultimately responsible for the inordinate demand on warehouse space. Chesapeake Real Estate Group (CREG) and its principal, Jim Lighthizer is just offering what the market wants. His business does so in Harford County, in Baltimore County, in Anne Arundel County and elsewhere, often on land that was previously undeveloped, at times even on a brownfield. Suitable land for 1 million square foot warehouses isn't exactly in ample supply. On Perryman he is eyeing land that is zoned "light industrial" and a declared Enterprise Zone. Forest stand delineation plans, site plans and traffic impact studies have been already prepared and generally accepted by the County. 

CREG still has to sign the contract for the land with the Mitchell family, a farm business in Perryman with a long and proud history going back over more than a 100 years, to a time before the 69,000 acre Proving Ground began gobbling up farmland in 1917. Mitchell Brothers included first tomato canning and later award winning corn production and canning as well as a factory for farm equipment. In 1994, when Schaefer's Growth Act  became law, the family still farmed over 2000 acres, some on leased land.  In 1996 the County converted the land from agricultural (1982) and residential (1989)  to "light industrial" in its County Master Land Use Plan.

Mitchell's corn: Father and son
(Harford County Historic Society undated)

In many ways, the Mitchell family traces the story of much of Maryland's open spaces: The last crop is development. The Mitchells started this process already over 20 years ago when they sold a swath of land to Rite Aid which constructed a giant warehouse on farmland, a thorn in the eye of residents ever since. But can the Mitchells or James Lighthizer be blamed for doing what has been going on for decades on land that has been envisioned for commercial use since the 1950s?  This is where County goals and larger picture State or national environmental goals collide. Former Governor O'Malley used to observe that since 1972 Maryland has developed more land that it had developed  in its entire history up to 1972.  Is now the time to put a stop to this land consumption? Well, many Perryman residents sure think so.

Seeing that neither the County Executive nor the council nor the current Governor would help them fend off the giant development  concerned Perryman residents filed a lawsuit this week, a desperate attempt of stopping the warehouses through the courts. The arguments they put forth involve mostly the insufficiency of the single "rural" exit road to carry the expected  truck and passenger vehicle traffic without jeopardizing existing residents. They also claim a "private nuisance because it is an intentional
and unreasonable legal cause of a substantial interference and invasion to Plaintiffs' interests in the use and enjoyment of their land." The plaintiffs further argue that zoning is supposed to protect the health and welfare of residents and that a "freight terminal" should not be allowed under the zoning category "light industrial". (The traffic impact study predicts 125 trucks per hour for the morning "peak" hour and 172 trucks in the pm peak in addition to 291 and 400 cars, respectively). The suit filed in the Anne Arundel Circuit Court (the business seat of CREG) seeks "a preliminary injunction and permanent injunctive relief to prevent a nuisance and private nuisance that the Freight Terminal will indisputably cause". The suit names the Mitchell business, CREG, the project engineer, and Harford County as defendants. The suit does not go into the details of the traffic impact study, the forest delineation or any other engineered components that were submitted to the County.

Anti warehouse protest (Sun photo 2021)

This Court’s intervention is required to prevent the pollution, destruction, and substantial and unreasonable impairment of the air, water, and other natural and civic resources of the Perryman Peninsula. (from the complaint)

A December community meeting with some 300 irate Perryman residents opposed to the development yielded those opposing statements as the BBJ reported

"I am begging you to listen to the community. We hate this plan. We don't want it." (Perryman resident)

"We have been in touch with the entire county administration. Every single one said this is exactly what the property is zoned for and exactly what we wanted. We’ve been waiting for this and we like it. This is exactly what we want." (CREG CEO Lighhizer)
Both sides have their webpages. (Perryman Improvement  and Protect Perryman). Even the County has a designated space for the project, right next to the County's Green Infrastructure Plan. The protectors fight an uphill battle given that the dispute over Perryman's warehouse zoning goes back decades in which Harford County government never budged on its ill advised warehouse zoning, no matter how many County residents had different ideas and engaged in a then popular "visual preference" planning process in which they envisioned a concept which bifurcated the non Proving Ground part of the peninsula along the rail line with protected farmland, "mixed use" development on one side and warehouses on the other. The ten Executive Harkins envisioned technology to come: 
Already existing warehouse on Perryman (Archplan 2002)

