Friday, February 25, 2022

Baltimore's vital signs - Anything pointing in the right direction?

Population growth as a remedy for Baltimore has been the topic of this blog for many years. (See here, here here and here)). 20 years ago when I advanced the topic with then Mayor O'Malley growing Baltimore back to 850,000 residents, what seemed to be the "carrying capacity" of the city without massive new infrastructure or new high density zoning, seemed not too far fetched. But instead we lost another 66000 people.

The 2020 census tells us that pretty much every larger city in the northeast and across the nation gained population, but Baltimore lost 5.7% of its residents.  Detroit, Milwaukee, and Memphis were the only other large cities in the loser camp.  All surrounding areas in our metro region grew, Baltimore County surpassed the City in the 1990s. However, the picture isn't only bleak, a deeper look is warranted. (See this report)

Maybe it is comforting that the last 20 year loss is only half the one Baltimore experienced in the years between 1980 and 2000. Or, that the number of households in the City actually grew in the last decade by 1%; not much, but definitely not a loss. The reason for that surprising fact is simple: Households become ever smaller and so it is that there are now more occupied housing units than there were in 2010, just fewer people in them. There are other bright spots: In the last decade the City gained 24,473 primary jobs, (+ 8.3%), although, workers who live in the City do not necessarily work in Baltimore, but their number increased by 4.2% as well. Over half of the City’s workforce commutes into the City and more Baltimoreans work outside the City than live and work in the City. Asian origin rpopulation grew by 46%, Latino population by 77% but  even combined represent merely around 12% of the overall population. 

BNIA suggested growth strategies

of all Baltimore st

Baltimore did not lose population across the board. 15 statistical areas (CSA) actually gained poplution,  the CSA with the biggest gain is downtown (+47%). A pleasant brightspot is Barclay, a formerly invested Charles North/ Midtown community that saw growth on the basis of careful and well planned intervention and investment. In all three CSAs went from loss to gains: Greater Charles Village/Barclay, Orchard Ridge/Armistead and Southeastern. Meanwhile the Latino population grew by 77% during the decade and Greektown became a strong growth area. 

The real problem is [that the] overall population loss in Baltimore was 52%. 10 times more than any other city except for New Orleans, but that is because of Katrina. Baltimore effectively suffered a cataclysmic event in terms of population loss on the scale of Katrina between 1990 and 2010, without the requisite reinvestment. We don’t have a gentrification problem. We have a lack of development problem Seema D. Iyer, PhD Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance—Jacob France Institute, UB

Anyone who has followed the maps of former Morgan University Professor Brown who now heads up the Black Butterfly Academy will not be surprised that once again the black butterfly neighborhoods are the victims: They lost more residents than any other neighborhood, led by Carrollton Ridge, where population decline in the decade was the steepest. The mapped result of population change once again gets us to the black butterfly shape already known from race, poverty and vacancy distribution and pretty much every other indicator.

What all this means is that not only are Baltimore's residents highly segregated by race and income, but the population loss is no longer caused by white flight. Instead, the City is losing black residents at a higher rate (-15%) than white residents (-11%). Poor black residents are no longer putting up with living in disinvested formerly re-lined communities. As soon as there is an opportunity, they will leave. In a vicious cycle, the vacant houses and the underutilized schools that are left behind will accelerate the exodus ahead. 

The black flight is not surprising. Quality of life metrics measured by the Neighborhoods Indicator Alliance are clear indicators many changes of the decade are pointing in the wrong diection. For example health: The disparity in life expectancy from one census tract to another increased from a 19.4 year difference in 2012 to a whopping 21.5 years in 2018. Thus the zip code is a bigger determinant of one's life expectancy than one's DNA code! While the teen birth rate declined 60% in the last decade citywide, baby health is still an issue: The rate of babies born with a satisfactory birth weight remained nearly unchanged and is still under 90%, lower in poor neighborhoods.

BNIA known for its "vital signs reports" and the annual data day has looked deeper into the Baltimore Community Change 2010-20 and created six individual research reports which are worth studying. The above data are taken from those reports.

