Friday, April 1, 2022

Good News Baltimore: Transit Oriented Development at Metro Station

 One of the problems with Baltimore's rail transit isn't really about trains, service or reliability and isn't the sole responsibility of the MTA, MDOT or that the Governor. The problem I am referring to is "land use". In other words, get off a train at most of the metro, light rail and MARC stops in Baltimore City and County outside of downtown and there is not a whole lot going on. The urban form around most Metro and MARC stops resembles a hole in the donut, the opposite of what it should be. Therefore, the news that MDOT plans to convert one of its parking lots to a "town center" and has selected a local development team is good news.

Reisterstown Plaza TOD area (MDOT)

On December 13, 2022, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) awarded for entering into an exclusive negotiating privilege agreement with Wabash Development Partners to develop approximately 25 acres (approximately 3 acres zoned TOD-4 and 22 acres zoned TOD-3) of unimproved land and surfaced parking lots. The area is a large parcel of land adjacent to a Reisterstown Plaza Metro Station located at 6300 Wabash Avenue in Baltimore City, ideal for a Transit-Oriented Development (TOD). This site is at the highly visible intersection of Wabash Avenue and Patterson Avenue. An internal private road, Vertis Park Drive, shared by the MDOT Maryland Transit Administration (MDOT MTA) and the adjacent SSA building, provides vehicular access between Patterson Avenue to Mount Hope Drive.  (MDOT Press Release)

Better land use is good for transit. It is surprising how rarely land use is seen as a solution for increased transit use. Intensified land use at rail stations is also good for urban development, it is helping to combat climate change and, combined with affordable housing, it provides opportunity for those who don't have a car. Instead of the hole in the donut, one should see high density and high intensity uses clustered immediately around each station in the region including those "drive to" commuter stations which were designed with giant parking lots. This conversion is often referred to as "transit oriented development" (TOD). 

Wabash Avenue and the Metro Station (Photo: Philipsen)

Of course, the concept of TOD isn't new and even the original planners of the Metro system had ideas for development nodes around their stations as some old brochures prove. But history wasn't kind to Baltimore, the city emptied out and the once proud high capacity Metro found itself sitting in just those areas that are now known as the left wing of Baltimore's famous "butterfly". Today, with equity on planners' minds, a housing affordability crisis, and Park Heights being designated as one of Baltimore's Impact Investment zones, it makes sense that the simplest version of TOD is tried once again: The conversion of MDOT owned parking lots into housing and some other uses. And that is what the developer team proposes: Apartments for people that may not have, need or want a car such as low income families, the young and the elderly and people that can reach their work via Metro.  Baltimore's new zoning code uses TOD as a zoning category and states:
Baltimore elevated Metro Station: Greetings
from the 1970s (Photo: Philipsen)

There are many opportunities for Transit Oriented Development in Baltimore City. In the City, TOD will be used to focus on the connection between development and transit as the key to helping neighborhoods achieve their goals and to promote transit use, bicycling, and walking as alternatives to automobile travel.   Currently, our Comprehensive Master Plan, in Appendix D, outlines a TOD Strategy for implementing projects around transit stations that meet TOD objectives. Additionally, the Development Guidebook contains a checklist for Transit Oriented Development which is intended to guide Baltimore City agencies in reviewing proposed projects near transit stations, and in assessing the transit-friendliness of land-use plans, codes, and ordinances. (Baltimore City Dept. of Planning)
40 years after the Reisterstown Plaza Station was completed on Baltimore's one and only subway line, and nearly a decade after the Social Security Administration (SSA) was relocated here on 11 acres of State owned parking lots in a new 500,000 square foot building,  the conversion of the remaining 25 acres of parking  is now in the stage of "exclusive negotiation rights", in which the developers' envisioned project gets its final vetting before the site is actually sold. The Wabash Development team was selected over a competing proposal suggesting a family entertainment center and amusement park. The initial request of proposals had been issued in 2019, attesting to a somewhat glacial pace that will hopefully accelerated in the remaining steps towards realization.

To avoid past mistakes it is necessary to take a critical look at what has passed as TOD before, here or elsewhere in our region. For example, the already mentioned SSA facility, also on MDOT's land. It serves at stately workforce of 1,600 employees. But they were supplied with 1076 parking spaces. The assumption that 67% of all workers would drive to work isn't "transit oriented" oriented thinking. Not only does structured parking take up space and is very costly, it also encourages driving. The old now shuttered SSA downtown facility sat within walking distance of several neighborhoods, the Lexington Market Metro station and was served by various bus lines. All things considered, the much touted SSA TOD may have not only not brought new transit riders but may have caused additional driving. 
Pike and Rose near Rockville, TOD on a former mall site 
(Photo Philipsen)

Other local projects, previously labeled TOD, are equally hampered by parking: Take Symphony Center near the Meyerhoff, another project characterized by a giant garage, that has probably done little to enhance ridership on the light rail line. Or take Owings Mills, often held up as the best example for TOD in this region: Yes, it is large scale mixed use and creates a somewhat urban feel but it still mostly a mostly a park and ride station. The huge parking garage acts as a visual and physical barrier between the "town center" and the Metro station terminus of our subway line.  The probably locally best TOD is Clipper Mill in Woodberry. It wasn't really conceived as a TOD, but replaced abandoned space with a large, varied and creatively designed amount of  uses right near the light rail station.

