Friday, December 16, 2022

Baltimore: From sideways to upwards?

Why can't Baltimore stop its decline?

Why is Charm City known for its historic architecture, its neighborhoods and its quaintness as a quirky "Smalltimore" as well as a  city of firsts with the nation's first passenger railroad and the first gas light, a waterfront revitalization that became a global blueprint for industrial waterfront conversions and a ballpark that became equally influential the only city among peers that keeps losing population, Harbor East, Brewers Hill/Canton Crossing, McHenry Row and HarborPoint, Clipper Mill, Silo Point and TidePoint notwithstanding? 

How to get from a tangled mess to success?

Some use psychology to explain and combat the City's shortcomings attesting Baltimore an inferiority complex and lack of self esteem. Or describe the issues in terms of family relations: Baltimore suffering from sibling rivalry with its much more famous sibling Washington DC which overshadows everything we do, even though DC was smaller than Baltimore as recently as 2010, plus it is the younger sibling by nearly six decades. Of course, there are also social explanations such as systemic racism and the large social disparities it created. In this space I will try to explain Baltimore's problems to turn around in terms of systems and feedback loops. 

Baltimore isn't a backwater where nothing happens. The City continues to generate large projects that are all described as "world class", "game changers" or as "the biggest in the nation". All those projects are supposed to, in one way or another, pull the city out of its spiral of shrinkage and crime. We will set aside for a moment the mounting evidence that building big stuff isn't necessarily the right solution for societal woes. Physical projects alone won't do it anymore without having social components, such as community benefits agreements. In real estate there is much talk about impact investment and ESG. Regardless, why do these project never "change the game" in Baltimore? Why can't we pull off what Boston and DC could do, or Nashville and Chattanooga? Those cities are well beyond their tipping point and never looked back. 

Charm City

Let's take a look at projects in Baltimore, then and now, and what worked and what didn't.

Duds instead of "game changers" 

The currently most widely known mega project is perhaps Port Covington ("Baltimore's Port Covington to be the Silicon Valley of athletics wear", Archpaper, 2018), which at one point even competed to attract Amazon's headquarters. A few years after its introduction the project has already lost its luster. People are cynical about it, in part because many "game changers" before had been welcomed with enthusiasm but are almost forgotten now, because they failed to deliver what had been promised.

Remember Baltimore as a center of biotechnology with not only one, but two bio-parks at Hopkins and the University of Maryland that were supposed to put Baltimore on the map of biotechnology? ("The future of Baltimore's biotechnology industry remains to be seen. Industry observers put the city up to two decades behind the biotech hub that has taken root along the Interstate 270 corridor in Montgomery", Gus Sentementes in the SUN). Remember the concept of the digital harbor with Baltimore becoming some sort of Silicon Valley of the East with Tide Point as the catalyst?  Remember "the West has Zest", a slogan to promote the revitalization of the entire Westside of downtown with the Hippodrome as a catalyst?  Or recall Baltimore developer Jim Rouse's dream 30 years ago to revitalize Baltimore's then poorest neighborhood, Sandtown as an example that would guide cities across the country?  The list of high aspirations tied to large projects is long. None of the noted projects went into the history books as a "lighthouse" project that would shine a path for cities to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps

Game changers: Hype and reality

Too many big projects and ideas are either limping or never made it off the ground. Baltimore's big transportation projects are a league of its own, mostly with projects that belong to the category of limping or aborted. The half baked nature of Baltimore transit projects presents a pervasive pattern that may well be called the "great Baltimore sideways slide" and stands in contrast to, for example, Washington DC's transit story which one could describe as the "great DC stepladder". Starting with the highway plans which luckily were aborted a long time ago, continuing with the Baltimore subway, the Baltimore Light Rail Line, and finally the Baltimore Red Line, each conceived to be the public transportation solution that will be a worthy successor of Baltimore's once extensive streetcar system. But none of them could save Baltimore from the reputation that it just doesn't have good public transit. Even the MARC commuter train system is at best ambivalent. The commuter trains emanating from Baltimore are said to be the fastest commuter trains in America with speeds above 100mph and are generally highly regarded, but people in West Baltimore have to board via stepping stool, the system uses diesel engines on an electrified line, and with many federal workers still not fully returned to their offices, the rail system is desperately needing riders.

Baltimore's Urban ADD is pervasive. It looks feverishly for a new topic, pulling away attention and resources before the initial catalyst that isn't anywhere near complete. The malaise is not limited to big projects. The much touted first bike-share project failed spectacularly before it ever really worked, in part because the new scooters looked sexier than the bikes and DOT was busy handling those. Both, though, require a workable and well implemented "complete streets" strategy for these modes to function successfully. The wonderfully progressive Baltimore Complete Streets policy is littered with the corpses of abandoned or badly mangled bike lanes and road diets.

Pop up and no follow up
"The big jump" once had all the headlines as an innovative multimodal pop-up installation. Now it has only shards of glass, knocked over stanchions and barrels and does nothing but stain the reputation of bike and ped-ways even before they are proposed. Even after several years in the making, no cohesive bike lane system has emerged; even the one successful bike facility on Maryland Avenue sees little love, maintenance,  or enforcement against folks using it for parking. A previously much touted Green Network Plan is now collecting dust with no visible implementation or funding strategy. Many masterplans had the same fate without implementation of key promised components. Just one example is the Clifton Park masterplan of 2008 where many promised improvements remain unfulfilled to this day, for lack of funding, of course.