BNIA is no longer just amassing data, it is now intent on enabling social change. In a press release the university institute states:

Historians may well mark the decade that just passed as one of the most tumultuous for Baltimore. From the Great Recession to civil unrest after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, to the widespread problem of vacant houses and the COVID-19 pandemic, Baltimore's neighborhoods have been buffeted by multiple economic, political and public health storms. The challenge is how to leverage resiliency where it exists and capitalize on opportunities when they arise.

What can be done: BNIA will organize Baltimore's first. Community Change Summit during the week of March 21-26. All who are interested can attend a session to help in developing data-driven solutions together with the help of a graduate student team consisting of four students from Morgan State University, Johns Hopkins University, and the Universities of Michigan and Illinois, with various technical backgrounds in urban planning, communications, and public health. The effort is sponsored by the France-Merrick Foundation, the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Baltimore Community Foundation. 

In a recent presentation Seema Iyer emphasized the importance of access and networks with which she meant that well connected neighborhoods have better home values and a better quality of life. She noted access to grocery stores, transit and jobs as well as education. The importance of those connections is beyond doubt. Asked whether the disconnectedness is the cause or the result of disinvestment and abandonment, Iyer responded to me that it mattered less what is cause and what effect than that the cycle is broken. Iyer sees the need for networking in broader terms, all the way to intentional and organized social contacts between communities and all efforts of building "social capital". She uses social theory when she speaks about "divergence" and how  declining neighborhoods become isolated, "physically, digitally, socially and financially".

Grocery stores and schools close when population dwindles and clearly, the poorer and less educated the demographic profile of a community, the fewer available jobs there are in reach contributing to transit disconnectedness. 21% of City residents have a commute to work that is longer than 45 minutes, with Southern Park Heights leading the pack of the longest commutes (33% exceed 45 min.). This is especially hard for the nearly 30% of residents without access to a car, in several communities that share is between 50-60%.  17.5% of residents commute by transit citywide, but in many communities that share is between 30 to 40%, in Sandtown it is 60%. Iyer sees the problem not only as one of distance or of the service itself, but also as one of cost and is suggesting that the MTA and the City could create free boarding zones, especially on Baltimore's "main streets" which should be developed as community hubs where to find services, WiFi, free transit and amenities. She imagines that communities would flesh out some of these concepts tailored to their specific needs.

Council President Mosby re-introduced a Dollar House bill with the goal to lure low income residents to becoming homeowners in formerly redlined communities. Alas, the bill ran into heavy crossfire, not because fellow council members or Housing Commissioner Kennedy would be opposed to black homeownership, but because they question how much the envisioned $25,000 per buyer would do towards fixing houses up (a cost often exceeding $180,000) or getting a mortgage to cover the difference. Especially questionable: Is it right to lure low income home-buyers into heavily disinvested areas where the finished house value will exceed by far what the market  will likely yield for many years to come. Thusly "under water" owners would be trapped in their house in the same way already existing homeowners in those areas are. 

Overall, Baltimore has become a posterchild of the predicament that the entire nation will have to face sooner or later, namely that a community cannot thrive if it is built on gross in equity. Even Baltimore's encouraging statistics will mean nothing if  investments in the disinvested and vulnerable communities can not be achieved to a point that these will improve as well. This is a point also made by Seawall Development principal Thibault Mannekin in his recent book in which he compares Baltimore to South Africa. The holy grail is improvement without the pattern of displacement and gentrification found in Washington DC, San Francisco, Austin or other cities that are booming. The level of re-investment needed in large parts of Baltimore far exceeds what the City or even the State can achieve by themselves. A  recent Atlantic magazine  argued for reparations. A national program for reparation in tandem with the Build Back Better bill stalled in Congress is the kind of scale that is needed to bring cities like Baltimore, Memphis and Detroit back on their feet. Professor Lawrence Brown has made this point for years. 

The Ukraine war will divert attention away from solving these domestic problems so they can fester even longer, even though they themselves have already weakened our international standing. 

Klaus  Philipsen, FAIA

Friday, February 11, 2022

"When our city knows more, we can become more" - What do you know about the Baltimore Banner?

