Friday, August 25, 2023

When preserving a historic building shouldn't be called hardship

"Many years ago I was of the theory that if you tear all the buildings down and put something new up, that was the right thing to do. What a mistake that was." (William Donald Schaefer in the 1999 documentary Westside Stories)

Baltimore is a charming city, architecturally. As much as an architect hates to admit it, Baltimore's architecture charm isn't the result of modern interventions but indicative of the vast historic building stock of all scales, size and purpose that has survived the great fire and urban renewal.  Even in the decay that comes from abandonment, old beauty shines through. 

The old B&O HQ lobby, today Hotel Monaco and
State offices (HCD). Photo: Philipsen

It is no surprise, then, that our historic districts are the most successful neighborhoods with the highest building values and the lowest vacancy rates, whether it is Federal Hill, Seton Hill, Fells Point, Mount Vernon, Hunting Ridge or Ten Hills to name just a few. And they don't have to be part of the "white L". 

Given the success of preserving history it is surprising how often developers buy old buildings in historic districts and then try to bail out when it comes to fixing them up. They complain about "hardship" when it comes to going the extra mile and opt for the shortcut of just knocking them down. 

This lazy approach is usually accompanied by the argument that whatever new they would build would be be much better than the derelict, vacant and neglected old structure they want to tear down. Duh! But this obviously a misleading argument. Nobody wants to keep the old shells with sagging floors and roofs. The comparison would be a new structure versus a rehabilitated one. No doubt, rehabilitation is often more expensive than new but the issue here is that the rehabilitated structure is more likely to add character and authenticity to a project that can directly translate into dollars and cents but that rehab will likely also retain value much better. In other words: Historic preservation requires the long view. Whoever is just interested in the short term calculation shouldn't even go into a historic district or at least not buy historic and contributing structures. 

Historic Hunting Ridge, Baltimore (Photo Philipsen)

Claiming hardship in a historic district with the argument  that only demolition "pencils out" should be a losing proposition right from the start, especially when property is being transferred from the City in a public process. 

The long view for preservation is not only supported by the excellent value retention and market conditions of most historic districts but also by the failure of projects that relied heavily on demolition.  I will use two projects as examples that were recently in the news.

Exhibit one is the La Cite development in Poppleton, which was predicated on the notion that an entire neighborhood had to be wiped out in order to create valuable new things that would be marketable.  The reality is that the two lone  large apartment blocks that La Cite actually managed to build are pretty much a disaster, even though the developer still calls them a success. They look rather predictable, stood empty for a long time due to a slew of construction errors, have rapid tenant turnover and never succeeded creating an attractive new community. Meanwhile the local papers are full with stories of displaced citizens that saw their houses bulldozed without anything meaningful being built to replace them. 

Exhibit two is the CenterPoint in Baltimore's old retail district "Market Center", constructed in tandem with the Hippodrome which was a great adaptive reuse project.

Centerpoint apartments
(Photo: Alex Cooper)
 By contrast, the bulk of Centerpoint was  new construction with several buildings on Howard Street being retained. After  17 years of existence the project is now being auctioned off. The ground floor retail was practically never fully occupied and whatever leases there were, they changed frequently. The last stores to close were Starbucks which had been seen as the shining star of the development and El Forno, a much liked Italian restaurant which offered the Hippodrome audiences a convenient place to eat before or after the show across the street. Conflict was in the DNA of the project, beginning with the protracted battles of several historic businesses such as the historic Hippodrome Hatter for being allowed to remain. They lost, had to close, relocate and eventually had to shut down, even though they had been re-planted in more modern facilities. 
The driver of the CenterPoint project is the newly constructed apartment tower of mediocre design and lacking the charm of competing nearby apartments in historic buildings, such as in the former Hechts department store or in the old BGE headquarters.   The maybe oldest westside example of successful adaptive reuse (from school to housing) are the Chesapeake Commons in Seton Hill and the sailcloth factory on Martin Luther King Boulevard, both still going strong

