Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Lutherville: Why "lovely suburbia" is in fact the cause of many troubles

 “Why can’t we just keep our lovely suburbia?” (Resident, Greater Timonium Community Council in a public meeting)

Sometimes real life provides quotes that are better than anything you can make up. The above exclamation is such a case. It is a headscratcher for the fact that few people would America's standard edition suburb as a thing of beauty. Especially if one knows the 13 acres of land in question that caused this exclamation, a largely defunct shopping Center between York Road and the Central Light Rail in Lutherville, the shopping center as well as the LRT station known as the Lutherville Station. Ok, the shopping center is a sea of asphalt, no green, non descript boxy buildings, in short: It is ugly. And so is pretty much everything else lining York Road a mile south or a mile north. 
Big, ugly and underperforming: Lutherville Station as seen from
the light rail station with the same name (Photo: Philipsen)

But maybe the "lovely suburbia" isn't meant so literally. Maybe it means the people, lovely people versus not so lovely ones? There are certainly many folks who took the NIMBY revolt in Lutherville that way, myself included, when I suspected "classism and racism" as noted in an article in The Baltimore Banner. The Lutherville dispute has been all over the media. (Here, here and here).

Many residents of the Lutherville Timonium area seem to oppose a transit oriented development proposal submitted in September last year on principle.even though the area in question is well removed from residential neighborhoods and surrounded by large lot commercial development. Too many apartments, too much traffic, not enough public input, not enough open space, not part of the masterplan and too much impact on overcrowded schools. The arguments run the gamut, not to mention statements about apartments and transit that are uttered on the sidelines. 
"There is a petition with thousands of people signed. They're against it. We just don't want the crowding," (Community member)
The well organized community associations have organized packed meetings to express their opposition. However, in all the outcry it hasn't become clear what the community really wants or what they suggest should be done with the large property. In many ways, the conflict has less to do with good planning and looks more like one of those currently popular culture wars.

Maybe "lovely suburbs" stands for everything that is the opposite of "urban" or "city", a verbal and mental relic from the 1960s when people fled cities in droves for the suburbs and when the word "city" became bad currency, associated with crime and grime, pollution, congestion and just about anything else that was bad. As everyone knows, the City- County construct was antagonistic with deep racial overtones, all the way back to when a constitutional amendment forbade the City to annex County land.  

But for the last 30 years cities had a great comeback and young people wanted to be in them, not the suburbs. New York's renaissance maybe the most famous example, but Nashville, Phoenix, Cincinnati or Philadelphia not far behind. The suburbs had lost their luster and cities were back, once again, although in Baltimore that was less obvious. Covid put a dent into the trend, but it won't last, even though some saw an opportunity to dig up the past with its unreasonable fear of the urban threat now brought in sync with a renaissance of populist hate of urban elites, an unlikely pair of red herrings. It isn't quite clear if transit coming from the city would bring criminals stealing TVs or yuppies that gentrify everything in their past or both. Hard to tell!
A sea of asphalt and parking isn't "transit oriented development
(Google Maps Screenshot)

All this comes to mind if one wants to measure not only the pulse of the Lutherville Station redevelopment debate but diagnose the maladies behind the high pitch noises that tend to come up every time there is a discussion about transit, transit oriented development, density or multifamily housing, or a diversity of incomes or uses in one area. 

The Lutherville debate encapsulates all of these aspects and each one represents a national crisis that also applies locally: A crisis of transportation equity and access, a crisis of  insufficient housing and finally a crisis about how unsustainably we use land..

Let's recapitulate what we have:
  • 13 acres of underutilized commercial real estate close to the Baltimore Beltway, I-81 and adjacent to an existing light rail line
  • a developer who thinks that there could be a better and higher use than half vacant retail .
  • A proposal for "mixed use" with 400 apartments, offices and retail and 2.5 acres of open space. largely mimicking the existing building heights and massing
  • An underperforming 30 year old light rail line
  • A single family neighborhood to the west of the north-south rail line with no formal pedestrian access to neither transit or shopping
  • A transit study investigating the options for an additional  north south transit corridor between downtwon Baltimore and Towson that would use the nearby York Road corridor and connect at Lutherville. 
  • Several alignment options for this new transit corridor would take away road space from York Road, a State Highway (MD 45) 

In the 30 some years since the station was built no
better connection into the neighborhood was created
than this dirt path on which one has to balance
across the Roland Run creek to get to the homes
(Photo: Philipsen)
It is no overstatement to say that the populist attitudes against transit, mixed use and density are in part the cause the cause for  the housing crisis, the climate crisis and the transportation equity crisis. 

The current light rail line is underperforming precisely because each of the jurisdictions the line traverses failed to change zoning so more people would live and work  near the stations and bring riders to the system. As a result far more people drive than would be necessary. 

As a result of failed land use planning, employees without a car have three times the commute times of those who drive, because where people live and where the jobs are isn't properly connected by anything but roads for cars. 

There is a housing crisis because somebody always objects when denser or more affordable housing is proposed. Finally, we have a climate crisis as a result of all of the above. Sprawl is the least sustainable form of land use there is, driving up the CO2 production of inefficient buildings as well as that of transportation (in the US each representing 40% of total CO2 emissions respectively.) To boot, as a letter writer to the SUN points out, the "lovely suburbs" are also fiscally not sustainable and tend to slide into worse predicaments than the maligned cities.

The suburban development pattern combines the openness of rural communities with the infrastructure standards of urban communities. The result is communities that are impossibly expensive to maintain (given the tax base). Extending the reach of roads, water, sewer, trash pick-up, etc., throughout (low-density) suburbs requires tremendous resources, both up-front and ongoing.
A train without development: Vast amounts of underutilized lands

Property taxes fall significantly short of covering the high cost of maintaining everything that many suburban residents have been led to believe are givens. The only reason our suburban pattern of development has been able to continue on for as long as it has without collapsing is because of constant growth, a set-up which amounts to a Ponzi scheme. (Strong Towns Baltimore)

The just re-elected County Executive Olszewski has all hands full trying to steer his county out of the treacherous "culture" of glorifying the suburban life as a juxtaposition to city life. His counterparts in Howard and Anne Arundel Counties are on a similar journey. In their second terms they all have an opportunity to show that no crisis can be mastered by simply listening to the loudest NIMBY opponents  who don't want to see any change.
"I asked [Olszewski] to put a halt to the process. He has. He's held it back from the planning board for their approval or disapproval. I think that the TOD is not the right way to go," (County Council Wade Kach on Jan 11,2023)

Alternative alignments and modes under study
for a City to Towson corridor
No crisis can be overcome without change and this is especially true for the housing, transportation and climate crisis. To bring down the high US emissions of transportation and buildings requires more transit, denser land use in the appropriate locations and the redevelopment of underutilized land of exactly the type we see at the Lutherville Station. Once a mixed use development with quality open space would be completed, the quality of life in the area will go up, not down. There are many examples of this around the US. Maybe one needs to put the opponents and the developer on a train and show them really successful TODs in other places.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The article has been updated

Proposed concept plan from the developer's
PUD application