Friday, January 26, 2024

Charting the Future of Downtown Baltimore

On a recent winter Friday only a handful of lunch guests found their way into the B&O Brasserie on Charles Street. But the Architecture and Design Center across Fayette Street located in Mies van der Rohe's Charles Center building in a space once occupied by Burger King and then Staples was filled to capacity by folks who cared about the future of downtown. 

In spite of new development, downtown feels empty
even at noon on a Thursday (Photo: Philipsen)

The occasion was that the Baltimore City Planning Department had invited design professionals and stakeholders to a "design charrette" for all of downtown, from the Inner Harbor all the way up to Penn Station and from Martin Luther King Boulevard to President Street. This design workshop is part of a series of such events that the department wants to host towards an update to the Baltimore Comprehensive Plan of 2006. Doing this now, the City is a full 8 years behind the State required 10-year update cycle. The update has been in the making for a while and becomes more urgent every time another large project pops up that would benefit from a guiding framework plan, most recently the MCB proposed HarborPlace development. 

The event theme is “connecting our assets” and our starting point will be the recently developed ULI recommendations for Downtown Baltimore. The charrette will begin with a brief presentation covering the high points of ongoing plans and development in Downtown Baltimore, followed by break-out workshop style sessions.
The break-out sessions will be topical and geographical, and teams will be multidisciplinary. Teams will prepare recommendations and pin up their work for review. The charrette will conclude with a gallery style public open house to gain additional public input. (From the invitation)

However, the question hovering over the charrette participants is much bigger than the Comprehensive Plan update. The big question is the future of downtown, not only in Baltimore but in cities around the country, and, indeed, the world. Architect Davin Hong had set the stage with an editorial in the SUN

Charrette Poster 
If you were to walk around downtown Baltimore today, you may feel a little uncomfortable. With foot traffic noticeably sparse and storefronts empty, many streets feel somewhat abandoned and unsafe. The environment is missing the level of activity you would expect in a dense urban setting, all of which is the inevitable result of decades of economic decline. (Davin Hong, AIA)

COVID not only slowed the progress on the new Comprehensive Plan to a crawl, it also did a number on downtown, chiefly because the office workers who were initially forced to work from home were unexpectedly reluctant to come back. This in turn translated into even more retail and gastronomy failing, obviously a mechanism that is not limited to Baltimore. How much it applies to cities across the nation and the world depends on many factors, including demographics, the jobs offered in cities and how easy it is to get to them, whether a city is a tourist magnet and to what extent downtown had already been transformed from strictly office use to also being a neighborhood with apartments and condos. As a result of all these factors, some cities were hit harder, some less so. Cities are current trying to get the data to understand what is happening. Office and retail vacancy rates are regularly reported, but how many people come for how many days to work in downtown is harder to determine. 

One recent study compared cell phone data which indicated how many people are moving  through downtown before, during and after COVID. This study put Baltimore at an astounding 95% of recovery,

Planning Director Chris Ryer speaks to the charrette participants
(Photo: Philipsen)

ranking it second after San Diego. Eye level observation, however, tells a different story. Empty sidewalks, boarded up stores and fewer and fewer restaurants. Cynics attributed the cellphone data to the many homeless people that reach record numbers in many cities, especially San Diego. Other indicators are parking usage rates, transit ridership and hotel bookings. In no instance have the Baltimore numbers recovered to the pre COVID levels of 2019.

For the charrette the reporting on data fell to Claudia Jolin, Vice President of Economic Development at the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore (DPoB). In the chirpy manner that is customary for DPoB she presented a few facts and figures from the various reports her organization has amassed, including the Analysis of Market-Rate Housing Demand in Downtown Baltimore Neighborhoods and Adjacent Areas and a ULI report from 2021, the 2018-28 investment forecast  including that from 2018 to 2028 6.5 billion of investment are in planning, construction or completed, that about 1000 units are underway in "residential conversions"

New apartments in downtown (Paca Street)
(Photo: Philipsen)
 (from office) with "nearly 25 completed projects centered around Downtown living". The forever stalled "Superblock" is finally moving through an actual review process with a new team and design and about 3000 employees are being relocated from the State office complex to downtown. Looking forward, the DPoB housing analysis estimates that the downtown area should be able to absorb an additional 1,250 units annually over the next five years. 

Downtown was long heralded as the fastest growing census trackin Baltimore, however, the census facts are more nuanced as the DPoB housing reports notes:

According to 2022 estimates, 41,998 residents live in the Downtown Statistical Area (DSA), approximately 787 residents less than the 2017 population of 42,785—an estimated drop of 1.8 percent over five years. However, the number of households in the DSA increased from 19,140 in 2017 to 19,388 in 2022, a gain of 1.3 percent.

After downloading these facts and figures, the crowd broke into 9 study tables separated by 6 geographic areas.  Each table had a moderator, sketch paper and a map at the ready in the usual charrette manner. With architects, planners and landscape architects dominating the scene, all kinds of diagrams and sketches emerged quickly which were then pinned on display boards, presented and explained by the table leaders and open to public review over beer, wine and snacks. 

Sketch showing high priority pedestrian routes in yellow
(Photo Philipsen)

True to the theme of the evening "connecting our assets", many sketches and ideas focused on connectivity and the walking experience in downtown. One group led by Bryce Turner who is part of the MCB design team for HarborPlace suggested a walkway right through the convention center that would act as an extension of Camden Street from Oriole's Park all the way to HarborPlace, giving pedestrians a direct route after ball games and allow conventioneers a safe and direct route to the Inner Harbor as well. One group proposed a big new open space west of Oldtown, others spoke about the barriers that need to be overcome on all side of downtown to connect back to the neighborhoods. Architect Peter Fillat minced no words when he reported about the area around the refurbished Arena; "All those walk connections in the area suck", he stated.

Table group at the charrette (Photo AIA)
Sharp Leadenhall community leader Betty Bland Thomas spoke about how I-395, the Federal reserve and the Convention Center have cut her community off from direct access. A view on the map confirms a whole serious of large urban renewal type super blockages that starve downtown from pedestrian flow from the south. 

The Planning Department's downtown charrette showcased visionary leadership, uniting our community to collaboratively envision the future of our beloved downtown. From pragmatists to dreamers, Baltimoreans expressed deep passion for the future of our city center, finding a platform for diverse aspirations in this event.(Claudia Jolie)

The hosting members of the Planning Department, Renata Southard and Caitlin Odette now face the task to incorporate the ideas and concepts into the emerging Comp Plan. A synopsis of the charrette is promised to appear on the Comp Plan website soon. Hong in his editorial puts a lot of stock in a good masterplan:  

A visionary master plan fully embraced by the state, city, Downtown Partnership and Greater Baltimore Committee can potentially make transformation possible.

The gap between the massive amount of development that, indeed, has happened in downtown including the near 40,000 people that call the area home and the daily experience of downtown as devoid of the lively vibrancy we associate with successful downtowns remains a somewhat unresolved mystery. Why can't Baltimore sustain more retail and restaurants in its downtown? Why does neither the refurbished Lexington Market, nor the remodeled highly successful Arena nor the many new downtown hotels and apartment buildings spawn vibrancy and eyes in the street? Why do the sidewalks remain empty and the desire of retailers to open shop here absent, even when the folks that now work from home are largely compensated by the influx of State office workers who relocate from from State Center? 

The unofficial answer is crime, or at least the perception of it. Add to that the principally welcome fact that the gaze of recent mayors has shifted from a fixation with downtown (for example under Schaefer) to a new focus on the well being of neighborhoods, and it becomes clear, that Baltimore's downtown can by no means be assured of a bright future.  

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Downtown transit rider in front of abandoned department
stores: Waiting for Godot?
(Photo: Philipsen)

Related on this blog:

Is Downtown Baltimore Doomed? (2021)

Friday, January 19, 2024

A bill that could make zoning more inclusive

In recent years planners have become much more aware of the exclusionary effects that zoning has had on people and their towns and cities. In response cities and jurisdictions across America have started to implement tools that dismantle segregation and exclusion and instead promote integration and inclusion in terms of use, race, age and access. The old zoning separated neatly housing from everything else presumably in the interest of public health. When business meant smoke, fire and noise it made sense to not live immediately next to a foundry. But over time zoning also segregated people to the point that zip codes gave away income, race, life expectancy and school success. 

Baltimore County: report for Security Square Mall redevelopment

At the same time the supply of these single use land areas got entirely out of whack with demand: The country is totally oversupplied with commercial and retail areas in a time when online shopping and global production have put the squeeze on retail and commercial operations.

Dismantling the legacy zoning system is no small task.  Especially those who benefited the most from the segregation and many hurdles against new housing protest the loudest, usually with innocent sounding arguments such as traffic, sewer capacity and school overcrowding. All across America those arguments have blocked especially affordable housing production to the point we have a national housing crisis and record homelessness. 

All this plays out in Baltimore County, which actually signed an agreement with HUD in 2016 that forces the County to face a history of housing discrimination. So far, the County is far behind with compliance.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced in mid-March 2016 a settlement agreement with Maryland’s Baltimore County to expand affordable housing in high-opportunity areas.
The settlement is a result of a complaint filed with HUD by the NAACP Baltimore Branch, Baltimore Neighborhoods, and three individuals in November 2011. The complaint claimed that the county had only developed in areas concentrated by race and poverty, focused on rental housing for seniors rather than families, provided an inadequate amount of accessible units for people with disabilities, and failed to affirmatively further fair housing.
Baltimore County will invest $3 million annually for 10 years to develop or preserve 1,000 affordable housing units that will be geographically dispersed in neighborhoods with access to opportunity for low- and very low-income residents, stated the agreement. The county also will provide at least 2,000 Housing Choice Vouchers to assist families in finding housing in higher-opportunity neighborhoods. (HUD)

This month the County Executive dared to introduce a bill that would allow residential use "by-right" in certain business zones. The bill would work in tandem with the new 2030 Masterplan which recognizes the need for "retrofit" in lieu of paving over more of the dwindling open space.

Baltimore County Masterplan: To be approved by Council

The Masterplan identifies retrofit nodes in older communities and along commercial corridors where vast areas sit fallow or underused. Baltimore County won a State award for this masterplan.

Baltimore County Department of Planning created a thorough and data-driven approach to “Retrofit Mapping,” which was essential to and incorporated into the Growth Framework of their Draft Master Plan 2030. Gathering significant public input, this initiative has meaningfully advanced the community’s involvement in promoting smart growth and sustainable communities, and has produced a path to supporting intensified land uses in the area.​

Allowing residential use in those B zones inside the Masterplan nodes, which so far prohibit residential uses, is a shot in the arm of those ailing and underperforming areas by allowing a use that is in demand instead of mandating uses that have no market. It will also greatly help the County to comply with the federal housing mandate. 

This is a big deal once one understands how much land is designated for commercial uses in Baltimore County. The US has 2-3 times as much retail square footage than Canada and about 5 times as much as England and Baltimore County with its older suburbs and endless radial arterials emanating from the City is a great example of the oversupply of gas stations, strip shopping, car dealers and abandoned drive throughs which represent the "Geography of Nowhere" which characterizes current suburbia way too much. 

For lease: Sprawl land use on Liberty Road 

Baltimore County which wisely protected its rural areas from widespread development is soon running out of the easy but unsustainable option of paving over farmland and forests. Opening up land that sits fallow or underperforming in sad looking commercial corridors and decaying malls seems like a no-brainer. The inflexibility of current zoning gave rise to a practice in which almost every redevelopment project has to go through either a planned unit development (PUD) or a formal rezoning process. Either way, this procedure gives the council person of the district the last word. This practices opens the door to long periods of bargaining and horse-trading in which neither communities nor developers can predict the outcome. One of the council members stated that current practice gives him much more power to prevent stuff than to enable it. If community organizations are just noisy enough, the councilperson will not approve rezoning or a PUD. Developers have to bribe their way towards PUDs through so called "community benefits" that can be narrowly tailored towards the loudest opponents. Obviously, folks that gamed this current system successfully are not pleased with the suggested bill and make the wildest accusations:

If this bill is passed by the council, it will be a complete insult and slap in the face to how this country’s democracy was formed. Olszewski’s introduction of this bill is grossly unethical and immoral. His “vision” for Baltimore County is not in the best interests of the citizens he swore to represent honestly, in good faith and more. His proposed bill is unprecedented in the history of the county and goes against the county charter. (Letter in the SUN)

Of course, many other jurisdictions have long adjusted their zoning to allow more flexibility in the permitted uses and still have a democracy. The introduced bill clearly serves the interest of citizens: The current reactive process doesn't allow rational and forward looking planning that responds to the many major fiscal, sustainability, equity and economic development challenges the County faces. Baltimore County's development pattern is often haphazard  devoid of a larger logic, strategic investment and funding priorities and will not lead the County into a prosperous future. 

Opening certain zones up for residential use and redevelopment "by right" makes sense and ultimately strengthens communities.  It is obvious that the bill is a hard sell to the seven councilmen who think that they will lose some control and whose vote is needed to make the bill law. In fact, even by-right developments have to go through a lengthy review process includes site plan review, that in many cases design review, and review of adequate public facilities. One has to hope the new Council Chair, who is a planner by training, and the County Housing and Community Development Director can explain  that for a successful future Baltimore County needs a longer and wider view than the four year election cycle and the myopic district view. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

related on this blog

Jan 2023: Why Lovely Suburbia...

Sept. 2020: Rethinking Planning in Baltimore County 

Sunday, January 14, 2024

The misleading narratives about Harborplace

In an unprecedented well coordinated effort of selling the notion to the general public that Baltimore would be better off if MCB's HarborPlace renderings became reality, the Mayor, the local councilman and the developer himself spin misleading or outright deceptive narratives.
Before passing the three bills that lift all existing zoning restrictions and before handing the key for HarborPlace to a private for-profit developer, these false narratives need to be set straight:
MCB Rendering with new high-rises to the right
and "sail" building to the left

Myth: Malls are dead and the pavilions are obsolete

This narrative tries to establish as a fact that the Rouse pavilions can't be saved because they constitute an obsolete retail model that has now run its course. 

What is true is that the pavilions never were designed as malls in the first place, but as 'festival markets". Unlike malls they weren't large, nor surrounded by parking lots, nor were they inward looking.There were no anchor stores or national chains stores that make actual malls look like they were cloned. Instead Jim Rouse's pavilions were filled with local retail establishments, were carefully managed and included an ongoing series of entertaining activities to draw people.  Several restaurants were directly oriented towards the water with outdoor terraces. Second floor food vendors shared outdoor eating terraces as well. The  failure of the pavilions came when the Rouse company sold them to successors who paid no attention to  carefully curated retail activities or upkeep. 

In fact, the original concept of the pavilions closely resembles the currently en-vogue food halls and markets that MCB also envisions for the first floor of their highrises. In other words, MCB wants to replicate what the original the pavilions did so well. Meanwhile MCB begun to bring local retail back into the pavilions and has already succeeded in partly reviving them from their previous slumber. The arrangement of the pavilions with their terraces towards the promenade is architecturally so successful that it has been replicated many times, most recently with almost the same exact details and dimensions in DC latest waterfront development, the Wharf. In fact Baltimore's HarborPlace served for decades as a global model for waterfront revitalization. (See this PBS documentary).

Myth : Only old people nostalgia stands in the way of reinventing  HarborPlace

This narrative suggests that only some old people who remember HarborPlace's heyday cling nostalgically to their memories of Rouse and Schaefer and can't tolerate change specially change towards more equity. This, too misses the mark. In fact, both the much revered former HarborPlace developer, the late Jim Rouse, and the late Mayor Donald Schafer preached all along that the Inner Harbor to stay successful it has to continually change and evolve. To that end the Aquarium was extended, the Science Center added and the Power Plant converted into restaurants and entertainment. The visitor center was added, the Constellation received a brand-new museum and access building and Rash Field was redesigned with a second phase still to come. The Christmas Village was added to the seasonal attractions, as was the much loved ice rink. Various events such as the book fair and light city came an went. The promenade received new lighting and for a while we even had a fancy water taxi. The Aquarium has additional attractions planned for this year. In other words, the City and the Waterfront Partnership made wise investments, especially the very popular skate park and playground. 

All that was done with the mindset of the Inner Harbor as Baltimore's Commons, open to all and all happened without violating the zoning rules or the Harbor masterplan that conceived the Inner Harbor as a large public space with some generally low height attractions sprinkled within.

Would a new attraction hurt? Certainly not, especially one that would serve a public purpose such as the pedestrian bridge from Federal Hill to Harbor East once proposed as part of the Harbor 2.0 plan. Much less clear is that an eye catching office building such as the stepped "Sail" building on MCB's renderings would serve a public purpose or whether walking up in front of those terraced commercial uses would truly be an attraction that lasts.  The failed Columbus Center on Pier 5 should be a warning. Offices and event venues don't make an attraction, no matter how dressed up they come. It seems that the Aquarium still serves the purpose of architectural landmark quite well. 
The reality is that nobody ever clamored for high-rise apartments or an office building at HarborPlace  in any of MCB's public listening sessions or "dinners with a developer" and that the proposed developments will do nothing to increase equal access. Opposition to the proposed plans cuts across age, gender and race.

Myth: MCB came in as a savior and we should be glad for it

True, the pavilions were neglected and languished for too long, first under bad management and then in receivership, burdened by significant debt and produced ongoing deficits. Buyers were not exactly lining up to buy them. To his credit the Mayor as owner of the land under the pavilions paid attention to the situation. But in the excitement he may have skirted proper procedure.
“I’ve been known to keep secrets, but the hardest one that I had to keep is the work that my law department and BDC and others were doing from the first day I got in office to make sure that we didn’t let Harborplace stay or get into other out-of-town hands. We made sure that Harborplace got into the hands of a West Baltimore boy who understands and knows Baltimore like no one else.”  (Mayor Brandon Scott, 10/30/23 as quoted by Ed Gunts in the Fishbowl)
The details here remain murky, but from what we know now, one can safely say that interest in the pavilions would have been sky high if they would have been publicly offered with all the promises MCB apparently received: 
  •  the City would lift all height restrictions, 
  • open this prime waterfront real estate for apartments, offices and parking
  • offer a footprint that can exceed that of the pavilions by 40%. 
  • plus, as the cherry on the cake,  one million of City dollars towards a privately conducted public engagement process. 
In a true competitive setting MCB may not have been the obvious choice for unfettered rights to one of the most prominent waterfront locations in the entire country. Yes, MCB is a successful minority developer, born and raised in Baltimore. The owner, David Bramble still lives near North Avenue and has moved along several other difficult redevelopment sites in the City.  Yes, everybody likes David Bramble, as become obvious at the Planning Commission hearing, and Baltimore surely needs to support minority led businesses. Bramble also assembled an A-team of consultants. Still, MCB never did a development of the proposed size and complexity before, and David Bramble is a self proclaimed "spreadsheet guy" and not a visionary planner who routinely reimagines strategic downtown areas. Given Baltimore's rich history of broken developer promises, leaders should be wise enough to follow a proper process, do all due diligence, install backstops, insurances and alternatives.

Myth: The apartments are needed to pay for the project and to bring people to HarborPlace

MCB is proposing 900 apartments in two towers plus two more large structures that would contain offices and states that these many additional uses are necessary to bring life to HarborPlace and downtown and to sustain the restaurants and markets. The overall notion that more people living downtown would result in more people walking the streets and the promenade adding demand sounds convincing on first blush. But at least three arguments speak against this reasoning:
  • considering how many thousand people have already moved to downtown in recent years without stemming the ongoing departure of retail and restaurants, one has to wonder if the effect is that straight forward. 
  • And as the fellow developer David Tufaro remarked on WBAL radio, Baltimore's Inner Harbor creates a perfect three sided space that in many ways acts like Baltimore's Central Park. Central gathering spaces bestow value on all surrounding uses. Putting apartments into the valued space itself diminishes its value
Over the history of New York City’s mayors — whether corrupt, decent, inept or quite capable — not one conspired with a private developer to permit residential development in {Central] park itself. Not one would dare. (Rebecca Hoffberger, founder of the Visionary Art Museum in a letter to the SUN)
  • Lastly, what exactly are these apartments supposed to pay for? MCB stated that the repairs to the promenade, the connection of McKeldin Plaza and the street reconfiguration would have to be paid from public resources and won't be funded by him. So is he saying that those 900 units and the offices are needed to pay for the new market spaces and restaurants?  That appears not very plausible if one looks at Cross Street Market, Broadway Market and R-House as operations that are not funded by apartments. At least not by apartments directly above them.  If MCB wants to fund the new HarborPlace markets with apartments, he could do this with his other Inner Harbor properties across Pratt Street. 
Myth: Unprecedented public input and an international design competition

Councilman Costello praises MCB for "unprecedented" public outreach that included even advertisements on the side of buses, "listening sessions" and exclusive "dinners with the developer". What he didn't mention was that the City promises to pay for all this. When recently retired Morgan architecture professor Leon Bridges testified against the project at the Planning Commission asking for a public international design competition as a way to get the best professional design for a HarborPlace revival Councilman Costello assured him that MCB had conducted just such a competition. Indeed, MCB had secretly invited three international firms to produce designs for one building and selected the Danish firm 3XN that had sketched out what is now known as the "Sail" building. However this process is a far cry from the highly regulated international design competitions Bridges referred to. All MCB's competition proved was that he proceeded with his designs long before the listening sessions ended and that those sessions hardly informed the designs he presented.

Whether one likes the bold design depicted on MCB's renderings or not, the project should not be promoted on the basis of deceptive or even false narratives. 
Politicians lining up in support of MCB plans
at the unveiling of the plans in 2023.


Neither the Mayor, nor the Planning Commission, or the City Council should be willing to hand over HarborPlace before a proper professional vetting of the financial conditions, the urban design, the market conditions, the practicality of the towers, and the long-term fit for downtown. It should not simply be left to the voters to put some reason into the process via a November referendum. Full and accurate information and a masterplan are needed now.

The custodians of this premier piece of real estate  should not be so rash with expressing their full support for a plan that almost all of them saw only hours before the developer revealed it to a flabbergasted public.  They should wonder why there is hardly any design or planning professional who shares their excitement and consider the possibility that they may come to regret their haste and willingness to be pushed over by narratives that don't hold the water. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

1-16-24: A correction was made relative to the uses in the "Sail" building. According to MCB the uses in that building include "a marketplace on the first two floors and [..]restaurant, venue and commercial opportunities on the upper levels".

See also Dan Rodricks SUN column of Sunday Jan 14,24

Friday, January 5, 2024

"Light rail killed Howard Street" - an urban legend debunked

 To some people, the crossroads of Howard and Lexington streets have become a trash bin of mistakes. But others see the collection of ideas centered in the intersection as something else: A historic showcase of our commitment to keep trying until we get it right. Eventually, we will. (Gilbert Sandler, 1998 SUN)

Now that Light Rail is up and running again it is time it is time to bury an urban legend, especially in an election year. Urban legends are by definition falsehoods. Few have been more persistent than the one that light rail killed Howard Street.  The implication that Howard Street is dead is false as well.

Howard Street at Lexington Street with turned "candy cane" lights
and elevated large light arches. (Photo: Kittelson)

Let's set the record straight on both counts:  Even though proving that Howard Street isn't dead would also prove that light rail couldn't have killed it, let's go in chronological order. 

Way back in 1986 Howard Street had ben transformed into a transit mall, candy cane shaped light poles and big arches and all. And here is the kicker: Howard Street was transformed into a bus transit mall to save it, not to kill it! Light rail was not on anybody's mind at that time but the closure of two of four department stores and the decline of Baltimore's historic downtown shopping district was very much on people's mind. 

As early as the 1960s and 1970s several cities experimented with bus transit malls as a fix that would bring additional foot traffic to the shops . Vancouver, Chicago, Portland, Seattle and Denver may be the most known examples. Some of these transit malls were busts and had only a short life (Chicago, Baltimore), others persist to this day (Vancouver, Denver, Seattle).

Howard Street in its glory days, a mess of cars, trolleys and
throngs of pedestrians (SUN Archive)
The transit mall was an early attempt to wrestle streets from the dominance of the automobile and give pedestrians and surface transit more space. Most transit malls that survived are some type of hybrid in which cars may operate during certain hours or in a very limited way. 

In Baltimore Light rail came into the picture a few years after the Howard Street transit mall had opened to much fanfare and wide bricked sidewalks, plenty of custom lights and extra big bus shelters. 

Light Rail was less not seen as an another way to save Howard Street but as a tool to allow a downtown ballpark. But the downtown ballpark was just another big idea of then Mayor Schafer to boost downtown by bringing more people to  downtown. This was in line with Schaefer's "Baltimore Renaissance" which had begun with Charles Center and Inner Harbor and was continued with the Civic Center, the Convention Center and Oriole Park. 

Saving downtown shopping with fancy lights
did not work out (Photo: SUN)

Clearly, a downtown stadium couldn't be surrounded by the usual sea of parking on display at Memorial Stadium, that wouldn't help downtown and isolated the stadium. With a direct rail transit connection the suburban parking dystopia could be avoided. 

Transit planners looked at running LRT on Howard, Eutaw, Paca or even Charles Streets.  Howard Street was deemed to serve the stadium best and with being already a transit mall promised the least disruption from construction. 

To avoid digging up the entire street once again, designers simply tried to fit the trains in with the refurbished streetscape of the transit mall. The decorative custom "candy cane lights" were turned  by 180 degrees to allow the trains to pass, The two large arches spanning the entire street were lifted by 2 feet so the trains plus overhead wires would fit through.  The large custom made bus shelters got a new paint scheme and were re-used in place or sometimes moved to a slightly new location. The widened sidewalks between Saratoga and Mulberry Streets were left in place and the tracks curved accordingly.. 

And because neither merchants nor drivers had liked the bus-transit mall, the insertion of LRT was used as an opportunity to bring the cars back. With LRT Howard Street gained a continuous northbound car lane from Pratt Street to MLK and a southbound car lane from MLK to Centre Street. 

Some of the funky track and driving lane crossovers come from the attempt of reducing impacts to a minimum. Yes, to put the tracks down Howard Street had to be closed again for some time. But to set the record straight: Howard Street was on life support before the bus mall, before light rail and remained like that after light rail. Neither bus, nor rail nor cars and neither candy cane lights nor a downtown stadium would turn around Howard Street's decline. 

Also inaccurate: That designated transit lanes or tracks would provide expeditious transit travel. In reality trains are crawling along Howard Street because in spite of 30 years of promises the trains never got real signal priority at the intersections. So for the most part, they limp from block to block. 

2018 concept plan for Howard Street (MTA)

So no, light rail did not kill Howard Street, but it didn't save it either. The idea that more brick, more pedestrians and better lighting could save downtown shopping proved to be mistaken. Due to the high maintenance cost of all the custom lighting combined with the failure of revival the lights were eventually taken down again after only 20 years.

Decorative arches with lights, installed over Howard Street in the 1980s to restore long-lost twinkle, instead became a 20-year-running light bulb joke. Cut the laugh track – the city’s taking them down. “They won’t be missed!” Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. “Jay” Brodie cheerfully wrote in an e-mail yesterday. (Baltimore SUN 2005)

Even the big custom shelters originally designed for buses fell out of favor and were in part replaced with smaller glass shelters.

Custom bus shelter as reused for light rail
(Photo MTA)

As late as 2018 MTA floated a $75 million plan to redo the parts of Howard Street that had the extra wide sidewalks yet again in order to straighten out the tracks. Alas the federal money for the plan didn't come through and the idea has been put on hold for now.

The rescue came from investment in buildings instead of the street.  

Howard Street never died and today it is in better shape than it has been in many years. The improvements came from the land use on both sides of the road, not from tinkering with the public right of way. The Arena got an upgrade, another developer was selected the Superblock who is promising actual development; the entire block 400 block of Howard Street has seen revitalization and rehabilitation on both sides and plenty new apartments have been built along and near Howard Street. 

The lesson is that neither a street fully devoted to cars, nor one fully devoted to buses, nor one dividing up the space between transit and cars can save downtown retail in a shrinking city. Baltimore's shrinking retail base has moved to the Inner Harbor, Harbor East, Canton and neighborhood "main" streets such as the Avenue in Hampden or Light Street in Federal Hill and struggles even there. Just witness the failing Gallery atrium mall and HarborPlace pavilions which most certainly were not killed by light rail.

Let's stop pointing the finger at transit when it comes to urban ills. The story of Howard Street should teach us the lesson that a only a healthy and stable city can support retail. And for a city to be healthy and stable it needs functioning transit. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Gilbert Sandler: Howard Street history