Wednesday, March 27, 2024

A "Cathedral of American Infrastructure" - gone in a few seconds

I learned about the bridge collapse the old fashioned way: by word of mouth. On my early morning walk at 6am my neighbor stopped his pick up truck, rolled the window down and said, "the Key Bridge is gone". With that he showed me the video clip of the ship ramming the pier and the immediate collapse. "All gone" he said, and added "be safe" before he drove on to his work. 

Francis Key Bridge, a "Cathedral of American Infrastructure"

Later on this calamitous day the Mayor of Baltimore, the Baltimore County Executive, Congressmen, the Secretaries of the State and federal Transportation departments and even the President himself expressed their shock about what had happened. 

DOT Secretary called the bridge a "cathedral of American infrastructure" and with that adequately expressed the meaning of the bridge in the minds of people in Maryland and beyond for whom this bridge was an iconic landmark that was visible from many vantage points. One could stand in Patterson Park and if the weather was good clearly see the Key Bridge. Seeing it added value to real estate like like seeing the Washington Monument in DC or the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The industrial touch was apt for this industrial legacy city with a proud history in steel, right next to the bridge at Sparrows Point which is currently being reborn as a distribution/manufacturing and shipping center. The New York Times observed that "the Key, with its gently sloping arch and views that no tunnel could match, had become an emblem of Baltimore’s identity as a working port city". Former Mayor Kurt Schmoke called it a "blue collar bridge". Those blue collar workers are now facing an uncertain future as long as the shipping channel remains blocked and access to Sparrows Point limited.  

For now the giant container cranes of the port of Baltimore have to act as the stand-ins, their line up clearly pointing to where the bridge is now missing with the jarring ramps pointlessly reaching up to the void. 

A clip from the video showing the bridge buckling

The collapse caused waves around the globe. For a day it became top news in many media and TV outlets, nationally and internationally. German TV sent their reporter from Washington to Baltimore for a live report on site, Spanish noticias brought a Spanish engineer into view who explained why their biggest bridge, the Puente de la Constitución de 1812 in Cádiz would not experience the same fateFrench TV at one point focused entirely on the ship and how it was unheard of that all its systems would fail at the same time. British tabloids had engineers explain the flaws of the continuous truss bridge design.

This is a remarkable effect, in part owed in part to the unique coincidence of events which never have happened like this before, in part due to the sheer size of both the bridge and the ship for which it was no match. The Dali is 985 feet (300 meters) long and about 157 feet (48 meters) wide and weighed with cargo about 115,000 tons. The global response also speaks to both, the power of design and engineering as much as to their weakness when it comes to the most daring design and engineering endeavors. 

The world was shocked when the Hindenburg burnt, when a manned space shuttle disintegrated in space and when two regular airliners brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center and in each case the shock seems to have been a mix of mourning for the lost life and utter astonishment that things can fail so spectacularly. The more awe inspiring a design is, the bigger the shock when it gets destroyed. 

The bridge, the giant ship and the idled port (BBJ)

The Key Bridge was awe inspiring because its tall arched steel truss could be seen for miles and was very impressive when traversing the bridge in a car, high up above the water with the skyline of Baltimore in the distance. And this design was also impressive for engineers, the truss was reportedly the third longest continuous steel truss span in the world and the second longest in the US. Construction began in 1972 and the bridge was opened to traffic on March 23, 1977 as the last piece closing the Baltimore Beltway I-695. Including its connecting approaches, the total project length encompasses a 10.9-mile corridor. Of course, now the impressive truss becomes a liability since the design lacked redundancy. Lacking redundancy generates elegance but also increases vulnerability.

'When you take away one of the supports you get a catastrophic failure because all those parts that are interconnected suddenly become overloaded,' Julian Carter, a Fellow of the UK Institution of Civil Engineers as quoted in the British Daily Mail
The fallen bridge still blocks the port of Baltimore and with it vital shipping of bulk cargo, cruise ships and also container shipping which is generally not Baltimore's main staple. Finding the victims of the collapse in the water is the first priority. Once again highway maintenance workers died while doing work on the beltway. Then clearing the shipping channel will be urgent. While everyone in this region knew the Key Bridge, many only now learn how important Baltimore's port is for this region and far beyond.
The technical aspects of the bridge (Daily Mail, UK)