“It is hard to overstate the vitally important role that a strong newspaper can play in improving the quality of life for residents of the communities they serve. A good editor can see the big picture better than just about anyone else in the community – tying together the reality of the present with the possibility of the future." Penelope Muse Abernathy, "Saving Community Journalism")
IIt shouldn't surprise anyone, that there isn't all that much information out there about Baltimore's latest news outlet start-up. The existing media are frequently struggling and likely not too keen on another kid on the block, even when the official line is that competition is always welcome. Curious to learn more about The Baltimore Banner, I combed through various articles, reports and and online sources and present my findings here to all those who care about solid Baltimore journalism. By golly, this city needs every ounce of critical and investigative journalism it can get.
The Baltimore Banner, a online news start-up soon to go public

The Baltimore Banner is a brainchild of Stewart Bainum and represents plan B after a failed attempt by Bainum to rescue the Baltimore SUN from the vultures of the Alden Global Capital hedge fund. 
If anyone wonders why such strong words about the SUN's new owner,  read the gruesome story by McCay Coppins in The Atlantic from last October. ("The Men Who Are Killing America's Newspapers"). 

“They call Alden a vulture hedge fund, and I think that’s honestly a misnomer. A vulture doesn’t hold a wounded animal’s head underwater. This is predatory.” (Charlie Johnson, former Chicago Tribune reporter as quoted in the Atlantic article) 

Sun readers were informed about an early step towards gutting towards gutting Baltimore's 185 year old flagship news outlet: The SUN won't be printed any longer in Charm City but in Delaware.  It went largely unnoticed,  but the last copies of the SUN were printed in Baltimore on January 30! Since then the SUN, The Capital of Annapolis, the Carroll County Times and other affiliated publications are printed at facilities of  The News Journal, a Wilmington paper owned by Gannett. This major slap in the face of Baltimore went down with little or no fanfare. There was no outcry, no effort to save the loss of 139 jobs, no heroic act of City leaders to prevent this move, no matter how drastically the gory details had been described in The Atlantic. 
SUN reporters watch the last edition being printed in
Baltimore on Jan 30, 2022 (From reporter tweets)
The only time The Baltimore Sun hasn’t been printed in house was for 2 months after the great fire in 1904. That streak ends after tonight. The paper will now be printed in Wilmington, DE. (Tweet of McKenna Oxenden, SUN reporter)
Given the SUN's storied history, the Sun Park facility in Port Covington is relatively new and state of the art when it was opened in 1992 to allow the SUN to print color.  Originally the newsroom remained in the large Calvert Street facility but in an effort to save money it was moved to Sun Park in 2018. The Sun Park building sits on land purchased by Sagamore/Weller Development in 2014 and was assumed to be eventually removed in Sagamore's masterplans. 

The SUN has seen a steady bleed of its talented reporters which fled even before Alden bought the paper. Cost cutting and staff gutting has been going on for more than a decade.  Famed investigative reporter Luke Broadwater who helped bring down Mayor Pugh is now thriving at the New York Times. How much so is illustrated by him being interviewed about the January 6 investigations by Terry Gross on NPR's national broadcast show Fresh Air. More recently his SUN colleague Justin Fenton went to the Baltimore Banner together with Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Tim Prudente. Many SUN readers have a hard time imagining a future of the paper without these high caliber reporters.

After 17 years, I'm leaving the Baltimore Sun this month to join the new Baltimore Banner and help create a new non profit model for local news here (Justin Fenton tweet)