Far from learning from these experiences, the developer of the Superblock and a developer who wants to redevelop the corner of West Park Avenue and West Lexington Street, Chukeo Ukoro, both applied

The proposed replacement structure is shockingly unappealing
(Image: Okoro development)
for demolition of most historic buildings in their respective blocks, even though they knew very well, that historic structures in the local Five and Dime historic district are protected and must be preserved. Unless....This is where the "substantial hardship" argument comes in as the camel's nose in the preservation tent. Preservationist are no economists and time and again they got the wool pulled over their eyes by "hardship" arguments they couldn't verify. Time and again demo happy developers just look at a single building without considering their context next to them or across the street. Historic preservation is no longer just the single landmark "on a silver tray", but it is also context and meaning.
The second building from left: Proposed for demolition but CHAP
requested preservation (for now.) Photo: Philipsen

To their credit and in a sign of a new resolve, the historic district commission CHAP has lately shown some teeth and a new assertiveness in which it even preempted the City Council by banning the gas meter and regulator installations in front of facades in historic districts. For the two recent projects on the agenda in the Five and Dime historic district held a fairly admirable line and didn't fully cave immediately cave to the developers, no matter how much they claimed "hardship" in several sessions. 

Tearing down the seven buildings at Howard and Fayette streets would give the team land to construct an efficient, code-compliant, economically-viable replacement building that could meet the needs of today’s tenants.(Developer Janian's argument as quoted in Baltimore Fishbowl)

The center building: Proposed for demolition on Park Ave
(Photo: Philipsen)

For the Compass project on the "superblock" the panel initially rejected five of seven demo requests and stuck to their guns in a second meeting where the hardship argument was made in detail. In a third meeting on August 8, the Commission agreed to a third building to be demolished and to partial preservation of the facades for two others This solution was celebrated as a compromise. Facade preservation is usually being frowned upon by preservationists. However, it allows a consistent streetscape and can be a successful compromise in cases where floorplates and floor elevations of existing structures are too small to work with modern egress and fire codes and hard to integrate into a proposed project. An example of such facadectomy can be found on Baltimore's Braodway in Fells Point. 
Fayette Street buildings slated for demo. The adjacent former
Trailways bus station (foreground) has long been demolished
(Photo: Philipsen)

For the second project debated on the same day, CHAP was more forceful. The developer asked for the demolition of the  three-story building at 114 W. Lexington St. that once served as the entry to a theater, the former Ann Lewis department store at 116-120 W. Lexington St., and the four-story commercial building at 207-209 Park Ave. CHAP agreed initially only to the non contributing corner building to be demolished. One building on Lexington and two on Park Avenue are to stay. The Baltimore SUN described  the developer as "dejected" but ready to come back with a revised proposal. 

CHAP should generally reject the hardship argument. It is no hardship if you have to do what the law has been saying all along. You can't buy an old car and the complain that it has a combustion engine. 

The developers should have known what they were in for when they applied to redevelop properties in a historic district. “It costs money to preserve buildings, and the developers came in and got a [land disposition agreement] and sought to develop these buildings in a historic district that you designated, and that should actually mean something – to CHAP, to the citizens who care about preservation and the history and the environment on the west side of downtown. (Nicole King, Professor of American studies at the CHAP hearing as quoted in Baltimore Fishbowl)

Howard Street buildings for which parts of the facade
need to be saved (Photo Philipsen)

As I have pointed out many times in this space, the success of Baltimore's own historic districts prove that proper historic preservation yields a return on investment. If our own examples are not convincing enough, look elsewhere. For example, in Cincinnati's Over the Rhine, a carefully preserved and now thriving historic district that had fallen on hard times, similar to our own "westside". 