The president highlighted that the Port of Baltimore is one of the nation's largest shipping hubs and that it handled a record amount of cargo last year. He added that 850,000 vehicles go through the port every single year, 15,000 jobs depend on the port, and 30,000 vehicles cross the bridge on a daily basis (The Hill)

Soon enough minds will turn to designing a replacement bridge, which will likely take years. Should speed win over esthetics or should the new bridge strive to be iconic once again? Designing a bridge spanning the shipping channel high enough for tall ships to clear cannot be done with a ready to go standard highway bridge design. Most likely the specifications alone will make a new bridge also remarkable and eventually a new landmark, whether it uses steel trusses or cable trusses or some other technique. Maybe a temporary low structure that would be opened up for ships to pass could take some pressure off a new final bridge design which most cost effectively would connect to the still standing approach ramps. 

Certainly lessons will be applied, none of them simple or cheap. The first place to apply lessons may not be a new Key Bridge but the nearby Bay Bridge double span as well as the far away Oakland Bay Bridge, the Delaware Bridge and many others which appear to be equally vulnerable. 

Only if the new connection would be a tunnel would it not be a landmark any longer, but a tunnel wouldn't solve the issue of hazardous cargo that is prohibited on all tunnels, including the already existing tunnels under the Baltimore Harbor.

Spanish Cable Stayed Puente de la Constitución de 1812 in Cádiz 

“I do not know of a bridge that has been constructed to withstand a direct impact from a vessel of this size,” DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg
He may well be right. The force from a 115 000 ton ship moving at 9mph is beyond any impact force that is in the current design guidelines for bridges. From 1960 to 2015, there were 35 major bridge collapses worldwide due to ship or barge collisions, according to the World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure. Redundancy in the bridge design would make a collapse less likely or allow a partial one versus a total collapse. Stronger pylons would withstand bigger impacts and guideposts and floating "dolphin" barriers may direct ships away from pylons. Keeping tugboats steering the ship until it passed the bridge maybe another option. One can hope that engineers and designers rise to the occasion. But no design will ever be able to prevent failure against what was not calculated or anticipated. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Friday, March 22, 2024

The promising new faces of the Middle Branch

Anybody who hasn't recently been to Port Covington (yeah, I know I am supposed to say "Baltimore Peninsula") or who just sees the area from I-95, or who has written the "Plank-town" off as an unattainable or a not even desirable dream, or has forgotten about Port Covington and the Middle Branch altogether over the hoopla around HarborPlace, I recommend a visit. With the below photo-tour one can update the impressions from the sofa. 

The Middle Branch in the back and beyond the water Cherry Hill
(Photo: Philipsen)

No longer are we just talking about Under Armor's much downsized "global headquarters" occupies a total of 50 acres of land and the adjacent 235 acre compendium development is now headed off by lead developers, MAG Partners, MacFarlane Partners, and investor Sagamore Ventures but also 25 acres next to the HQ campus, the Locke Insulator company redevelopment, roughly the land area of HarborPoint.

 Also in design is the Westport waterfront while the beautiful new Cherry Hill recreation center is already in service for a while. All will be connected by a promenade and trail system that will even cross the water on a to be restored railroad bridge.

So far the Sagamore venture team has completed 1.1 million square feet of stuff along with several streets and a small park as well as waterfront green. According to their own report, construction contracts totaling more than $134M have been awarded to minority- and women-owned construction firms which amounts to 35% of contracts that have gone to minority-owned businesses and 13% to women-owned enterprises.  20% of the apartments completed in the first building phase are designated as affordable units. $2.5 million worth of grants were given to SB7 communities (Westport, Lakeland, Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, Curtis Bay and the Peninsula itself). According to the self reporting, these numbers exceed the minimum required in the community compact.

Port Covington/Pensinsula masterplan (Source: Impact Report)

Together with the previously complete Sagamore Distillery and its restaurant now being updated for a new tenant and to be open soon, there are areas where one can feel the beginnings of a new urban section, even though one has to still traverse wastelands to get there. 

A courtyard in Sagamore's development with
a reflection of the distillery's water tower
(Photo: Phiipsen)

Under Armor's headquarter campus is also taking shape with the 280,000 sq. ft. headquarters and fitness building called TMB2, a five-story, 75 ft. high building  currently being closed in with a glass facade. Where the structure is still open one can see the widespread use of heavy timber for ceilings and floors.

 Mark Sapperstein's 28 Walker Development is in charge of Locke's Landing, the redevelopment of the Locke Insulator plant that had been shuttered in 2017. 

Anyone who ever went to Nick's Fish House or the adjoining Marina or has traversed the Hanover Street Bridge with open eyes was familiar with Locke's Insulator 1920s 625,000sf sprawling industrial landmark of Baltimore's manufacturing past. No longer. It took the demolition company a mere 4 months to level, haul off or recycle the entire plant. Not only that, some 50 entirely new townhomes have already risen out of the ground with a dozen or so ready to be occupied next month. An apartment building at the corner of Hanover Street and Insulator drive is also coming out of the ground. 

Mark Sapperstein and Scott Slosson of 28 Walker
Development explaining the Locke Landing project
(Photo: Philipsen)

"This pace is basically insane" Sapperstein says, not without pride about this type of progress on land that he acquired only in 2022 in the middle of a pandemic, sputtering supply lines and inflated construction costs. 

He points out that his team emerged as the winner among the seven bidders for the industrial site mostly because his experience with environmental remediation and because Locke's Japanese owner liked that his team was the only one to clean the site to "residential" standards which are higher than for industrial or mixed use.  This should also be good for the surrounding water.

When it is all said and done, "Locke Landing" will have 904 housing units in a mix of apartments and 393 townhouse units. One cannot help but compare the pace of this project with Madison Park on North Avenue, MCB's project of a similar size and program.  After 10 years it is still stuck on putting pipes in the ground. (MCB's David Bramble points to many external difficulties including the progressing design of the Douglass tunnel under his site which held it up for some time). 

Sapperstein earned his environmental chops at Canton Crossing where his shopping center and mixed use development site on a previous Exxon tank farm. He also developed McHenry Row and Banner Row in Locust Point. None of his developments are architecturally earth-shattering with small exceptions: At Canton Crossing his team erected Baltimore's first heavy timber structure. But all of Sapperstein's developments are highly successful and free of Baltimore's usual ailments of rapidly changing retail tenants, long delays in construction or overwrought subsidies. Sapperstein even built tiny homes for Hope Village. In a presentation to ULI Sapperstein sang rare praises of Baltimore's development process and its flexibility and speed. 

1.1 million soft of development waiting for
users (Photo: Philipsen)

Even those who have reservations about the City TIF for Port Covington going to infrastructure, there should be some level of excitement in seeing the drastically transforming Middle Branch shores formerly defined by rail yards and pollution spewing industries. 

Dismissed by some as bland boxes, Sagamore's  residential and office buildings completed to date are not bland but carefully designed and placed to create some interesting spaces far beyond the normal grid of streets and alleys. Their problem is less one of design but more one of lack of demand. As beautiful as the sidewalks, facades and courtyards look, so far, they are sorely missing people, giving rise to the concern how long the joint venture can sustain this, even with a financial partner such as Goldman Sachs. 

Many in Baltimore oppose all the development in Baltimore that is happening along the waterfront in HarborPoint, Canton and Port Covington on the grounds that it cannibalizes downtown, or even more fundamentally, that it diverts funds from fixing up the badly ailing neighborhoods in the disinvested areas of the "Black Butterfly" areas east and west of downtown. Both points of critique seem quite plausible, at least on the face of it, especially in a shrinking city like Baltimore. 

However, there is also a strong argument to be made that economic development is not a zero sum game and that for Baltimore to break out of its cycle of shrinkage and disinvestment it needs to offer commercial and residential real estate opportunities that are competitive with Washington, Philadelphia and even Richmond, all places that are in a constant churn of re-inventing themselves. Even if those new developments are not for all, proponents argue that there is a trickle down into the City coffers that the City can ill afford not to have. 

There is no time in Baltimore's history which one would want to conserve and put into some type of snow cone. Each period has been full of injustices, contradictions and oppressive practices. 