The Department of Public Works has a massive backlog of infrastructure work, often done re-actively after a main broke and a sinkhole formed. But while all this is going on, a huge treatment facility is found to be operated incompetently with massive failures, the water billing system keeps having problems after many years of attempts to fix it, but the department focused on two very questionable mega projects of turning drinking water reservoirs into giant underground tanks. Recycling and trash pick up suffer from worker shortages.  Most recently DPW had nothing better to do than design a new logo. A stepping stone approach is missing, there is no real success story to build on.

The sap of half-baked, compromised, or abandoned projects can be seen everywhere in Baltimore, whether it is in the implementation of  complete streets or inclusionary housing policies (35 homes funded in 10 years), or even mega projects like EBDI that after 20 years are still unconvincing.

From fanfare to nothing: Westport plans
Sliding instead of stepping up isn't limited to public efforts. The abandoned high flying plans for Pat Turner's Westport or Kevin Plank's Port Covington UA "World Headquarters" are private examples. The ongoing hick-ups at Pimlico are mostly due to the private side not getting its act together, so is the half done Uplands project and the largely stalled Poppleton redevelopment. Sandtown Winchester is after 30 years and far over $100 million of well-meaning attempts as pockmarked by vacants and disinvestment as ever. All those examples will cost way more to complete or get right because of the initial failure. They may and eventually become entirely unaffordable.

Baltimore's success stories

Not that Baltimore never generated mega projects that most would describe as successful. I mentioned the Inner Harbor and Oriole Park and a slew of other, smaller success stories. Successfully completed mega projects also include  the redevelopment of no less than six low-income highrise districts, considered the largest HUD HOPE VI project group in the country; Those projects are, indeed notable and frequently referenced precedents. How do stalled or failed projects differ from the successful ones, what made the second set successful and the first less so? 

Success with follow up

Sometimes success comes through the backdoor of failure, such as in the case of the urban highways that would have bisected Fells Point, Federal Hill and Mount Vernon and created a giant viaduct across the Inner Harbor. Thanks to the highways failing to materialize all those affected neighborhoods went on to be Baltimore's success stories.  

One cause of the sideways problem is the fascination with the respective next shiny toy, to revert to psychology, a sort of urban Attention Deficit Disorder that makes politicians and investors to hop onto the next big thing before the previous one has been brought to a proper conclusion. The stepladder process, by contrast sticks with a vision until it has become a proof of concept, a success on which to build and expand. In fact, successful Baltimore projects used the stepladder process, just think of Charles Center followed by the Inner Harbor, Otterbein,  Harbor East and eventually HarborPoint. Or the six Hope VI projects unspooling in rapid succession, or Oriole Park followed by the football stadium.

What makes failure and what success? Transportation projects

Transportation projects provide a good set of examples that go far back and illustrate shortcomings that explain why they didn't become roaring successes: When Baltimore received federal funds to build its first Metro line, it followed right behind Washington, San Franscisco and Atlanta, all cities that completed entire systems or, in the case of Atlanta, at least two coordinate lines intersecting at a downtown hub. Baltimore had a fine system plan but argued about the first alignment and built it on the route of least resistance (in the median of Interstate 895 to Owings Mills) instead straight west where the I-70 extension hadn't been completed. The project wasn't complemented with development hubs around the stations (transit oriented development) and even at its terminus it was shunned by the Owings Mills' mall developer who didn't want transit riders have easy access to his mall. When the line finally opened it competed with a freeway in the same corridor and ran in the city through areas of decline; it didn't go where people wanted to go. Meanwhile the federal money trough from President Johnson's New Society vision  had dried up and further metro lines remained a dream. To sum it up, too little, too late plus a complete lack of land use coordination.

Baltimore Metro: Too little, too late

A decade after the money for metro had dried up and Baltimore's highway projects had been defeated, the formerly highway-happy Donald Scheafer ("Highway to nowhere") switched to "light rail" as the new shiny thing that a handful of cities across the US were pursuing as a cheaper alternative to a subway: Less expensive than Metro but more effective than the small streetcars of old. The Baltimore central light rain line system was conceived as a north south line to serve Oriole Park, a single line that was not only designed but also constructed in record time. The new line had a few problems in its DNA: It hardly complemented the sole Northwest Metro Line, nor did it exactly go where the most people were. Instead it went where old railroad right of ways made it easy to build. It didn't connect with Metro in a hub and once again, there were no plans to densify development around the stations to make the line more viable and the segment through downtown was as slow as molasses.

Another decade passed before then mayor  O'Malley finally wanted to get back to a comprehensive rail plan. The rail plan of 2000 looked quite like the metro plan from 1970, except it was all "light rail" but, and here the new twist, with tunnels where needed. But once the most urgent project, a real east-west line dubbed the "Red Line" was selected as the top priority its design crawled without much urgency through the federal New Starts bureaucracy which "do it now" Schafer had successfully avoided for his earlier light rail. The Red Line alignment suffered from the get-go from the fact that the original Metro Line was a east-northwest bastard which forced the actual east-west Red Line to run in parts in a parallel tunnel because light rail couldn't run in the Metro tunnel. The death of the Red Line became a nationally known planning tragedy of epic dimensions. As Governor O'Malley had failed to get this project to a point of no return in spite of a record 13 years of  planning costing a quarter billion dollars, his successor coolly abolished the entire thing as a"boondoggle". The then new Governor gave the feds  nearly a billion dollars back in already promised funds. Now Governor elect Wes Moore vouches to put humpty dumpty back together. 