Former industrial legacy cities like Baltimore and Cincinnati need to leverage their assets prudently. Like it or not with Fortune 500 headquarters gone, the garment industry decimated and manufacturing reduced to a trickle their biggest asset is  beautiful historic architecture. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related content on this blog: 

How to invite demolition by neglect

Why the demolition of historic buildings remains a bad idea

Bombing Downtown

For an article explaining the history of previous redevelopment attempts for the mentioned buildings see here

Friday, August 4, 2023

Baltimore City and County Planning the Future: How they prepare their new Masterplans

Late to the party: The new 10 year plans

Baltimore City calls it a Comprehensive Plan and hasn't done one since 2006. Baltimore County calls it Masterplan 2030 and its last version is from 2020.  Both jurisdictions are in the process of getting new plans done this year and both are out of sync with the round numbers that the State required 10 year cycle for those plans suggest. This has to do with the idea that the plans follow the census.

Baltimore City Comp Plan logo

The City titling the effort "Our Baltimore- Your Baltimore" was looking for "storytelling ambassadors", the County posted the entire draft plan in the form of  story-maps. Planning as a "story" is quite departure from the dry Comp Plans of old as with the "plan elements" that are required and outlined by the State. The innovative approach comes from the American Planning Association (APA). Both City and County planning departments lean heavily on the  APA publication Best Practices for a Comprehensive Plan. As a result, both start out with identical vision frameworks (Liveable Environment, Harmony with Nature, Inclusive (or resilient) Economy, Healthy Communities). The County added Responsible Regionalism and Inclusive Planning.

Baltimore County Masterplan logo
Why those plans are so important

Comprehensive Plans or Masterplans serve the purpose of planning the future of an entire jurisdiction for over ten years in all those areas required by State law. These plans do not just cover land use (which is the responsibility of planning departments) but also housing, transportation, environmental protection, infrastructure and growth management. Unfortunately, these plans have often been treated as a necessary nuisance that sat on the infamous shelf  collecting dust while City and County leaders winged important decisions in a reactive and case by case manner, usually with less than stellar results.

Looking back over the last ten years, both, City and County have to admit, not all went well. More open land got paved over while established neighborhoods, especially in the City languish. Decaying and defunct shopping centers galore. More people drive, road congestion is high, so are traffic fatalities. Crime remains shockingly high. Infrastructure is crumbling faster than it can be fixed. Both jurisdictions feed about half of their trash into an obsolete incinerator which is spewing toxins while the other half goes to landfills that are about full. School performance is slipping, in spite of record investments into school facilities. Transit is inadequate and getting to jobs remains a challenge for those without cars. All the while climate change is an ever bigger threat and the set goals for CO2 reduction are easy to establish and hard to achieve. Lack of funds is perpetual.
MTA buses and trains cover City and County but the system
continues to underperform (Photo: Philipsen)

City and County leaders now often stand shoulder to shoulder and exchange data, yet true coordination is still elusive. All this means that the new 10 year plans must blaze a truly new course. They cannot be business as usual. On the long road  towards making a new plan, and even more enacting  and implementing it, it won't be enough to have a catchy new format with bold goas and principles, pictures and stories. The plans must survive  the buzzsaw of special interests thrown at them during planning commission and council hearings, but entire administrations need sing from the same sheets for a decade to come. 

Similarities and differences in how City and County approach the plans

The County's outreach started with a dashboard that included basic facts and figures about the County, even though there wasn't a systematic critique of the previous plan or some analysis of what goals of the previous plan have been achieved, not achieved or reached obsolescence. The City has a section that deals with the old 2006 plan and provides a progress report. For a 17 year runtime the results of the old plan are somewhat tepid.  Only 12 goals became adopted City policy, 40  were completed or need an update,  65 are labeled ongoing or in progress without specifying the rate of progress,  21 were never started or pursued. 

The County is ahead at this point. Its plan was presented a draft in April and since then has been heard by the Planning Board with the Council reviewing it next (On August 8th).  The Council will eventually formally adopt or amend the draft. The original print version of an article in the Baltimore SUN stated that the Council can only adopt or reject the plan wholesale without the ability to modify or amend. That is incorrect and has since been corrected. Initially the Council was to begin discussing the Plan on August 7, that has now been delayed. 