Port Covington's community benefits agreement is in many respects a model for a new paradigm of progress that relies on more than just trickle down. Just go and look at the new Cherry Hill rec center on the other side of the Hanover Street Bridge to see how a gleaming new neighborhood facility can rise from dedicated set asides intended to reverse past inequities (Under Armor and Casino funds). It can be expected that the Westport waterfront developer will fulfill similar agreements with the Westport community. Connecting all these developments is Baltimore's second waterfront, the long forgotten Middle Branch with its masterplan largely funded from Casino proceeds. The plan is well underway towards realization and promises to provide equitable access to water and recreation all along the shorelines, a true second Baltimore waterfront. Not really a bad prospect.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA 

(this article was updated on 3/25/24 to include the link to the "impact report" and an image of the Port Covington/Peninsula masterplan)

Related articles on this blog:

Big names and ideas for Baltimore's second waterfront

A picture tour at sunset on the first day of spring 2024:

The base of a new apartment building at the foot of Hanover Bridge

The Under Armor TM2 Building from a distance

Sagamore development: More than just boxes 

Sagamore residential development, retail below

Varied fenestration, materials but no variation in height

The Sagamore development pocket park

The Sagamore development pocket park

The Sagamore development pocket park

Green roof

Extravagant streetscape, wide sidewalks, narrow lanes, planting strips

Extravagant streetscape, Wide sidewalks, narrow lanes, planting strips

The development includes several intimate pedestrian spaces

The development includes several intimate pedestrian spaces

Extravagant streetscape, Wide sidewalks, narrow lanes, planting strips

The development includes several intimate pedestrian spaces

Empty streets and sidewalks 

The development still sits pretty isolated

The Locke Landing development consists of townhouses and two apartment buildings

The first homes in the Locke Landing development are sold and almost ready to be occupied

The Locke Landing architecture is predictable, the layout rigid

The Locke Landing development is constructed and marketed by two national homebuilders

The Locke Landing development in the foreground with Under Armor in the back

Locke Landing development: Ready to put up the next townhomes

The Under Armor TM2 Building: Mass timber on five levels
Cherry Hill Recreation Center 

Cherry Hill Rec Center
(all photos copyright Philipsen)

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Reinvestment without displacement: North Avenue Market

“Our aim is to foster an environment conducive to artistic experimentation, creativity, and serendipitous encounters—the very essence of innovation and collaboration,” Ellen Janes, executive director of Central Baltimore Partnership (CBP).
Ever since artists revived New York's SOHO they have become the target of revitalization strategies, in Baltimore's Station North District probably more so than in the  three other "Arts and Entertainment Districts" in the City. Revitalization through artists has also often been described as gentrification that would lead eventually to displacement in the community, including the pioneering artists themselves. 

Revitalization has not been going smoothly or steadily forward in Station North but an investment model developed by the Central Baltimore Partnership (CBP) is especially equipped to prevent the unintended consequences. 
North Avenue Market 2012 (Photo: Philipsen)

With a change in ownership one of the largest properties in the district (not counting the school headquarters), the North Avenue Market complex has become the latest application for  CBP's investment strategy in the arts district. 

The Building 

The North Avenue Market doesn't only sit at the heart of the district at Charles Street and North Avenue, with its  distinctive cupola towers and tile roof in the Spanish Revival style the building qualifies as a historic structure in the North Central National Register District created in 2002.  Even under the previous owners Mike Shecter and Carolyn Frenkil the arts were a theme to revive the market complex which covers almost the entire block between Charles and Street and Maryland Avenue. In 2008, a $1 million initiative to restore the building as an “arts-focused mix of shops, eateries, and offices”  was launched. In 2012 the rehabilitation for the market was supported with grant money from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and already then from the Central Baltimore Partnership.

At one point success seemed within reach with a vibrant mix of art oriented uses: Liam Flynn's Irish bar with its country music jam sessions, the Windup gallery cum bar and performance space, Red Emma's with its bookstore, coffeeshop and book readings, a print shop and a gallery had found a home in the cavernous spaces. They all formed an artistic biotope special to the Station North arts district.  

The western arcade of the Market. It will be opened
to be a circulation spine as in the original market
(Photo: Philipsen)
But all of those market tenants came and went. Even the Y-knot lot that rounded out the block had to be closed because the lease was not extended. (A much smaller version is supposed to rise diagonally across the street on the lot left behind after the demolition of the former Kagro building). With no permanent tenants left in the sprawling market building and after decades of ownership and various attempts of modernization and upkeep of the aging building and its ailing infrastructure, Shecter and Frankel threw in the towel, in spite of the their other arts related investments elsewhere in the district. 