Which brings us back to the question, what The Banner is and how is it different than other Baltimore strictly online news media such as the Baltimore Fishbowl (former SUN architecture critic Ed Gunts writes there and former SUN reporter David Nitkin is executive editor) or the Baltimore Brew (Former Washington Post staff writer Fern Shen founded it and edits/writes together with Mark Reutter, a
Baltimore Brew

former SUN reporter). How does the Banner fit into a news media landscape with increasingly blurred lines between traditional TV and online print media? On the one side the alternative Real News Network as well as the traditional Baltimore TV outlets now all have online news updates, on the other the SUN, the WP or the NYT all feature online videos which in many ways resemble TV reporting. The online publication Maryland Matters reported in January about the drain that the SUN suffered from journalists moving to the Banner.
“They’re telling the public: ‘We are not going to be second-rate. We have big ambitions. And we are beginning to put together a team with reporters who know how to cover this region,’” (Sandy Banisky, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and a former Sun deputy managing editor quoted in Maryland Matters).
Can the Banner stake out territory in this crowded field? On the bloody battlefield of the traditional print media local journalism is seen as a public service by philanthropically minded private investors. The Baltimore Brew has financial support from the Abel Foundation. Bainums funding of the The Banner is of a different order: The former Maryland businessman and
Business paper Daily Record

philanthropist intends to give or raise $50 million over 3.5 years to get the Banner going as an innovative but professional online news organization. A leadership team has been put in place and has been have been working for some months. Justin Fenton told me the Banner will go public in May of this year. Other than Fenton, Bowie and Prudente, the Banner has hired 7 other editors and reporters with a goal of 60 in two years according to an article in a current edition of Poynter, a publication of the The Poynter Institute in St Pete, Fla), which was founded in 1975 as an institute for media studies that supports journalism. 

Apparently the Banner wants to leave the gate with a stable of heavy hitters, long before there is a subscriber base or any type of revenue. The new operation will have a physical location with an actual newsroom at the Inner Harbor on Pier VI, but it won't have a physical print newspaper. It won't look like one either, but likely use the strategy that even traditional print media now use, a steady flow of news and headlines, as they occur, interspersed with deeper background stories that are not "breaking news". 

The Banner recently published a test article by former SUN reporter Tim Prudente of the kind they intend to produce (200 bodies awaiting autopsy in a parking garage). Prudente's research already found the usual path from its birthplace  to the TV evening news that ride on the coattails of the original investigation. This process of news proliferation proves that detailed and careful persistent investigations must be the foundation of original reporting, something the TV stations usually don't do, no matter how much they claim to be investigative.

The online news model has been tried in other cities, such as Denver, Memphis and Philadelphia. In Denver eight journalists who defected from the traditional print paper Denver Post founded the Colorado Sun. It appears that the 2018 start-up is a success.
Stewart Bainum

 The Poynter journalist Rick Edmonds has followed Bainum's  attempts to save the SUN for some time and chronicles the Banner endeavor and was also able to speak at length with the somewhat reclusive Bainum about his new project. Edmonds writes:
At 75, Bainum belongs to a growing segment of the very rich, equally interested in distributing their fortune to worthwhile causes while still tending to business. He and his wife have signed the Giving Pledge, committing to donating half their net worth. Bainum expects to have an office at the Banner, but does not plan to move from his lifelong home base in Washington, D.C.’s Maryland suburbs. “I still have a day job here,” he said.

Meanwhile, the storied SUN is not dead yet and it remains to be seen if the Alden group will, in fact, milk it to death as many predict and as is evident at the Chicago Tribune. So far, other than the printing move to Delaware and the loss of some stellar journalists, the paper hasn't changed much since Alden took over.  New journalists have been hired to replace the losses. It remains to be seen how the SUN, the Afro, the BBJ, the Daily Record, the Brew, the Fishbowl and the Banner can coexist. All issue daily online local and regional news updates. As the Banner slogan says: Baltimore can become more with a strong media landscape devoted to thorough, independent local journalism.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA 

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

MTA's long range plan - will it be worth the paper?

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” / “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. / “I don’t much care where–” said Alice. / “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. / “–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,”  (Alice in the Wonderland)

The MTA works in rapid succession on the kind of plans that map out the future, some are firsts. The MTA never had a Strategic Plan, it published its first one in in September of 2021 under the title "Rebuilding Better". The agency never prepared a statewide 50 year transit plan, but it has one in the works now. 