The transit saga doesn't end with the death of the Red Line: Hogan's contention that Baltimore would be better off with a full overhaul of its bus system than with one expensive rail line had some validity, except that he never meant it seriously. Hogan provided just over $130 million for a bus overhaul in lieu of the $3 billion that had been lost. The result of this bus "reform" were buses with new colors and names which right now perform worse than the old system had ever performed before.

Hogan: The big bus failure

In all Baltimore spent a whopping 40 years on creating a disconnected and unloved transit system that most describe as dismal. 

How did the other cities fare that picked light rail as their future transit at the same time as Baltimore? Portland, Pittsburgh, Denver, Sacramento, San Diego all managed to build entire systems of 4-6 lines in that time, in most cases considered successes by the industry.

Baltimore's MTA not only sat on its hands for decades between completed lines, it also never nurtured the lines which in the beginning were well liked and used. Instead of cultivating a success story, the MTA presided over steady decline: The stations were neglected, signal priority on Howard Street never made it into reality and efforts of moving the stadium crowds after games soon faltered leaving fans stranded for hours. Instead of making the initial proof of concept project a stepping stone for success, it became a symbol for all that can go wrong. Even before Covid hit, riderships had fallen by 50%. Portland, by contrast supported its initial line with sound transit oriented development and careful design and soon got money for more.

When it came to the Red Line, again too much time had passed since the initial light rail line to see the project as part of the same system. Schafer's "do it now" urgency was sorely missing, culminating in the last minute relocation of an underground station which may have cost the project the critical six months which would have made it irreversible. 

Yes, MTA is a State agency and not run by the City, but before folks seek all fault at the State, the City and the County also failed to implement zoning and land use changes at the light rail stations that would have supported transit, something that was a key to Portland's light rail success. The initial success allowed TriMet to build four additional light rail lines that were followed by several Portland streetcar lines.

What makes failure and what success? Grand projects

Success can also be explained with some Baltimore projects that become national models: Had the Charles Center Development Corporation waited for a decade or more to plan for the Inner Harbor instead of meticulously designing Charles Center as a successful stepping stone for the Inner Harbor redevelopment, the Inner Harbor would never had happened. Just recall that the project was nearly derailed by a referendum of those who wanted to keep an open field at the water's edge.

Step by step but upwards

Had Housing Commissioner Henson waited  for a decade after successfully lobbying for HUD funds to implode the Lafayette public highrises, Lexington Terrace, Murphy Homes and Flag House, would never have happened because HUD funds would have long dried up. But the savvy Housing Commissioner acted fast and used each project as a stepping stone for the next project, learning and refining them at each step. Clearly the last project was far superior to the first, but no project was seen as a failure. 

Problem solving without stepping stones or "proof of concept" projects or initial projects that are half baked and unsuccessful is not only doomed to fail it also saps resources, ends with nothing to show and leaves project implementers or an entire city demoralized. 

The successful stepping stone approach can also be seen in Oliver, Barclay and the Greenmount West, communities that have seen systematic investments by Sean Closkey's companies. His approach all but eliminated vacant buildings in each target area. The once deeply disinvested communities are beginning to attract new folks, increasing the population and the viability of support services  Closkey is a strict follower and excellent explainer of the stepping stone theory in which a strategic approach brings success.  The stepping stone approach is vital wherever resources are limited, because it produces a system that after initial steps becomes a self supporting feedback loop. 

Closkey explaining the step up process

In summary: Success begets success. A larger multi-phase undertaking needs a successful beginning, a story to tell and resources to continue without delay. 

Success and failure are closer to each other than one would think. Often small missteps decide over an upward or downward trajectory, just as a ball resting on an apex can be tipped in either direction without much effort at all. 

The critical moment can be compared to phenomena known in physics:  Phase-transitions, for example from rain to snow, from water to ice, or from water to steam. Before you know it the milk rises from the bottom of the pot and boils over.  The shift to lasting success can come suddenly when a critical mass or energy is achieved, just like in physics. Phase transition can go both ways. Systems can collapse into a black hole that will swallow everything within its event horizon. But they can also burst out into sustained and potentially exponential growth of a sun. An urban example of such an upward explosion can be seen in Washington DC, a city which became so successful that many forget how much the capital struggled just some 25 years ago with a mayor who was arrested in a crack sting. (The Fall and Rise of DC). 

DC Wharf: The capital's newest development
Make no mistake, success has as much to do with capital infusion, investment and resources as with organization. But it is important to understand tat money is not all that is needed. Also necessary is good planning, good governance, urgency and the strategic use of resources. Smaller investments need to leverage larger ones. 