The Wabash Development team under Dean Harrison with participation of Ernst Valerie and KPN as the Architects for the concept plan that was selected by MDOT suggests four phases of realization for a number of different developments. The BBJ obtained an edited copy of the proposal dubbed "Wabash Town Center" through a public information request. The BBJ describes what it found out this way:
The first phase would yield two mixed-use buildings with office and retail space. One of the buildings would be up to 100 feet tall and the other would be up to 60 feet high. A road named after the late U.S. Congressman Elijah Cummings extending from Wabash Avenue to Vertis Park Drive would be also be created as part of the first phase.
The second phase would result in 20 townhomes with so-called "granny flats" and a 42-unit senior home [..] based on a similar concept at Johnston Square.

The project's third phase would create a pedestrian bridge to the nearby Social Security Administration campus. A pedestrian plaza called “Legacy Walk" would showcase community art and provide space for small events, a street theater, outdoor wellness programs, community gatherings and outdoor exhibitions. 
A fourth and final phase of development would include the construction of a "medium-scale" nursing home and space for food trucks and a farmers market.
If realized, those four phases together could have the elements that deserve the classification as TOD and maybe just enough density to be called "village center" or "town-center". Best practice examples show, that true TOD requires that the station, the development and the adjacent road ways together form a pedestrian friendly environment where it pleasant and safe to walk from and to transit or from the surrounding areas. 
Mosaic TOD Redevelopment, Fairfax County 
(Photo: Mahan Rykiel, Associates)

The Reisterstown Metro Station leaves a lot to be desired in the area of pedestrian friendliness. Conceived as a car friendly commuter "park and ride station" with some bus transfers the focus was and remains on easy car access from the freeway style 5 lane Wabash Avenue which separates the MDOT owned parking lots from the Brutalist era elevated concrete Metro Station. A covered pedestrian bridge connects the parking lot with the station above Wabash Avenue. Those high bridges with their necessary elevator and many dank corners creating safety concerns are less than ideal for the elderly, mobility impaired, or people with strollers, or after dark. 

For a real TOD transit and the development have to work like hand in glove. The station itself needs some redesign and adjustments for direct, easy and safe access. This means three parties have to work closely together: The developer, the MTA and City DOT. 

The good news is that upon inquiry all parties appear to be ready for just that. City DOT's Capital Planning Chief Allysha Lorber stated that a grant application to modify Wabash Avenue is in the works. MTA is integrated by the fact that MDOT is the land owner who issued the request for proposals in the first place which demands coordination. The developer is interested to lower his cost by building as little parking as possible, even though, MDOT still requires replacement parking. In this location that is probably misguided since there are plenty of park and ride spaces on the stations up and down the line (other holes in the donuts).

Getting TOD "right" is an art. So much so that there is a national website just devoted to TOD. It shows a slew of representative US precedents from which to learn and that have gained recognition. Many are located in the DC region in WMATA's service area. Baltimore's developers need to study these examples, from Columbia Heights (DC) to Pentagon City, Clarendon (Arlington County) to Mosaic (Fairfax County) and Pike and  Rose (Rockville). 
Affordable Housing near transit by Enterprise Community Partners
Denver (See article

There is a lot at stake. Good development has ripple effects. Mediocre development just sits around and uses up space. Baltimore's rail transit urgently needs a shot in the arm. Even before Covid hit, the LRT and the Metro systems performed way under capacity with a shrinking ridership over the last decades. Now, after being hit by COVID and many office workers still working from home, the systems are barely limping along. 

One of the development partners on Dean Harrison's team, Ernst Valery, his investment and development firm is headquartered in Station North. The Columbia and MIT trained with a bacjelor in Planning knows how to do TOD. He is the developer of the Nelson Kohl apartments behind Penn Station with minimal parking. One of his largest  projects is currently in design in Richmond, California. Up to 870 apartments with minimal parking as well as a business incubator and some retail to be constructed in three phases, everything located within an easy walk to an existing Amtrak station and the terminal station of the BART line that connects Richmond to San Francisco. One can hope that this know-how will be successfully integrated into a truly successful TOD, one that deserves the label. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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