Baltimore County Places Map with City carved out

The City plan is envisioned to be before the City Council about a year from now. A small difference between City and County approach is the way outreach how has been organized: The City opted to install an advisory council as a second pipeline to provide community information in addition to the "open houses". The notes of the feedback so far can be found here. Another round of engagement is planned for the fall. In addition the Planning Department solicits input from all other City Departments, most of them have their own masterplans or strategic plans. (A list of all plans can be found here)

Our Advisory Council was not appointed, but selected through an open application process in 2021, during the pre-planning phase of this project. The selection process prioritized Baltimore residents with deep community involvement and leadership. Members of the Advisory Council helped shape the development of our Community Engagement Leadership Team.

The County had similar pipelines to gather community and expert input. The County website states:

Baltimore County Master Plan 2030 is an aspirational planning document that charts a course for the County throughout the next decade and beyond. The plan represents the culmination of a lengthy master-planning process which began in spring 2021 and included community outreach and public input phases, recommendations from local experts, stakeholders and County agencies, as well as, deliberation and coordination among numerous County agencies and Department of Planning staff. ... [the plan] is based on a systems approach, with three interwoven themes and six guiding principles. 

Neither the City nor the County plan adhere fully to the required elements set forth by the State. The County's housing element is weak and its implementation element is deferred to some future point. 

A Master Plan 2030 implementation page will be created after the master plan is adopted by the Baltimore County Council and will include implementation strategies and tracking of success. (County Website)

It isn't clear yet, how the City plan will shape up, but staff says it will include all State required elements  that are applicable in the City. 

Many systems know no boundaries

With a "systems approach" and this weird geography in which the County grips around the City like a vise, it appears obvious that these City and County plans for the next ten years or more would be developed in close cooperation. County Planning Director Lafferty and City Planning Director  Ryer said as much themselves. Indeed, Lafferty attended City open houses and both directors kept an open line of communication. Alas, regionalism in the County plan is vague under the vison framework title Responsible Regionalism in the County framework. 

Clearly, for all the interdependence, the Count and the City are very different animals, no matter the identical framework and titles.  The County has benefited from urban flight and racial fear all the way to the post WWII State law that prohibits the City from annexing any more County land. The City by contrast was landlocked and left with the folks who were either prevented by discrimination from fleeing or didn't have the means or both. In a short lived reversal of fortunes, urbanity had a revival and attracted young creatives to move back to the cities nationwide. But Baltimore didn't capitalize sufficiently from this trend and continued to shrink to the point that the County is today more than 1/3 than it was in 1970 while the City shrank at the same rate. Now the County is 1/3 larger than the the City. 

City information panel for outreach 

Smart growth versus sprawl

With its large land mass the County had the foresight  to  protect its vast open spaces as early as  the 1960s. It limited limit water and sewer service to land inside the urban rural demarcation line (URDL) which stands to this day and was recognized as a bold and progressive step in planning the future.  The result is that about 90% of the population lives on the smaller portion of county land that surrounds the city in mostly what has become known as "inner ring suburbs". Not surprisingly this has irked

Success: 90% of the County population lives in side the growth 
boundary protecting vaulable farms and forests. All of City residents
live inside an area that should grow but shrinks.

developers ever since the growth boundary was created, itching to tear it down and open the rural areas to sprawl. This round of masterplanning is no exception, with developers and their attorneys demanding that the URDL have to be "studied". There is now even a suggestion that [the URDL] "has contributed to past racial and economic segregation" That is a rather bold statement given that the reverse is closer to the truth. The large low density sprawl opportunities that the County offered even with the URDL in place fueled urban flight and segregation, not to mention the historic hostility in parts of the County against diversity. 