DC built systematically on two catalytic grand projects, the new arena and the new convention center, but it also systematically invested in schools, neighborhhoods and economic development, all activities Baltimore is engaged in as well. Two DC mayors with well functioning departments attracted talent to work for them. In Baltimore a lack of focus, unstable governance, too many competing actions at once and a often hostile governor made success elusive. 

To turn Baltimore's downward spiral into one of success becomes harder the more half baked projects devour resources and the more projects are abandoned midway in favor of the next shiny thing. For the 36 years I have observed success and failure in this city, I had many moments when I thought that the final break thorough was right around the corner, just as it had been in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Nashville or Pittsburgh. 

On the horizon

Many big projects are still largely in the pipeline. Those include the redevelopment of Pimlico and Park Heights, a new Penn Station rail hub, a new Amtrak tunnel under West Baltimore, and a fully refurbished Middle Branch shore line. The governor elect has promised to bring the Red Line back. All this bears promise and each could become a "game changer". 

I have not given up hope that eventually a competent administration will stack the pieces up so they won't tumble any longer and Baltimore could break free towards its potential. The stars are aligned, but I have abandoned any attempt of a prognosis.

Klaus Philipsen

Related articles on my blogs:


Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Why after 20 years EBDI is still no success story

Success or failure I asked in a 2015 blog article about EBDI and in the end had no definite answer. This time, in search of an answer, I will enlist the help of older and brand-new research about EBDI and asked two stakeholders about their verdict. Find out how flawed first steps hobble the East Baltimore redevelopment to this day and how I learned that the question of success or failure is wrong in the first place.

The Aspirations at the beginning of the century

The year was 2002, it was exactly two decades ago, the Mayor was Martin O'Malley, the Planning Director was Michael Graves and the local Council member was Paul Branch Johnson and the idea was an inclusive and equitable vision for a new East Baltimore. To this end one of the testimonies towards a Planned Unit Development (PUD) bill before the City Council began this way:
The wrong game all along? EBDI today (Photo Philipsen)

"For many months, we have been working with a range of civic organizations, all of which want to work collaboratively with the City to create positive change in East Baltimore.  This working group includes the Baltimore Urban League, Citizen’s Planning and Housing Association, Environmental Defense, the Job Opportunities Task Force, AIABaltimore, Preservation Maryland, and the Save Middle East Action Committee.  Together we have put forth a shared vision for the future."
Brad Rogers who spoke on behalf of the 1000 Friends of Maryland then continued:

"Let me tell you what that looks like.
Together, we envision a Biotech Park that is integrated into the fabric of East Baltimore, removing the sense that there is a wall between Johns Hopkins and the surrounding community. In addition, it should creatively incorporate historic buildings into to a design that reflects the city’s rich cultural heritage.

We envision an efficient and coordinated transportation system that makes the Biotech Park more attractive to tenants, links the neighborhood to jobs, and protects residents from traffic and air pollution. In particular, we would like to see the Madison Square rail hub become a catalyst for transit-oriented development, opening up new opportunities for locally owned businesses. We certainly think that we can do better than just dropping 7,000 new parking spaces into a residential neighborhood.
From an exhibit by E. Barbush.

Barbush standing in the wasteland of  over 1000 demolished houses 

 We envision a variety of new and rehabilitated homes, so that people from a range of different incomes can live comfortably in East Baltimore. Local residents, who have stuck by their neighborhoods through hard times, should be able to benefit from redevelopment when it happens, and East Baltimore must become a place where citizens of all races will have access to opportunity. 

Finally, we envision a redevelopment process that minimizes the hardships of relocation on residents, and that treats all citizens with justice and equity in accordance with fair housing principles."

Middle East had been one of the most disinvested areas in the City. Houses were small and in bad shape, some entire blocks stood vacant. From 37,000 people in 1970, the population dropped by a bit more than half by 2,000.  Homeownership was a low 18% and the poverty rate was 48%, twice the City average. However,  later, in 2009, the book Middle East Baltimore Stories: Images and Words from a Displaced Community seeks to dispute this narrative of despair with an emphasis on the people network that existed in Middle East, the less tangible thing we often call "human capital".

The Historic East Baltimore Action Committee (HEBCAC) had been created in 1994, but after six years their work was deemed insufficiently successful and officially replaced. The new concept was "building from strength", a brainchild of mayoral advisor Paul Brophy, inspired Martin O'Malley to integrate the concept into his tough on crime strategies.

Maybe the first flaw in the approach was that the strength was soley seen as the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Other strengths would have been available, chiefly the people that had stuck through the ups and down of neighborhood. But there was also physical strength: For example the "main street" of East Monument Street, a vital retail corridor, the Northeast Market or the adjoining established communities of Middle East and McElderry Park. 

The selected approach with the hospital as the element of strength needed a backstop on the northern end, so as to make the revitalization area well defined and not endless. Thus the Amtrak tracks on a berm swinging through east Baltimore in a wide arc, became the boundary, the resulting shape giving the 88 acre redevelopment area its nickname: the (grand) piano.

This is gentrification – a big institution pushing out a vulnerable community for its benefit 
Lawrence Brown, coiner of the term "Black Butterfly" as quoted in the Guardian)

Seeing Hopkins as the engine had the baked-in flaw, that the East Baltimore residents had a deep seated distrust in Hopkins, seeing it more as a menace than a source of strength that could lift their neighborhood. Too long had Hopkins neglected to see their neighbors as anything they should care about. Instead people there became at times guinea pigs. Thus the announcement of big comprehensive action with Hopkins as a partner was met with no enthusiasm especially since residents were still not really seen as partners. This motivated Marisela B. Gomez, a resident in Middle East but also an academician with a PhD and MD from Johns Hopkins and others to found the Save East Baltimore Action Committee (SMEAC) to represented the interest of existing residents as community activists. Gomez provided a particular perspective of the longstanding conflict between the community and the famous hospital. SMEAC was disbanded in November 2009 and was later replaced by the Baltimore Redevelopment Action Coalition for Empowerment (BRACE). Gomez sees the EBDI plan mostly as an effort of Hopkins to "expand their walls".

EBDI Masterplan 2006 with preserved houses in red
North of those Amtrak tracks large swaths of disinvestment remain to this day, testimony to the fact that the EBDI piano doesn't provide enough positive energy to reach out into the north areas, only individual redevelopment activities now dot the map. Building from strength's model of success at the time was the area west of the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. "University City, a concept going back as far as 1948 with the University of Philadelphia (Penn) and Drexel as the anchors and generally seen as a success story. That project also included a new school.

Going big with built in defects

Aspirations for "fixing" Middle East were big in every aspect. Support for going big was broad as this list of partners shows: Institutional partners in the East Baltimore Development Initiative (EBDI) have been Johns Hopkins University, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Weinberg Foundation, Forest City as master developer, (now Brookfield Properties), the City, the State, the Goldseker Foundation, the Abell Foundation, the Greater Baltimore Committee, and ReBuild Metro. The fuel for going big was supposed to come from a Hopkins biotechnology park and "life sciences", an engine strong enough that it would leverage new and healthy housing as an adjunct. This, of course, is totally different than healing an existing community. 

Photo accompanying the Guardian article in April 2018
(Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP)

How big? The revitalization program included 2,100 mixed income homeownership and rental housing units, 1.7 million square feet of life sciences research and office space, a new seven acre community learning campus with an early childhood center, a new public K–8 elementary school, food stores and retail amenities plus a community park. Even a new MARC station was envisioned. The total redevelopment was estimated to cost near $2billion (2003). The undertaking was touted as the nation's largest redevelopment project, the same claim that some make today for Port Covington.

A second birth defect of EBDI was that the redevelopment authority was organized as a quasi private entity, similar to the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC). This governance model provides little democratic oversight, for example from the City Council. Even though two residents sat on the EBDI Board, most had to rely on SMEAC and eventually on the Annie E. Casey Foundation to find a voice in the process. 

Broken promises

The trifecta of defects in assumption, approach and governance was compounded by the very first steps that EBDI took: Without much communication over 3000 frequently historic buildings were taken by eminent domain and then razed. Hundreds of residents who have stuck by their neighborhoods in hard times were displaced, many of them homeowners.  A total of 740 families have been relocated, often forcefully.  The demolition of every building in the initial 31 acres phase of the project destroyed not only whatever trust may have been still there, it was also a blatant violation of agreements made with the Maryland Historic Trust. Phase 1 looked exactly like another scorched earth urban renewal plan to displace people of color of the kind that was reminiscent of the destruction in the wake of Baltimore's infamous "highway to nowhere", exactly the kind of thing people had vowed to avoid. It would forever mark the entire undertaking.

From a HUD brochure 

With everything wiped "clean", there was never sufficient construction financing and working capital to rebuild at a pace that would heal the wounds before they would fester.
“It’s very hard to build relationships when the community is gone.” (Sean Closkey, ReBuild Metro working in Oliver and Johnston Square)
In spite of the broad support from organizations, many goals were never met, at least not yet.  SMEAC and Annie E. Casey eventually forced adequate relocation benefits which was good but required large sums that were subsequently missing in the rebuild (The homeowners received a $122,000 replacement housing payment, and renters received, on average, five years of rental subsidy).  Casey showed in a post relocation study that relocated former Middle East residents were happy in their new places (80 percent of residents reported their overall quality of life as being a bit or much better), the drain of social capital was a big blow for the effort of rebuilding a community, which is fundamentally about people and not about bricks.

In spite of these posters, the project frequently sputtered
(Screenshot from Real News)
Economic problems

The the biotech expansion of Hopkins as the engine for rebuilding a complete community sputtered also economically. The built in defects made the undertaking also economically less resilient. When the music stopped in the Great Recession EBDI was in dire straights. 

The lack of governance and oversight had predictable problems: In 2011 the Daily Record published an investigative series titled “Too Big to Fail? Betting a Billion on East Baltimore" that found that "nowhere is there a comprehensive, independent public accounting of the funds and how they have been spent". 

In the wake of the 2015 unrest Baltimore and with it EBDI became an international study object for inequity and social and racial segregation. A lengthy 2018 article in the British Guardian put the project into the larger Baltimore context and remains an interesting well researched read.

Throughout the various economic cycles, it remained easier to get hospital related commercial projects underway than to build more housing, a clear indication that the underlying project logic was flawed, especially in light of the overall relatively weak Baltimore housing market, the absence of sufficient funds for subsidies and the sad truth, that all the investment never succeeded to lift the home values to a point where they would pay for themselves. 

A Walgreens is part of a smattering of retail
(Photo: Philipsen)

15 years after take-off  the project still about 40% incomplete. A 2018 report by the Federal Reserve found that public money investment was more than twice the private investment ($450 million versus $217 million) and that foundation expenditures almost equaled the private investment with $173 million. No rail hub materialized, nor did shops and restaurants except for a lone Walgreen, a 7-11 that initially rejected food stamps and a Starbucks.

The situation today

Fast forward two full decades after take-off and five mayors later, what was initially called "Middle East", then Biopark and eventually simply EBDI is now officially branded as "Eager Park", named after the 5 acre central park that Forest City pulled out of its hat in 2011.  Regardless of name, it is still a work in progress large vacant lots remain in plain view of Eager Park. A number of committed projects is slated to begin soon, both on the Hopkins side and on housing. Hopkins has learned to speak the equity language.

It is inconceivable that Hopkins would remain a pre-eminent institution in a city that continues to suffer decline. (Ron Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University 2018 as quoted in the Guardian)

The project has lost the attention it once had. Baltimore's leaders have set their eyes on new big shiny undertakings as the "game changers" that will turn Baltimore around: Pimlico in Park Heights, Perkins Homes/Somerset in East Baltimore and Port Covington in South Baltimore. One could say Baltimore suffered from kind of political ADD instead of seeing one large project through to the end and being able to use it is a stepping stone for the next, Baltimore leaves too many undertakings unfinished.

Henderson Hopkins: A new school and library
(Photo: Philipsen)

Consequently only a very few Baltimoreans see EBDI as a clear success, nor has it become a national North Star in the same way as Philadelphia's University City. 

In spite of the massive investments at EBDI Hopkins Hospital is still struggling to be an accepted neighbor in the community. But it keeps trying: In its most recent effort it even named a planned 34,000 sf new campus building after Henrietta Lacks. The building is supposed to accommodate community discussions and appropriately house the university's Berman Institute of Bioethics and a research institute. It is unlikely that this move will relinquish the decades old suspicions about the mighty neighbor that ignored the plight of the nearby communities or used the as guinea pigs.
As part of the planning process for the building, Vines Architecture toured Lacks’s neighborhood of Turner Station in Dundalk, met with the Lacks family and people in East Baltimore.(BBJ) 
No doubt, housing in current accommodations is significantly upgraded over what existed in old Middle East, that is true for the new units as well as for the rehabilitated units of the later phases. This should contribute to better health for residents as well an improved conditions for raising children. The streets are clean and tree lined, there is a community garden, there is a smattering of retail and the NorthEast Market has been upgraded. There are few boarded up units left and a number of projects are in the pipeline. Enough for EBDI CEO Cheryl Washington to describe the project as "on track" in 2020.
"We are on track to ensuring that 1/3 of the housing we develop are affordable. We are on track for ensuring East Baltimore and Baltimore City residents get jobs both construction and permanent jobs. We are on track for providing opportunities for local, minority, and women owned businesses to get contracting opportunities...and were making good on our promise to relocating help them return to eager park if they choose."(EBDI CEO Cheryl Washington in Jan 2020).

What does the latest  research say?

In the long line of publications describing the successes and failures of EBDI, another study was published this fall; a more scientific investigation by The Urban Institute under the title "A Long-Term Impact Evaluation of a Comprehensive Community Initiative" authored by Brett Theodos, a Georgetown public policy PhD who has been a senior researcher with the Urban Institute for 17 years. The Theodos study compares Middle East before EBDI (the year 2000) and after (2019) and also attempts a comparison with a model of how Middle East would have developed without intervention. 
What did the Doctor find?  

Disappointingly, the 62 page research paper doesn't provide a simple answer to the question of success or failure either; which isn't surprising, considering that the answers vary whether one is talking about commercial development, residential development, affordable housing, economic inclusion, workforce development or education, to name just a few of the tenets. The education component alone is so complex that it yielded its own book titled "Urban Renewal and School Reform in Baltimore". The new Henderson Hopkins school is also noted in the Theodos study.

The 550 student, $57.5 million school, co-funded by the Weinberg Foundation, was the first new school in East Baltimore in 25 years. But a lot of its revolutionary impetus already fizzled, both in the architecture as well as the pedagogy. The Theodos study finds that "96 percent of students in the school are Black. .., math test scores for the elementary grades are modestly above the Baltimore City Public Schools’ average, and for English, they are well above the Baltimore City Public Schools’ average, though in both cases they are still below the statewide average in Maryland."

Theodos like the Federal Reserve looks at the dollar value of the investments. Adjusted for inflation the project had invested only half of the envisioned investment volume by 2017. Over a third had gone to health and academic facilities, $150 million to demolition, acquisition and relocation, $120 million to infrastructure and parks, $85 million for a hotel and only $80 million for new housing(the last number excluding $64 million for student housing and a MICA center.)

In the demographic analysis much more remains the same than one would expect after so much displacement. Surprisingly, the population remained 88% black (down 8%) and average income has also remained almost steady ($45k to $40k) if adjusted for inflation, whereby income is somewhat distorted by the students now residing in the area. Overall total population as of 2019 still remained below old levels (16,650 in 2000, 12,601 in 2019).

Startingly, given the usual emphasis on homeownership as an indicator of neighborhood stability, the rate of homeowners fell from 18% to 7%. Some projects still in the pipeline are for homeowners and may change the ratio. The fact that home values increased significantly (from $40k to $130k in today's dollars) would become more relevant if more homeownership would contribute to wealth creation in disadvantaged demographic segments. As noted, after 20 years the home values remain insufficient to develop new units without subsidies. Theodos is careful with a final judgement in terms of success or failure. 

The Forest City masterplan (2011) with a large park

What do former participants say?
Without conclusive answers from the latest study, I turned to two early activists and participants in the process to get their verdict.

Kathryn Madden, a MIT trained urban planner and architect who worked as a consultant with Sasaki Architects on the planning phase that immediately followed phase one. My firm ArchPlan was a sub consultant and our work consisted in masterplanning phase two with significant "preservation strategies". . 

Madden reminds me that EBDI has no clear beginning and it won't have a clear end. "When should we begin?, she asks me, given that there was the Historic East Baltimore Action Commission (HEBCAC) before EBDI, and the Middle East community and its residents long before that. Individual homeowners had long begun to rehab their homes. She also takes issue with the question of success or failure. 
After (Photo: Philipsen)

Before (Photo: Philipsen)
For whom? On what issue? Instead of a simplistic responds, Madden prefers looking forward to the remaining opportunities. On what can still be done on the open fields to get closer to results that resemble the early aspirations? She hopes that the remaining development will especially integrate the Henderson school much better, which "still feels so isolated". She recalled that quite a few residents actually had jobs at Hopkins and wonders what happened to the idea of workforce development, not with construction jobs but in terms of community capacity building.

Yet, in reminiscing about the community meetings we attended in planning phase two with the clear objective of preserving houses instead of demolishing them, she remembers that residents clearly said they didn't want large green spaces which they considered dangerous. "They wanted small intimate gardens, defensible green spaces and pocket parks", Madden recalls. "The [Eager] park is a disaster", Madden burst out, clearly incensed how flagrantly it is in conflict what residents had asked for and how much Forest City as the master developer imposed its own idea after our planning work was done. She toured the area last in March 2020 and didn't see people out and about, not in the park and "not on the stoops", something she puts in contrast to what she observed in the areas around the piano, where disinvestment persists but people where out and visible in their neighborhood.

Madden also mused about the role of planners who come in for a limited time trying to build trust. She recalled the woman who asked "should I fix my furnace or not"? "We then tried to show areas of preservation where rehabilitation would be desired, but didn't have the power to ensure that this would be actually done" Madden says. She uses EBDI frequently as an example in teaching at the Harvard graduate school for design.

Brad Rogers, whom I quoted in the beginning of this articles is now heading up the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership in their large effort of revitalizing the communities near the casino with the help of proceeds from the casino funds, was involved in the EBDI process as a young staff member. While he admits he hasn’t been directly involved in a long time, he suggests that the project might have advanced more quickly if it had built from strengths in the original community, rather than trying to create a blank slate.

Undeveloped parcels: Hopkins, still a wall beyond
(Photo: Philipsen)
He echoes Sean Closkey by saying that "building back from a blank slate is much harder than working with existing residents on improving their community". and uses Johnston Square West and Oliver as examples, two revitalizing communities just west of EBDI with the principle and promise of non displacement successfully kept in place so far. He noted that those communities were much faster in their re-build and success towards approach property values that would allow eventually construction without subsidies.

“We don’t have to pretend there’s a stark choice between creating new development and strengthening historic communities. The best approach takes advantage of both simultaneously. We need to learn how to leverage existing assets to support new investment, and vice versa.” He sees his current work as a successful approach in which everyone is "working from within the existing communities" to network everything together with the Middle Branch as the connecting armature. Work to date is less focused on the shiny Middle Branch waterfront itself and instead begins deep inside the communities with projects such as the new rec center in Cherry Hill with eventual easy access and linkage to the amenities of the Middle Branch.
Eager Park opening: really a reason to celebrate?
(Photo: Philipsen)

What Madden and Rogers taught me that asking about success or failure is the wrong question, that things aren't always binary, that the beginning and end are fluent and that even baked in flaws can be compensated over time. EBDI is not a case of gentrification, nor is it a citywide "game changer". It isn't a flagship of successful urban renewal but a show-case for the complexities of urban repair in a highly segregated and shrinking city. 

Rogers frequently emphasizes that good urban planning is not a zero-sum game where one side wins and the other loses. Rather he thinks, planners should strive for win-win solutions when the pie is not just divided but made bigger. Johns Hopkins hospital with a vibrant biotechnology component, surrounded by healthy, thriving and well connected communities still can become a reality and as such a win for Baltimore.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Previous Blog article on this blog:

The East Baltimore EBDI Development - Success or Failure?

Expected developments:

Apartments:  Marren Architects

Henrietta Lacks Building:

Mayson Dixon townhomes:

EBDI studies/reports

Urban Institute, Baltimore neighborhood investments:

Urban Institute EBDI:

Urban Institute, EBDI:

Annie E Casey, EBDI:

Casey paper: As of December 31, 2010, EBDI had awarded $181.7 million in contracts. Minority and women-owned companies received 24 percent of the $25.4 million in design contracts and 40 percent of the $143 million in construction contracts. (See Appendix A for a breakdown of these figures; Appendix C provides a breakdown for key individual construction projects.

Federal Reserve, Richmond:

EBDI CEO resigns:

Feb 4, 2009 Updated Feb 4, 2009, 3:04pm EST
Jack Shannon, one of the leaders of the massive redevelopment near Johns Hopkins Hospital, will step down as CEO of East Baltimore Development Inc. on April 30.

Shannon joined EBDI six years ago to help the nonprofit organization spearhead the ambitious $1.8 billion residential and biomedical research project just north of the hospital, expected to revitalize the neighborhood and bring jobs to the city.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Port Covington - updates, more than just a new name

 After MAG Partners of New York took the reins from Weller Development in May 22 it had been pretty quiet around the topic of  Port Covington, even though one could see from I-95 that a bunch of buildings continued to receive the finishing touches and new cranes sprouted where Under Armour was supposed to have their "global headquarters". All that was known was that Weller had not found a single tenant for the 1.1 million square feet that had been constructed as part of "Chapter One".

A new day at Port Covington? (Photo Philipsen)

In recent days Port Covington jumped into the local headlines again for MAG had decided to "rebrand" the development and call it "Baltimore Peninsula". The move immediately drew derisive comments on line declaring the new name as lame. Several pointed out that the name was already in use for the entire South Baltimore peninsula.

A breakfast event organized by the BBJ featured MAG CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin of New York (born in Queens, living in Brooklyn and toughened by those locals, in her own words) and was held on location was a great opportunity for checking out what was going on. 

Ok, the name change: "We want to leverage the brand of Baltimore through equitable placemaking", Gilmartin said, not making the new moniker much clearer. One has to assume that the new folks in charge just wanted to create a visible mark on their own. More meaningful were a few facts that are generally encouraging.

BBJ panelists. From left: Colin Tarbert (BDC), Jamie McDonald,
Upsurge;  Brad Rogers SBG, Tony Gross (JLL) (Photo: Philipsen

  • Folks in the room who work with MAG confirmed that the new partners are easy to work with and that there is significant consistency on the staff level between Weller and MAG, in spite of several high profile departures.
  • Of the 1.1 million square feet some 250,000 square feet of office space have found tenants by now says Tony Gross who is in charge of leasing. Upon my inquiry he clarified that at the end of the year, all those deals should be final.
  • The project has strong $100 million community benefits agreement and MGA reportedly continues with payouts to the SB7 communities. 
  • CEO Gilmartin can conjugate equity and inclusion even more fluently than Weller or Plank. At the event she stated that  "2022 is a moment where even those who want to make profit realize that there is a responsibility for equity and inclusion”. Nothing wrong with that insight, if it holds. She also emphasizes sustainability and resilience, pointing to the flat land so close to tidal waters. Again, good.
    MaryAnne Gilmartin, CEO MAG Partners 
    (Photo: Philipsen)

  • 20% of the housing in Chapter One is supposed to be affordable, a standard she promises also for the future "if market rate housing holds, which we need to fund the affordable housing".
  • Gilmartin stresses access to the site from South Baltimore which leads to a now even stronger design feature on the masterplan, the green diagonal that had been there before but didn't reach as far north. A one that makes the plan better.
  • Another new emphasis is on flexibility. With the office market pretty dead, it is no surprise that a lot of the development may be residential in the future. "We have no choice", Gilmartin says, "with 14 million square feet of development we can't exclude any industry". The extravagant towers of the old plan are gone from the rendering.
  • The masterplan's high quality roadway designs and sidewalks are taking shape in Chapter One. As part of the first tranche of tax increment financing (TIF) these standards are cast in stone and can't be skimped on. The infrastructure of Port Covington transitions seamlessly into the big Middle Branch plan and the $160 million "in the pipeline outside of this project" as Brad Rogers, Executive Director of South Baltimore Gateway Partnership noted. This is money flowing from the Casino proceeds and funding improvements like the new Cherry Hill rec center. Rogers repeated several times that with an inclusive approach not all planning has to be a zero sum game in which "winner takes all".
    All leased by the end of this year: Chapter One offices
    (Photo: Philipsen)

In a time when Baltimore's public attention stumbles from one "game changing" promise to the next, from HarborPoint to Perkins Homes/Oldtown, from Penn Station to Madison Park North and from Druid Lake to Pimlico not to mention HarborPlace, the east and west bio-parks as the old standbys, and, indeed, the Middle Branch plans, it is good to see that Port Covington is still on track to convert a forlorn industrial wasteland into an attractive waterfront community, no matter under what name. Good to see also that out-of-towners such as MAG and Goldman Sachs still see a future in this City where so many locals have given up hope.  

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
the original article was updated for spelling errors and language

A tighter overall plan with a stronger diagonal green axis as it was displayed by MAG today
A MAG rendering showing the 3 D montage of how the full development could look one day

By comparison, the initial rendering presented by Under Armour 

and the inital full masterplan with a much more involved UA Headquarters

From what one can see to date, sidewalks, plazas and plantings will be high quality
(Photo: Philipsen)
Chapter One: "Proof of concept". Lots of stuff to fill. 
(Photo: Philipsen)