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)

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