The latest in a series of MTA plans: A 50n year plan

Many would argue, we don't need more plans, we need better transit. Indeed, there have been plenty of plans, including the Baltimore Region Rail System Plan of 2002 which was shredded when the current Governor killed the plan's crown jewel, the Red Line in 2015. The Rail Plan's successor, the Regional Transit Plan for Central Maryland (RTP), was mandated by the legislature to have a 25 year horizon. It was published in 2020 under the title "Connecting our Future" and must be updated every 5 years.

The Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan is a plan for improving public transportation in the region over the next 25 years. The Plan presents goals, objectives, and initiatives to enhance transit service, support the economy, and reduce impacts to the environment. The Plan was developed by the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration (MDOT MTA) in coordination with the Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan Commission, the five jurisdictions that compose the Central Maryland region, local transit agencies, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, and members of the public. (RTP Executive Summary) 

Just last month the MTA introduced a Zero Emissions Bus Conversion Report , also mandated by the MD Legislature. (I wrote about it here). A number of reports are mandated in regular intervals, including the Strategic Asset Management Plan about the state of repair of everything MDOT owns. 

The Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the metro area's regional planning construct, also prepares regular transportation plans, and so does MDOT, the parent organization of the MTA which prepares every five years a 20 year Maryland Transportation Plan. In short, there is no shortage of plans that would tell Alice where to go. In spite of all that resolve towards a better future, many would still describe the regions transit system as inadequate, even after the big bus reform that the Governor had provided as a $120 million substitute for the $3 billion lost Red Line. In fact, poor performance can now be seen on MTA's own transit dashboard. Covid did a number on transit performance and MTA stopped adding new data after September of last year when the bus on time performance (from 1 minute early to 7 minutes late) stood at 72.8% and Mobility Link on time performance had plummeted to 59.2%.

Seven goals adopted by the 50 year plan

So, does it make any sense for the MTA to create additionally a Maryland Statewide Transit Plan with a 50 year horizon? Does the the 109 page draft of this 50 year plan, unveiled  at the beginning of this year, say anything that the 25 year RTP doesn't? The RTP had three goals and six objectives. The 50 year plan has one vision and 7 goals. Each goal has a set of strategies and The public can weigh in on that question until February 18. 

The Plan presents both a collective vision and foundational goals for our transit system over the next 50 years in manageable 5- and 25-year timeframes. It identifies opportunities to achieve this bold vision by detailing actionable, measurable strategies, and uniting projects and investments across the state’s counties, cities, and towns. It was designed to reflect the diversity of Maryland’s landscape and unique needs across all its regions. It was accomplished with extensive outreach to and collaboration with more than 20 local and regional transit providers, partner agencies and staff, frontline transit workers, business and industry leaders, advocates, community representatives, and transit riders. (MTA Administrator Holly Arnold)

To be fair, the two plans serve different purposes. The one (the RTP) serves the core MTA service area, the other (the 50 year plan) includes transit services statewide, even though the plan remains mum on how any of it would actually be enforced at these 24 other transit providers. 

MTA's Manager of the Project Development Division, Jade Clayton presented the plan to the group Transit Choices recently.  To drive home what can happen in 50 years, the presentation included a 50 look-back all the way to 1970 when WMATA's metro system started construction and the MTA was formed from the Baltimore Transit Company.  The RTP is very focused on specific measurable metrics so that the 5 year progress reports can be evaluated by the Legislature. The 50 year plan provides fewer measurable goals and describes "what success would look like" in descriptive form.

Screenshot from the 50-Plan draft

Like it has become common for corporations, banks and many non-profits, the 50 year plan yields to the current political discourse, and puts equity front and center. That could be opportunism or an actual opportunity to set things right. (there isn't yet a term for fake equity discussions comparable to the term "greenwashing" for fake environmentalism). One should give the new generation of leaders at MTA the benefit of the doubt and also some credit. It is very likely that this plan represents a serious effort of re-calibrating transit service so it serves those best who need it the most. This was already the focus of the RTP as well. The draft 50 year plan appears to be more than an equity fig leaf, even if the methodology of determining equitable service could be further refined, in part by taking a page from the metrics of the RTP. 

Maybe the biggest difference between the 25 and 50 year plan is that the RTP avoids specific project commitments and simply identifies priority corridors for further study. (The east-west priority corridor study will be completed in a few weeks. The corridor also received a $50 million grant boost recently).

The 25 year Regional Transit Plan cover

The 50 year plan, by contrast, includes a list of  25 connections under the title "50 year vision". Those 25 items include everything that is in the RTP, but other items sound more specific. As for which projects have priority, the language in the plan is vague:

While many of these intercity and regionally significant connections will will take time to be realized, those that are expected to come online sooner are those for which planning and design studies or projects are currently underway. Several of these nearer-term efforts are informed by local Transit Development Plans that lay out goals with a five-year outlook, as well as Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) long-range transportation plans and the Regional Transit Plan for Central Maryland that have goals with a 20- to 25-year outlook. (50 year plan)

The plan includes as number of "illustrative regional projects" that are currently studied. Connections include the Western Maryland MARC study, the RTP studies, the Montgomery County "Flash Rapid Bus Transit", the Southern MD Rapid Transit Study for PG and Charles Counties, the Intercity Bus Study. The plan is richly describing current transit and Maryland's regions but is sparse on an analysis of current deficiencies, chiefly fare and service integration (one ticket and payment method for all transit systems with coordinate schedules and transfer points at transit hubs, a topic that would warrant its own goal and implementation strategy but isn't even listed among the 25 projects. 

When participants at Transit Choices asked about funding for the 50 year projects, Jade Clayton admitted that funding was not part of the study and would depend on the more short-term capital funding plans, such as the 5 year Ttransportation improvement plan (TIP). The 50 year plan includes this ominous language about money:

Achieving the vision, and goals, of the Statewide Transit Plan will require continual investment and commitment from state leaders as well as support from local and regional partners.(50 year plan).

Six objectives of the 25 yr RTP
It is clear that the 50 year time horizon begs the question whether transit should be reverted back from the State to the city or at least the region. This debate is already simmering in the background, but remains unaddressed by the 50 year plan.

Both, the 25 core area and the 50 year statewide plan are notable for being weak on climate change. Decarbonizing transport and the built environment is lamely lumped in under the title innovation and sustainability and "preparedness for the future". This is a fairly grave deficiency, given that transportation is the biggest carbon emitter in this state as well as nationally and that the MTA as well as all the other associated local transit providers have a big role to play in decrabonization and cleaner air. Not only by making buses and trains emission free but also by repositioning their entire building and vehicle inventory from yards and shops to mobility sedans and repair trucks towards a carbon free future. 

Naturally, for this there is another plan. The MTA has a Sustainability Plan as well. It dates back to 2018 and it, too is weak and without specific targets. That plan speaks about employee morale, about livable communities, transit experience, energy, water, waste, revenue, reliability and repair without committing to much of anything. This plan was signed by the previous MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn who is now at the helm of  the Vancouver transit agency TransLink. During his short time there, the British Columbia region has been hit by several severe weather events, including extreme heat and extreme snowfall. Quinn has already made combating climate change his signature activity at TransLink. A 17 pages Climate Action Strategy came hot off the presses this January. The MTA 50 year plan authors should look at that document not only on page 3 where they can admire their dapper looking old boss but also on pages 21-25 where the specific targets and implementation strategies are. 
Vancouver Translink Roadmap to Net Zero: Ambitious plan by MTA's
previous Administrator 

Given how uncertain even the next six months are, a 50 year plan seems overly ambitious. By its nature it has to be even more vague than the 25 year plan. Unfortunately, it didn't really tackle the big issues that are almost certain to define the next half century: Artificial intelligence, self driving vehicles, the change of work and the implication on transit, and climate change. 

In recognition of long-term uncertainties, the 50-year plans ends with a five year action plan with steps under each of the seven goals accompanied with an assessment for which steps the various statewide transit providers have the data to measure progress. But even this five year plan section should be fleshed out for funding, sustainability, climate change and implementation practicality.  This way it could result in truly improved service statewide that is guided by a longer perspective. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Submit comments to the MTA Plan HERE. (Deadline is 2/18/22)