Cities with highest population losses (Baltimore = darker bar)

Not only does the County run out of green fields to build on within the URDL, inner ring suburbs increasingly experience the same "urban ills" as the City had experienced first, namely increasing poverty and all that comes from poverty, lower school success, lower life expectancy, more crime.  Hence, the County masterplan emphasizes "Retrofit" as the development strategy of the future, nothing less than "reinventing the suburbs". A good goal but not specific enough. Missing is a map showing the actual development capacity for the County based on the retrofit concept. 

"Retrofit" irks developers: Innovation gutted

The "retrofit" theme also irked County developers who feared that remaining open spaces inside the URDL could be locked up in favor of using previously developed areas that have infrastructure but are often underutilized or sit fallow. 

The County Planning Board in its review of the draft masterplan mostly heard from the lawyers of the development interest. In one session one law firm alone used the two minute testimony per speaker limit with four different speakers who conveniently wove a long story of how development would suffer should the original masterplan language be adopted.

The County's Board liberally gutted the major provisions of the Masterplan, namely the focus on "retrofit" and the intended sequencing in which major rezoning would follow the masterplan (and the community plans) and not run independent of it. They also wanted to nuke the APA idea of  the plan consisting of "story boards" which would continually evolve over the 10 year life span.  The lawyers argued that this was way too complicated and oped that the many "live" links and cross references be eliminated in favor of a static PDF plan that can be bound into a binder and collect dust on a shelf. 

Lafarge former mine in Baltimore County:(SUN photo)
What does the Masterplan say?

It will now depend on the County Council to breathe life back into the initially ambitious plan. One has to see whether the Council has the guts to end the unholy history of obtuse and corrupt County development planning. Given that council members have almost absolute power over re-zoning in their district or over introducing or not introducing a "Planned Unit Development" (PUD) its hard to be too optimistic. Especially the PUD process has opened the doors wide to all kinds of developments that in clear violation of typical planning procedures  entirely dispose of the restrictions of the underlying zoning. 

A recent  example may be the most egregious case: A PUD introduced on behalf of the worldwide cement company LaFarge which would have allowed a large potion of their 450 acre former sand quarry to be developed as a trucking warehouse area even though the land was zoned RC8 which stands for resource conservation and means low density resdiential uses to protect environmentally sensitive areas. The matter was so drastic a violation of good practice and cause such an upheaval in the Middle River community that the new councilman revoked the PUD of his predecessor. For Baltimore County this was quite a heroic act. The masterplan suggests a PUD process reform The developer already regsitered their opposition to change current procedure. Its unlikely the Council has much appetite to curb its absolute power. Still, given widespread public discontent there could be more heroic efforts of standing up to powerful interest. 

What are the emerging City themes?

The city's emerging big themes are less clear at this point, although there could be many: Growing population back, eradicating vacant homes, lower property taxes or split land taxes that tax land and improvements on it separately, TOD etc. Will the city recognize how much it is intertwined with the County and also have a "regional" component? The City planners in charge of the plan update identified three sections that emerge as the structure of the new plan: Policy, growth and  retention, and a geographic element (map and land use plan) that shows where what should happen.  Such a land use map had not been part of the 2006 plan conceived by the Planning Director Rolley who dubbed his plan a "business plan". 

dark red areas shows highest population loss, dark blue highest gains

The data section of the panels presented to citizens as part of the outreach effort were heavy on demographic data from the census, especially on population loss. Growing back has been a goal since O'Malley was Mayor and was made more explicit by Mayor Rawlings. However, the city continued to shrink more than any other large US city other than Detroit. 

Attention council members!

Most of the Planning Board or Planning Commission  members in County and City are not planning professionals One can safely assume that much of the mundane planning stuff of a 10 year masterplan goes over their heads making them vulnerable to special interest. The County's Board actions should be a warning sign to the City. In both places the last word is with the Council. Given the many problems we have in the Baltimore region council members should pay a lot of attention to plans that will define the region for a decade. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA