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 residents...to 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: https://www.bizjournals.com/baltimore/news/2022/10/27/apartment-tower-planned-east-baltimore-junica.html  Marren Architects

Henrietta Lacks Building: https://www.bizjournals.com/baltimore/news/2022/11/10/johns-hopkins-university-henrietta-lacks-building.html?utm_source=st&utm_medium=en&utm_campaign=ae&utm_content=BA&j=29661756&senddate=2022-11-10

Mayson Dixon townhomes: https://www.bizjournals.com/baltimore/news/2022/05/20/mayson-dixon-townhouse-development-ebdi.html

EBDI studies/reports

Urban Institute, Baltimore neighborhood investments: https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/102976/neighborhood-investment-flows-in-baltimore_1.pdf

Urban Institute EBDI: https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/2022-10/The%20East%20Baltimore%20Development%20Initiative.pdf

Urban Institute, EBDI: https://www.urban.org/research/publication/east-baltimore-development-initiative


Annie E Casey, EBDI: https://assets.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/ACEF-EastBaltimoreRevitalization_2011.pdf

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: https://www.richmondfed.org/-/media/RichmondFedOrg/publications/community_development/practice_papers/2018/practice_papers_2018-3.pdf

EBDI CEO resigns:  bizjournals.com/baltimore/stories/2009/02/02/daily36.html

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)

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

What should David Bramble do with HarborPlace?

The implosion of Harborplace

A few years ago when the HarborPlace pavilions showed some signs of getting tired, few people thought it would take more than what then operator Ashkenazy proposed in UDAAP session #216 on November 12, 2015:  An architectural face-lift  for the two pavilions and a few new tenants. The discussion at the time revolved around a few renderings by the architects MG2 showing steel frames, rooftop signs and new wood paneling.

MG2 Architects UDAAP presentation rendering 2015 (MG2)

Fast forward seven years, and it is possible that the pavilions will be razed entirely. No longer is the debate simply about dressing up the pavilions but whether they should be replaced with new structures, or even highrises. 

In 42 years the pavilions went from being the icons of Baltimore's waterfront renaissance to being tossed like disposable diapers. This is long in the life of retail structures but nothing in the life of a legacy city such as Baltimore. The Gallery Mall across the street didn't even make it to 35 years. That good cities have much more permanence than retail begs the question, whether it was ever smart to tie the future of the Inner Harbor to the vagaries of retail, or asked even more broadly: Is it smart to privatize "the urban commons" in this way. (In this case, the City owns the land, the buildings are private). There are good arguments for a public waterfront that encompasses more than just a 20' strip of promenade.

How Harborplace get into this rapid downward spiral of decline and obsolescence? Wasn't architect Benjamin Thompson's "festival market place" future proof enough though it had been tested in Boston's Faneuil Hall and repeated all over the country? 

The national failure of the Marketplace Festival Hall

In light of a radical reorientation of the national retail landscape retail in general faces strong headwinds everywhere, especially the festival market places that had been so fashionable as urban renewal tool all across the nation. They went from being the seeds and incubators of downtown revivals to being an albatross around the neck. As one example, we will take a look at New York's South Street Seaport mall which opened in 1985 as another Rouse Marketplace Festival Hall designed by Ben Thompson. It, too, went on the skids, just faster.

The Festival Market Place "Pier 17" at South Street Seaport, NY
(Photo: Curbed)

Just like Baltimore's HarborPlace it transferred  to General Growth Properties (GGP) after the Rouse company's bankruptcy. GGP didn't pay too much attention to the once bustling waterfront destination, and New York City's development agency didn't either. Just in Baltimore the city didn't force the new owners to live up to standards. When GGP also went bankrupt, South Street Seaport was bought by the Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC). It shut the mall down for good in 2013 after hurricane Sandy gave the ailing complex on Pier 17 its last blow. That is one year after GGP had offloaded HarborPlace to Ashkenazy. Immediately Hughes developed big plans for South Street Seaport which didn't leave much standing of the original Rouse/Thompson design. For their endeavor they hire the "starchitects" of with SHoP their designers which had strong opinions about the Thompson design:

"Pier 17 was meant to create a city environment in which one doesn’t engage with the city,” Mr. Pasquarelli said. “It was meant to safely harness tourists and visitors through a historic district and funnel them into a three-story, enclosed shopping mall.” (Gregg Pasquarelli, SHoP Principal)

The similarities and differences between HarborPlace and South Street Seaport

What the SHoP architect said about Thompson's Pier 17 in New York could be said about Thompson's Baltimore pavilions as well, except that Baltimore at the time was considered to be much less dangerous than New York and that Baltimore's mall had only two stories. In Baltimore there was no hurricane Sandy that presented a death blow to the already weakened and ailing South Street pavilion. Baltimore's 2015 Freddie Grey unrest presented a slower storm of its own decisive effects on Baltimore tourism. In the ensuing and necessary debates about equity, it was becoming almost frivolous to think about the Inner Harbor which sits inside the "white L". 

So there is a different timeline: Just a year before South Street Seaport was shuttered, Ashkenzy had bought HarborPlace for $98.5 million, apparently seeing a bright future. That the new owner was incapable of stemming tenant loss or coming up with a retail strategy became alreay apparent in 2013, long before the 2015 unrest. In 2019 Ashenazy's property went into foreclosure after failing to pay its mortgage. 

Baltimore Light Street pavilion (Photo: Philipsen)

It may be important to note that the failure of the pavilions is less one of the architecture and more one of the use or, more specifically, how use was badly managed and deteriorated over time. 

When we look at physical redevelopment, Southstreet Seaport in New York can be a warning sign as well. 

Hughes quickly settled on a complete overhaul including the demolition of the festival hall on Pier 17 and centered its redevelopment on a nearly 500 foot tall residential tower, causing a firestorm of opposition. Amidst the turmoil HHC accepted to work with a Seaport Working Group, which developed guidelines and principles for the redevelopment. HHC eventually scrapped the tower and accepted the Seaport Museum as an anchor. At the end SHoP Architects developed new mall  in a four-story glass-clad building with restaurants, bars, fashion and art exhibits, a 17,000 sf ESPN studio, and a 1.5-acre rooftop that can be used by the public or rented as an events venue, emphasizing open space at the bottom and top of the structure, rather than within an atrium and around a series of balconies. The complex opened in 2018. It can glow in the dark through an innovative, programmable LED lighting scheme.

SHoP Architects redevlopment of Pier 17 in NYC (SHoP)

The New York reconstruction is sitting on a pier, from an urban design perspective a very different setting than the angled pavilions in Baltimore that were created as a low level "frame" at the shoreline, SITTING like the foothills in front of the mountain which consists of the larger buildings forming an outer frame along Pratt and Light Street. Already envisioned in Wallace Roberts Todd's original Harbor Masterplan of 1967, some highrises, such as the USF&G tower or the World Trade Center, would pierce as solitaires the height limits of the frame. The tower now standing on the former McCormick site is the latest addition to the ensemble of towers and fits into the original concept. Should Bramble harbor tower dreams in lieu of the pavilions like HHC in New York, its hard to see how it could fit and would probably create a similar uproar as HHC's tower suggestion did in New York. 

At the verge of a re-incarnation

None less than the Mayor himself  announced the latest chapter of HarborPlace in his State of the City speech on April 5, 2022: Baltimore's fastest growing development firm, MCB Real Estate is the one to pick up the pieces. Since then the matter is hashed out in bankruptcy court while speculation about what could happen next is rampant. 

David Bramble, CEO of MCB  keeps mum about what he wants to do until the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed in his purchase agreement. He confirmed this again for this article. He promises a listening session and public input as soon as there is court approval, a process that will be led by Adam Genn who used to work for Weller Development.. MCB is expected to finalize the deal with IVL, the receiver of the Ashkenazy property soon. 

McKeldin Plaza: Blah after the demolition of the original fountain
(Photo: Philipsen)

The BBJ reported that the appraised value now is less than half of what Ashkenazy. The liquidation value was listed even lower, $27.5 million, only 28% of the 2012 purchase price. This looks like a bargain and would suggest that the City could have bought it, too. Those $27 million would be just a bit more than half of what is envisioned for upgrading Druid Park Lake. For a private investor, though, the question will always be what is the use that promises a healthy return on investment?

Those who recognize the rapid ascent of MCB or simply care about the Inner Harbor are making the pilgrimage to Bramble's office at Clipper Mill to submit their ideas for reuse of the pavilions or for ways to move what was once the incarnation of Baltimore's renaissance into the 21st century. 

Bramble himself called HarborPlace Baltimore's front porch", a somewhat awkward image considering that nobody could ever tell exactly what was front and what back on those pavilions which face Baltimore's main boulevards (Light and Pratt Street) but also the water.  From what I hear the pilgims come away with the impression that Bramble has little appetite for maintaining the pavilions in any shape. He is thinking bigger. How much bigger?

Rendering of what could happen on 300 East Pratt Street, another
MCB site. (HKS Architects)

Thinking big isn't necessarily a Baltimore thing, but here at HarborPlace thinking big is now necessary after all the old luster is gone. And big shouldn't be confused with large. Big should mean comprehensively casting a wide net that considers the region, the city and specifically the larger setting at the Inner Harbor:

  • The current pavilions are not only underperforming, they have fallen into a state of catastrophic failures dragging down the entire retail scene in the area. The vacancy rate is now around 75%
  • the new Constellation museum, ticket center and water taxi terminal right across from the Partt Street pavilion just opened even though the Constellation is now in the dry-dock and the water taxi is hardly running at all
  • The historic walkable fountain at McKeldin Plaza was hastily demolished with no proper new plan in place. A lame transitional design is now in place, the biggest problem, the insular location between a sea of traffic lanes remains unresolved. 
  • Most elements of the Harbor Vision Harbor 2.0 prepared by ASG Architects in 2013 remained unfulfilled except for the MRA designed Rash Field which is a wild success as a neighborhood destination. 
  • Bramble's MCB also owns the News American site on Pratt Street which has been a vacant lot since 1990 with a series of redevelopment proposals that came and went. 

What options does Bramble have? Ideas from experts 

The inner and the outer frame of the Inner Harbor
(Photo: Philipsen)
Lehr Jackson who once worked for the Rouse Company as their chief leasing and development manager is still interested in Baltimore's development and comes up with ideas in his own private think tank. Unsurprisingly he still likes Thompson's pavilions and wants to re-purpose them, maybe one in a hollowed out form as a shell for markets and events. An opened up structure would allow better views of the water from Light Street and Pratt Street. 

True, the original concept of pavilions as a small indoor mall may be functionally obsolete, the buildings themselves stand strong, their slight postmodern design is a bit dated, but the idea of second floor terraces overlooking the water is still a good one and so are the slight nautical references of the design. The elevated pavilions are also quite resilient to rising sea levels. Dated design is part of a city's tapestry. A full demolition would appear wasteful.

The Urban Design Committee of AIA (UDC) has long supported the idea of connecting the McKeldin plaza by closing the road connection from Light to Calvert Streetand adding the road space of northbound Light Street to the Inner Harbor by bundling Light Street traffic in both directions west of the median. The UDC had hoped to preserve the original fountain on the connected larger open space. Should the pavilions be demolished, any denser redevelopment would certainly need additional space. It may be what MCB will be looking for.

The Wharf development DC (website)

David Benn, a local architect and waterfront expert agrees with Jackson's assessment of the pavilions. He told me that "the Thompson's Harborplace buildings deserve to be largely retained and repurposed. They frame the corner and the small performance space fairly well", Benn says. "They are good examples of reinterpreting older waterfront character for contemporary uses, they are flexible, with large loft spaces and good exposure to the surroundings. Saving the majority of it is sustainable."  Benn once advised about the future of Norfolk's festival marketplace and thinks that Norfolk's approach of reducing the total area and placing a small farmers market, cafes and the like on the ground floor with recreational options or event spaces on the upper level could work here as well. Should the McKeldin plaza become connected, "the whole area" could be reframed which would "have consequences for the Light Street pavilion, Benn says.

The buildings of the Wharf overlaid on the "westshore"
of Harborplace (Fillat Architects)

Baltimore hospitality architect Peter Fillat with a portfolio of national and international projects mentioned to me a hotel use above shops in two new structures within the height and footprint limits of the current pavilions. Hotel rooms are low and a flat roof could become a public event space just like at South Street Seaport in New York. Fillat sees such a hotel as the second convention hotel that is envisioned as part of the planned expansion of the convention center, using that portion of the investment at HarborPlace instead. 

Fillat sent me a slide deck with various illustrations visualizing a host of ideas; one of them modeled on the thriving Wharf District project in DC. Fillat overlaid the footprint and height of the DC waterfront buildings on an enlarged Light Street parcel that would include the McKeldin Plaza to see how it would fit. In that scenario, Fillat's assumption is the Pratt Street pavilion would be demolished just as shown on a competition entry by Baltimore's landscape architects Mahan Rykiel in 2007. Those plans MRA had developed with EEK which is now Perkins Eastman, i.e. the Wharf District  architect.

MRA rendering: A small Millennium Park (Scott Rykiel)

Scott Rykiel, principal at the Baltimore landscape architecture firm Mahan Rykiel in a company blog article said that their 2007 competition entry may have not been radical enough in light of new developments. The competition submission suggested that the pavilion on Pratt Street be demolished in favor a large waterfront park open to Pratt Street and making up for lost built space by connecting McKeldin Plaza to the harbor. He bemoans that the pavilions turn their "back of house" side towards the street and the city. Scott, who also was involved in various designs for the current McKeldin park and designed the successful new Rash Field tells me that the north shore area needs more green space and shaded areas, and that a park facing Pratt Street could be a small version of Chicago's Millennium Park. Scott says people still need places to eat and drink, whether they are locals, visitors, conventioneers, or folks who visited a concert at the refurbished Arena. He sees the best economic opportunity in F&B (food and beverages) and also points to Norfolk's repurposed

A park instead of the Pratt Street pavilion (MRA)

Festival Marketplace as an example. He emphasizes that the establishments "need to be local and about the place". He remembers, that for the original pavilions Rouse had scouted out the most successful local retailers and restaurants and brought them to HarborPlace. "Why is Baltimore's biggest farmers market under a highway", Scott wonders and muses "how wonderful it would be to have this market at Harborplace. 

Barbara Wilks, the New York architect who founded W Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and
designed the new Constellation ticket building and museum and water taxi terminal across from the pavilions has worked on several New York waterfront parks. She sees a "great opportunity for Baltimore". She points to the larger context in which Pratt and Light Streets should be seen as "part of the project. "Harborplace was meant to be a gateway, but it has become a barrier", says Wilks. "It originally had a more three-dimensional public aspect, with overlooks and outdoor seating. It became progressively more enclosed and private. There is an opportunity to “layer” the space—it is not only about the harbor edge", Wilks continues. "Walking along the street edge should be just as exciting. It should be seen as a series of linked edges of varying characters, moving back into the city." She adds: "The topographic change should be used to better advantage. The waterfront should feel like it is expanding up into the city, not like the city is bearing down on it and constricting it". Ms Wilks with Rogers Partners was a consultant for St Petersburg, Fla where studio W designed the 20 acre "pier approach" of the award winning  St Pete Pier

St Pete Pier development (

redevelopment. Wilks thinks that the broad based community participation there could be a model for Baltimore in which "a community [was] deciding how it wanted its future to go and how to change an icon". 

The Pier was integral to the St. Petersburg Downtown Waterfront Master plan, whose vision is “to protect, enhance, and promote St. Petersburg’s downtown waterfront as one of the premier waterfront destinations and attractions in the United States.” (ULI Americas)

Adam Gross, principal at ASG and author of Harbor 2.0, asked about how some of the ideas laid out in his masterplan could now come to fruition, told me that he certainly has opinions, but that he'd rather wait with making them public until Bramble's community engagement process will officially begin. 

Harbor 2.0 masterplan (ASG/Jonathan Ceci)

It looks like all the Baltimore voices share  Pasquarelli view that he had expressed about the old New York Festival Marketplace:

"Being in an enclosed mall that could be anywhere in the United States, yet occupies this incredibly special and precious site for our city, is an unfortunate result of some of those planning ideas.”

Maybe the New Yorker Seaport Working Group which guided SHoP's design would be a proper approach for Baltimore as well. Just as the shops and restaurants should have a decidedly local flavor, a working group that encompasses stakeholders and local planners, architect and landscape architects would ensure that the HarborPlace redesign has local aspects as well.

Bramble's "front porch" expression hints at what HarborPlace should be, if one understands the front porch as a space that transitions from the private to the public, a space with the private space in back, and the public street in front, a place to see and to be seen. Given that the City owns the HarborPlace land and the water itself is public, the image seems appropriate as a guiding principle for redevelopment. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

SouthBmore.com: Phototour of the pavilions