"As far as the building goes, Carolyn and I, we've had some successes and we've had some struggles, as everybody has. What it really came down to was the realization that the building needs a lot more than what Carolyn and I can do for it. What we're really hoping for is that someone with some patience and deeper pockets can come in and do a lot more with more bang for the buck, or make something happen in a fast, meaningful way." (Mike Shecter as quoted in the BBJ in August 2022)

The ups and downs of North Avenue

The location at Charles and North is an interesting location. Charles Street as the spine of the "white L" is essentially thriving end to end. North Avenue, by contrast traverses the two wings of the "black butterfly" and has been ravaged by disinvestment end to end. Obviously, the intersection of these two zones has a pull in both directions and this area of North Avenue has seen relatively many development projects. Even though, owning property in this segment of North Avenue is no walk in the park. The combination of longstanding historic disinvestment, artists, galleries and small businesses who usually don't have very deep pockets combined with the pandemic and all its consequences make for a fragile mix that saw the demise of what had been considered benchmarks of success: Joe Square Pizza closed, the Parkway closed, even the Maryland art school MICA had to cut back in the wake of fewer students registering with them. 

Almost a city block: Floorplan of the market in the current "chopped
up" state. (Source: Frank Lucas/Mike Shecter 2012)
Some cornerstones of the arts district hung on: The former Load of Fun conversion to a center for non-profits and performance, the conversions of the  Center Theater into the Impact Hub survive and a recent addition, Jubilee's revival of a former dance night club into an educational hub. The public roam saw some small changes as well through MTA's "North Avenue Rising" project that brought bus and bike lanes to North Avenue.

Central Baltimore Partnership to the rescue

Enter the new North Avenue Market Development LLC and Central Baltimore Partnership model of rescuing imperiled buildings that are significant for the survival of the arts district. In this case the development group consists of a joint venture partnership consisting of the Central Baltimore Future Fund, CBP and Twenty-Two Lanes Development LLC, headed by John Renner of Timshel Development, with Matt Oppenheim and Michael Haskins Jr. as partners. The Twentytwo refers to the bowling lanes in the market, Timshel is Hebrew for "freedom to".

The West side of the Market in 2017 (Photo: Philipsen)

The set-up for the new North Avenue Market regime is tailored after similar success stories forged by the Central Baltimore Partnership (CMP) and its $10 million Future Fund loan pool established in 2016. For example  Area 405a place for artists and Waverly Town Hall, a renovated  small market hall on Guilford Avenue for which CBP and its real estate affiliate raised the funds to buy the building and subsidized both the developer and tenant fit out, and assists in recruiting and supporting tenants according to CBP ED Ellen Janes. Waverly Main Street and various businesses were other key players. Other Future Fund projects are  the old Odell’s nightclub on North Avenue, Red Emma’s in Waverly and the Voxel Theater on 25th Street. 

In all cases money from the Future Fund seeded the project and all types of other funds and tax credits are used to finance the usually very high cost of building stabilization and repair to save the buildings and the users that have found a home in them. According to Ellen Janes, Executive Director of CBP, the fund is in need of being replenished. Ideally a revolving loan fund, revenue from previous projects is so far absent or minimal, thus the fund and the projects rely on subsidies from City, State and CBP stakeholders. 

North Ave Market in its very early days
(Museum of Industry)

“I cannot find another example of a community coming together to save an arts space like what has happened with Area 405. With a very strong development team, we took a calculated risk on a revitalization strategy. We couldn’t find the model, so we created it. I hope to see it replicated again in Baltimore and in other parts of the country. It is feasible, and it is critically important.” (Ellen Janes, Executive Director Central Baltimore Partnership)

In the case of the market it was necessary to compete against speculators who would snatch the building up and let it sit waiting for better times, a often times hurtful practice well known across Baltimore. According to Ellen Janes it helped that the sellers were assisting in financing of the purchase cost. 

The North Avenue Market project

In the case of the market, the cost of fixing the building up is estimated to be $30 million, based on a design approach put together by architect Megan Ercrat of Present Company. Ms Ercrat says many people know the market from the various stores it housed over time, but hardly anybody knows the market in its entirety. Too much of the floor area in the back had been locked off. The second floor bowling alleys and the full 40,000sf basement were mothballed for decades.  Ercrat says opening up the two original arcades where one can see the arched entries at the bottom of each tower will allow code compliant access and egress to the entire floor area, as in the original concept as a market hall. The western arcade still features a hidden barrel vault,, something that was lost at the eastern entry. 