"We have the potential, with Aberdeen Proving Ground and the center of technology it has become, to be another Patuxent Naval Air Station," (James Harkins, Harford County Executive in 1991)
At that time statements from MDOT indicated that the State would not fund the necessary highway improvements. I toured the peninsula in 2002 in an effort to support then Harford Planning Director Kocy in working out details for a vision residents at worked out a year earlier in a year long process. But the large community based planning effort of 2001 went nowhere and the proposed warehouse plan is as far from Harkin's technology park dream as the proposed tree remnants between the warehouses are from pristine forests.
Google satellite of Perryman peninsula: Not exactly next to I-95

One would expect that two decades of learning about climate change, traffic congestion, Chesapeake water quality issues and ongoing regional air quality problems combined with environmental justice would have taught Harford County planners a lesson. In the year 2022 everyone knows with renewed urgency, how important it is to keep fertile soils form being sealed, how soil captures carbon, recharges groundwater and helps keeping some food production local keeping local farmers farming. But no, the County administration stick to its age old land use designations. Warehouses are a hotter commodity than ever and so they are willingly sacrificing one of the best landscapes they have to offer, come hell or high water. (Both are pretty much ensured).

Can a court make the Titanic turn? Can a court argue that environmental stewardship can trump zoning? That thousands of citizens should be able to have a voice in addition to private property owners? That the common good can override private interest? That private land ownership has  not only rights but also responsibilities.

Scenic Perryman: (ArchPlan 2002)

"There is more than a mere prayer for declaratory relief in the complaint" the complaint states in the declaratory section. Miracles can happen, but they are usually overruled in the next higher court. But once in a while, the environment wins, for example when prolonged court battles killed the Keystone pipeline project. But don't hold your breath. Landscapes, trees and soils still don't have a lobby, even in Maryland, a state that prides itself of its "smart growth" and environmental record. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Port Covington under new leadership: What's next?

When the current Port Covington developer  Marc Weller with Sagamore Development steps down and two new national developers take his space, its big news. But is it good news?

The Baltimore SUN  took cues straight from Sagamore's press release and made it sound as if the two new firms will "join" Weller/Sagamore:

"Two developers of high-profile urban projects in major U.S. cities have joined Sagamore Ventures’ effort to create a mini-city in South Baltimore’s Port Covington and will lead the next phase of development".(Baltimore SUN May 10, 22)

But the BBJ 's take a bit later, was far more explosive. Port Covington master developer Weller will no longer lead the 235-acre project, in fact, he will not be part of the team at all. He will even be moving his headquarters out of Baltimore.

Current state of construction "Chapter One" (SUN photo)
 "The company will be replaced this month by MAG Partners and MacFarlane Partners, a team of national developers and investors, who will launch an immediate marketing and leasing campaign for the five office, retail and residential buildings now under construction at the South Baltimore site". (BBJ 5-10-22)

Goldman Sachs, financial partner on the development team will remain. Goldman asset management director Michael Lohr was quoted in the press release:

“The growing development team reflects both our ambition for Port Covington and commitment to delivering a world-class project that will drive renewed community investment and revitalize South Baltimore’s waterfront”

The Weller Development website still lists his company as the master developer for Port Covington and Weller reportedly will stay involved with finishing the current construction. Weller Development was founded around Port Covington. Most of the company's deals are related to the Plank brothers Kevin and Scott. Weller projects include the Sagamore Pendry Baltimore hotel, Sagamore Spirit Distillery, Rye Street Tavern, City Garage, the management of the Reston National golf course in Northern Virginia and 3150 M Street NW building in Washington's Georgetown. 

A new set of partners: Plank, Gilmartin, MacFarlane (Ryb pictures)

Weller's stake at Port Covington is significant: The "Chapter 1B" complex currently under construction entails  more than 1.1 million square feet of development with 586,000 square feet of residential, 440,000 square feet of office,116,000 square feet of retail, over 1,000 parking spaces, and ten acres of parks and public space. 

For this phase  Weller has drawn the first tranche of $148 million  from the city tax increment financing (TIF) bonds in 2019. The existing financial terms will remain in place according to sources in the development team. The new partners see themselves as additional direct investors and will initially focus on finding tenants for the constructed buildings. 

The new situation is likely to revive the discussion about the redevelopment of Port Covington ("we build it together") which has been a hotly debated topic for at least 7 years since then Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank announced his plans to move to Port Covington and build "global headquarters" there that would be part of an entire new town.

"It will be one of the most incredible places to work, to live and to play," Plank said in an interview at his office overlooking the Inner Harbor. "It would feel like an old port city, and the ability for us to go from the ground up to do that will be just incredible." (Kevin Plank in March 2015)

Since then a lot has happened. While the City's giant tax increment financing bill succeeded against some vehement opposition, Under Armour's incredible growth streak came to an end amidst accusations that the company's growth had been inflated. Still, the community benefits agreements with six surrounding communities (SB 7) was in effect, it was honored and the development team provided resources for improvements. The overall development area was divided into the 50 acre Under Armour headquarters territory and the remaining 235 acres of Port Covington with Weller/Sagamore at the helm. The developers like to see these as separate even though Kevin Plank cleared used to have a stake in both. Weller plowed forward, first with a competitive entry into the "who gets Amazon" sweepstakes that Baltimore lost badly. Then with "Chapter 1B" envisioned as the seed for "Cybertown", a cluster of know-how in cyber security, fueled by the global risks of hacking and the local presence of the nearby NSA. That bubble burst as well, when the lead cyber tenant did renounce his move to Port Covington.

Then the global pandemic struck and made office space a surplus commodity. To this day it is unclear if the bulk of employees will ever return to their cubicles. Still,  Weller continued with mixed use buildings dubbed "Chapter 1 B" on a speculative basis, especially the significant amount of office space posing quite a risk.  Optimistic outlooks were regularly published. However, to this day, shortly before the buildings are slated to open, apparently no offices have been leased.

Another big change in Port Covington was that Plank himself  shrunk his headquarters plans beyond recognition. What had been giant gateway signature towers along I-95 became a suburban agglomeration of low flung stuff, including retaining the former Sam's Club warehouse. UA was now assuming that it would keep a hybrid workforce for the foreseeable future, drastically reducing the need for in person office space. 

UA HQ as presented to UDAAP this month (UA website)

Yet the move towards a new Under Armour campus is underway. In March Under Armour presented a fairly unassuming first phase to UDAAP for review. Design by Gensler, Baltimore. Then, last week new headquarters plans were presented for design review. The plans now showed a more impressive 280,000 sf  structure with much glass. (For a more detailed description see here).

As before, the project was described in superlatives. This time the design which is slated to entail geothermal heating and cooling and a mass timber structure clad in a heat resistant glass was described as the most sustainable project in the region. 

“TMB2 represents Under Armour’s commitment to providing our teammates with an innovative, collaborative and flexible work environment that supports our hybrid work philosophy,” said Under Armour President and CEO Patrik Frisk. “Consistent with one of our values to ‘Act Sustainably,’ TMB2 speaks to our focus on performance, consumers, the planet, and the community we call home.” (website)

The two development areas are assumed to continue in lockstep. Outside the campus there are still some 190 or so acres to be developed. This will now be the task for the new development partners.

The new developers, MAG Partners, a woman owned company founded in 2020 in New York City and MacFarlane Partners, a black-owned company, headquartered in San Francisco would continue to honor all SB7 community benefits obligations. 

Both new partner firms are new to Baltimore. MaryAnne Gilmartin, CEO of MAG  previously served for 15 years as Vice President and President and CEO of Forest City Ratner Companies, a company who lead the EBDI development team. Victor MacFarlane, holding a masters in business and a law degree, founded his company in 1987 but reinvented the company a few times since then.

Sustainability through mass timber (Gensler graphic)

MAG will be the managing partner. Some staff of Weller's company have switched to MAG in their old role, presumably ensuring institutional memory and some continuity

Aside from their excitement of coming to Baltimore, there has been no announcement from the new partners about additional development on the remaining site or what overall long-term vision they may have for this "new town" inside Baltimore. 

The Mayor and the chair of the SB7 coalition were both quoted in Sagamore's press release singing the praises of the leadership new arrangement. They may know more than the public; the news of an entirely new out-of -town development team taking over the largest redevelopment project in Baltimore could, indeed, be the excellent news as which it is presented. However, with everything that is riding on this project, starting with the $128 million TIF bonds, scrutiny by the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), the Mayor and the Council would be warranted. 

However, according to BDC Vice President Clark, BDC is not in charge of reviewing the project, it’s progress and financing, or the collection of bond repayments.  This would be the responsibility of the Board of Estimates and the Maryland Economic Development Corporation (MEDCO) which issued the bonds. BDC believes in the project, sees no reason for concern and considers the change a positive development. 

Seven years after Plank outlined his vision in 2015, it is still in large part an aspiration. But unlike some other big projects in Baltimore, Port Covington has seen some real change. In 2015 Plank said "We do have an image problem in Baltimore and we could do something great and iconic and have people see it and be visible. I think the combination between Under Armour and Baltimore right there under 95 will be incredibly powerful." This potential is still there. The  vital catalyst, though, may be the new Middle Branch plans developed by New York's Field Operations, not Under Armour. 

Let's see what happens next.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Updated 5/19/22 for statements from BDC. 

Related on this blog:


Port Covington - on course or a vanishing dream? April 21

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

How Should the City Fix its Circulator Bus ?

To some the Baltimore Charm City Circulator ("The backbone of any great city is transportation") is nothing but a toy for the young professionals and "creatives" who live in the affluent parts of the City also known as the "white L". A bus system, critics say, that further cements the racial divide in our city. 

To others the City operated transit system was an encouraging signal that Baltimore's city leaders understood that modern urban  transportation really needs good transit and that  catering to the only communities in the city with population growth was a sustainable smart move featuring an environmentally friendly local transit system that was fueled by electricity, paid by car owners who park in downtown parking garages, and was fun to use. 

The Circulator: Continued ridership losses over the years
(Source: BCDOT)

The original mission of the Circulator was to avoid further downtown parking garages by better utilizing peripheral parking and connecting parking with a free shuttle that would get people from there to their workplace or to downtown shopping and restaurants. The mission was clearly downtown centered and not intended to serve neighborhoods or compete with MTA bus service.

The existing Circulator routes are concentrated inside the "White L"
and barely touch disadvantaged neighborhoods (City graphic)

But the initial Circulator fan base slowly evaporated when a series of calamites struck:

  • the "green" electric buses failed and had to be replaced with used diesels, 
  • a DOT employee in charge of the bus system was caught embezzling funds, 
  • the City wound up suing the operator (Veolia/Transdev) over a dispute about the contractual service obligations 
  • the City hired an outfit mostly known for running limousine services which had neither the required operator training nor the right buses. 
Parallel, the system suffered from "mission creep", cost went up but ridership didn't. To please various constituents the routes had been expanded to a point that operations used more money than the parking revenue surcharge yielded, even if one doesn't count the unexpected cost of the replacement buses. With each trouble the ridership dwindled. When finally enough replacement buses were in place (24 buses are now fully City owned), operators trained and things were running again on all four routes, COVID struck, some service was suspended, ridership plummeted even further. 
Trip purpose: Most trips are not for going to work

The voices demanding a fix for the non equitable, unreliable, money losing and no longer fun to use system became louder. 

No wonder then, that Director Sharkey's new DOT has set out to reform the Circulator and put it into the context of all the other modes the City manages, namely the Harbor Connector boats and the bike and scooter-share systems which DOT licenses. The new BCDOT created a  TDP Transit Advisory Committee Meeting that had six meetings to date, minutes and materials are posted online. Representation on the committee included agencies such as BMC, BDC, DOT and MTA as well as transit advocates such as Transit Choices, the Transit Equity Coalition, the Charles Street Development Corporation, the South Baltimore Gateway partnership, the Downtown and the Waterfront Partnerships and Johns Hopkins University. The creation of the committee and MTA's presence at the deliberations were promising signs of collaboration.

BCDOT also created a separate website "" where one can find various city transportation initiatives such as The Baltimore City Transit Development Plan (TDP), i.e. the reform of the Circulator bus in the form of a "StoryMap" (which requires quite a bit computing horsepower to run smoothly). 

The Baltimore City Transit Development Plan (TDP) is a planning process that will develop a five-year transit investment strategy for the Charm City Circulator bus service. The Plan will identify opportunities where the Charm City Circulator service can improve efficiency and equity. This TDP includes analyses of unmet needs, potential route changes to address those needs, and short- and long-term operating plans for the service. (website)

One would think that the reform plans would be mostly driven by ridership, i.e. by supporting the services the most that attract the most riders today. By that metric the Purple Route going up and down the "White L" from Johns Hopkins University to Federal Hill is most successful with 1,548 riders a day and the Green Line with its circuitous attempts of reaching into disadvantaged areas on the est is failing with its mere 181 riders a day. The second worst performer, the Banner Route has 269 riders.

The proposed "optimized route" system: 
Extensions into the "Black Butterfly" (City graphic)

But in a  sharply divided city where everyone is suspicious about what the other one is doing, simply cutting low performing routes would be too simple. Looking at the proposed map, the City has taken the accusation that the system wasn't equitable to heart by planning extensions into the wings of the "black butterfly areas", i.e. the parts of Baltimore that have high percentages of poverty and low car ownership. With that, the City also decided that they won't try to cover the operating cost through parking surcharges which means that a portion is funded from the general fund, i.e. by regular tax dollars. This approach towards more equity contrasts sharply with ideas that MTA had provided some time ago in an attempt to avoid service duplication between the the two transit systems. MTA contributes a small portion of the operating costs and isn't sympathetic to the notion that the City should just run better transit than the State agency and make thus make up for the shortcomings of the CityLink bus system. 
Adjusting the Circulator routes with the goal of equity in mind is a good thing. But the proposed adjustments are only on the margins and the system was originally designed with other legitimate goals. Combining those different goals creates potentially a Frankenstein monster that doesn’t accomplish any of the goals effectively. Brian O’Malley, CMTA).  
On April 26 the City presented a proposed "optimized" new route map and presented the analysis and ideas that lead to the suggested map. The "Optimization Proposal", presumably has taken into account the essence of comments gathered in the past. The website describes the optimization this way:
The Transit Development Plan is proposing improvements to current routes as well as operations improvements of the Charm City Circulator to expand transit access for key equity zones within the city and improve access of transit to job centers not currently served. These proposals include:
Extending the service’s weekday hours so that buses start running at 6 a.m. instead of the current start time of 7 a.m.
Adjusting weekend hours from 9 a.m.-9 p.m., rather than the current 9 a.m.-midnight period on Saturdays and 9 a.m.-8 p.m. on Sundays.
The routes go deeper into the black butterfly areas, the Banner Route was eliminated and the new Cherry Route connects Cherry Hill. Public comments on the website welcome the access to Cherry Hill, decry the loss of the Banner Route to Locust Point and the proposed earlier shut down in the evening. Of course, it isn't a given that ridership will shift as much as the routes. A survey on the current system indicated that only 6% of all riders earned under $30k annually while over 45% earned over $75 k, a stark contrast to the ridership profile on MTA buses. Even though by far the most frequently requested improvement of the survey has been increased service frequency (61%), better headways are not part of the draft improvement package. To the contrary, the headways on the Orange Line will increase by 2 minutes. One third of respondents wanted to see longer weekend evening service, what the proposed system would provide is an earlier shut-down at 9pm instead of midnight. 

Predictably, there is little public concern with how the expanded system would be funded. There is a comment from somebody who plans to move here who suggests based on her current hometown that institutions served by the routes should contribute. It should, indeed, be part of the discussion why Hopkins, for example, runs its own buses up Charles Street and still wants the Circulator to drop people off at the doorsteps of the University, a duplication Baltimore's transit system can ill afford. The expanded services are estimated to cost $2 m per year in added operating cost. The City hopes to get additional funds from the federal infrastructure bill and considers the TDP a step in that direction. Current funding includes, local, state (MDOT/MTA) and federal money. 

Asked for this article about the proposed routes and if MTA is in agreement with them, Administrator Arnold provided the following response for MTA:

The Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration (MDOT MTA) supports local transit operations in all 23 counties and Baltimore City.  In FY21 and FY22, MDOT MTA provided Baltimore City with $1.6 million for eligible operating expenses for the Charm City Circulator.  The budget allocation also provides $1.6 million in funding for FY23.


While MDOT MTA provides support to local jurisdictions in the development of their local transit operations, decisions relating to service levels, hours of operation, and areas served for the Charm City Circulator remain the responsibility of Baltimore City Department of Transportation.

This map is labeled "Possible Long Term Service": Adding a Poe

The improvement menu of the TDP is interesting for what it does not address:
  • Even in its longer view is also mum on the question how the bus can be better integrated with the other modes that the City operates, the water taxi (Harbor Connector) and the bikes and scooters.
  • Even less is there a hint about the City's transit in a future time when there would be a regional transit authority, something the Mayor and DOT supports. 
  • The electrification of buses as part of the City's sustainability strategies isn't on the menu either
  • nor is an outlook towards autonomous buses and how they could be ideal for short range circulator systems where they are already operating on an experimental base in some cities. 
  • The license with the current Circulator operator will run out soon, but no strategy how a future service agreement should be framed has been part of the Transit Development Plan.
The suggested route changes are not yet final, comments are still possible. Public response is still expected until May 13. Comments can be placed online or emailed to, a clear hint that the consultant Whitman Requardt has been commissioned with running the public engagement. 

If the changes would be similar to the draft, the City owned Circulator's equity pivot would move the Charm bus into uncharted territory with the assumption that poor and non-motorized Baltimore residents would flock to the free service and that the earlier start hours would entice low wage workers to use the free ride while the bulk of the current more affluent non-work riders on the Purple Line would continue to use the buses. If the MTA bus system gives any indication, "choice riders" (those who are not dependent on buses for their mobility) are hard to come by on a system dominated by transit dependent riders. This is especially true now, when transit around the country are still struggling to get the riders back they lost under COVID, in part for fear of infection, in part because of work from home shifts, in part because a large part of the entertainment sector had shut down. Around the country circulator type bus systems complement larger scale public transit as a short trip, hop-on, hop-off addition that fills a small scale mobility need one level up from scooter and bicycle share systems. It isn't clear that the proposed Baltimore Circulator routes stay in their lane, i.e. complementing MTA routes instead of competing with them. 

The implementation of Circulator service changes are expected to occur in the Spring/Summer of 2024. According to BCDOT "the implementation phase of the TDP includes the planning and finalization of bus stop locations, the design and construction needed for the new bus stops, and the installation of improvements at current stops. This time frame also includes federal and city regulatory requirements regarding public outreach and notification about the planned transit changes."

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

the article was update for the MTA quote 5/5/22

Related articles on this site:

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

$20 million public money for the ailing Security Mall

 The entire Southwest Baltimore County political echelon including House Speaker Adrienne Jones was assembled when County Executive Johnny Olszewski  announced that $10 million State and $10 million County money would be set aside for investment at this ailing 100 care mall site tucked in between I-695, I-70 and Security Boulevard. Olsziewksi described the mall as a one thriving hub which he imagined to turn again into a "world class shopping center and and community hub". To help matters along, the County will retain architects and planners to guide a "community driven design charrette".

County Executive Olszewski announced $20 million for 
Security Mall (Photo: Philipsen)

The backdrop for the open air press conference were some back hoes and the remnants of an old Bennigans and I-Hop which had sat as abandoned eyesores along Security Boulevard for years. A couple TV stations had come out, and the print media took notes. 

Speaker Jones, who hails from the area, noted Security Square Mall still remains a vibrant place for many local businesses and an important part of the community. She observed that the communities of the Southwest have often reminded her that the property needs significant revitalization and investment. “This $20 million investment will jump-start this effort and help bring new life to the community.

Council chair Julian Jones recalled the year 2015 when the construction of the $2.9 billion Red Line should have started with a stop "right here where I stand", Jones said. "That would have brought investment to this mall, but now we will do what is necessary, he said and thanked the Executive and the Speaker for their efforts of securing the funds.

Mall redevelopment with housing in Santa Ana, Ca

Of the 5 mall owners only the latest operator spoke, the pastor of the "Set the Captives Free" church, Karen Bethea, introduced as "a force of nature" spoke. The church has bought the former JC Penny wing of the mall and operates community outreach, education and soon a daycare center in the mall. The possibly most outspoken and powerful owner, Howard Brown, was not present. A few years back he was the first to publicly present the idea of a new mixed use town center on the nearly 100 acre mall property. He was convinced he could strong-arm the other parties into his vision. Albeit, this didn't happen.

Brown thinks little of the replacement of the abandoned I-Hop with a new Chick-Fil-A, planned in the same location. This plan follows a defeated gas station and is seen as an improvement by some who are tired of the abandonment and trash. However popular, in terms of urban design and land use Chick-Fil-A is not different from the other 1-story drive to or drive through "pad uses" that ring the mall. Those structures will simply be in the way if the NAACP's Task Force preferred vision should be realized which was developed with strong community participation. The preferred scenario envisions a mixed use urban village with a "main street" lined with higher end retail, market rate housing, some offices, urban parks and civic uses.

The NAACP vision was not mentioned in today's press conference, and none of the task force members got to speak about their vision. Instead, the Executive  spoke  of "a blank slate". Mall redevelopments around the country show, that conversions of old malls into vibrant towncenters don't happen easily, and certainly not without strong leadership. Ryan Coleman chair of the Randallstown NAACP and Danielle Singley, the Task Force Chair know how difficult it is to unit people behind a common goal. Both were at hand at the press conference but stayed in the background.

Demand for retail space is declining while housing needs are unmet
(From a mall redevelopment presentation)

Especially since communities around the mall have already spoken in an at least preliminary manner, there wouldn't be anything wrong with County leadership uniting around the concept of a mixed use center which would not only provide much better services for the community but also provide jobs and become and economic engine in the area which has seen declining school performance and increased crime.

A $20 million investment is a great start if the money is used as a seed to facilitate that all stakeholders rally around a new vision. With potentially millions of additional square feet of use (the current mall on a mostly vacant lot covers an area of about 1 million square foot of use area) nobody would have to fear displacement. Lots of "stuff" could be developed on the vast parking lots long before any part of the mall would have to come down and there would be still room for green open spaces and parks. 

Experiences from other redevelopments show that a new masterplan should not only be developed but must also become legally binding. Public investment in the roads and the infrastructure needed for a new town center could facilitate the creation of fully "entitled" development parcels. Ready to build development parcels right at the Beltway would attract new investors and wake up the current mall businesses from their slumber. In this manner the County-State funds could, indeed, become the first step for a new community hub that is also an economic power-house.

While the new masterplan is being developed in the "charrette" process starting sometime this year, no new development should be allowed in the interim. However, it seems not only Chik-Fil_A is an offender; the County administration itself  is already creating new facts on the ground with a new $1.2 million 8.8 thousand square foot community health center planned in collaboration with the church. Not helpful, should the masterplan recommend that the mall should be leveled, as for example, at the old Rockville Mall in Montgomery County.

With new elections for a Council and Executive with the seat of district 1 vacated by Councilman Tom Quirk, champions of a radically new development model can yet emerge. All three candidates vying for Quirk's seat were present at the press conference today. 

Olszewski himself, whose seat is safe, when asked about a development moratorium during the planning stage responded: "Speak with the Council!". 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Previous mall articles on this blog:

How the failed Security Mall could become a thriving town center (July 2021)

Howard Brown plans second County Town Center (March 2017)