Pop-Up bar in the former Wind-Up Space during Artscape
(Photo: Philipsen)

$4.8 million come from an allocation of the highly competitive State historic tax credits which were awarded in 2023. Some $14 million of the overall cost are assigned for the shell, the rest for interior work, systems and allowances for tenant fit outs, according to John Renner. The project will also use New Market tax credits.

It takes a village to do revitalization without displacement. It cannot happen without stakeholder subsidies (several large organizations such as UB, MICA and Hopkins are part of the CBP partnership) government participation and many on the ground organizations, individuals and businesses. On the Station North A&E District Facebook page one can find the long list of supporters for the North Avenue Market: 

The acquisition was made possible by Maryland capital funds supported by Sen. Cory McCray and former Del. Maggie McIntosh; Baltimore City's nonprofit revitalization lender the Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund; the sellers and longtime owners Mike Shecter and Carolyn Frenkil; and capital grants from the Maryland Dept. of Housing and Community Development and Johns Hopkins University. The new owners have received over $4 million in Maryland Revitalization Historic Tax Credits, the largest award in 2023.

John Renner, the lead for the redevelopment as an arts hub, intends to keep temporary tenants around during the year that will be needed to finalize financing and plans and a long-term perspective. "You will see a lot more activity soon" he told me. He also mentioned the exciting aspect that one could walk out from what has been an upstairs bowling alley in a semi covered space towards the roof edge east and west of the towers. These areas could be activated and provide great views, Renner said. Jones noted that there is "a pipeline" of folks who want to be in Station North, which makes Renner hopeful that the building could be filled, including the 40,000 sf attractive basement where he can imagine a fitness space and a makerspace. 

“There is a spiral staircase that leads to that upper space. I fell in love with this building. Cleaning out the old dropped ceiling will reveal the full value of the old market hall. I want to make this neighborhood better than it is right now. The market really is a linchpin for Station North and central Baltimore.” (John Renner as quoted in the SUN)

The history of the Market

Few are old enough to remember the time when the North Avenue Market was actually a bustling private  market and not the shell for rapidly changing bars and venues that it had become in the last half century, and even after the Station North Art and Entertainment District took shape and brought a renaissance to the area. 

In fact, the market for all its glory expressed in the facade and iconic towers, started on the wrong foot when it opened in 1928, just one year before the Great Depression. It quickly fell into disinvestment resulting in empty stalls. While the Dow Jones needed 25 years to recover to pre-depression levels in 1954, the market never fully recovered. It got chopped up to house some known chains such as the Read's Drugstore and shrank down to just 30 stalls from originally 200. Thus the briefly glorious market limped along in various forms until a fateful fire in 1968 almost gave it the death blow.

North Avenue Market (Museum of Industry/ Baltimore

After the fire, the market was purchased by James and Carolyn Frenkil, owners of the Center City, Inc., development company, who planned to reopen a portion of the market over the next six years. They sold the northern portion of the building to be developed into high-rise senior citizen housing. But apparently the cash from the partial sale was never enough to bring back some semblance of old shine. In the years after the fire a few stores made a go at the corner of Maryland Avenue and along the then still busy North Avenue such as a supermarket, Rite Aid (the successor to Read's) and a Murphy’s variety store. Eventually Mike Shecter joined Carolyn Frankil, and the explorations with more art oriented venues began. 

Right before the building transferred into new ownership in 2023 Artscape transformed it for a few days with pop up installations in all the places that had been vacated with the improvements still intact. It was like magic, the North Avenue Market was back alive. (Exhilarating Artscape). One of the pop-ups, the Mobtown Ballroom, at the time still located in Pigtown, has now moved to the former Red Emma Space, although it isn't clear how permanent this new location will be. 

Can the Future Fund model scale?

Would this new approach using a revolving investment fund and a broader investor group work elsewhere in Baltimore? Will it be sustainable and scalable? The Guilford Hall on Greenmount Avenue was successfully completed, but it was just completed, too early to see if it is a sustainable model. Area 405 is on the long journey towards being self-sustaining. Overall the eleven neighborhoods in which the CBD is active represent success. They are the healthiest and most diverse neighborhoods Baltimore has to offer, proof that growth without displacement is possible. 

The model of revitalization without displacement is important for cities that are as underinvested as Baltimore, because displacement looms as soon as dilapidated real estate becomes an object of speculation, something that has already happened in Station North. It is even more important in overinvested and gentrified  neighborhoods and entire cities, such as San Francisco or Paris that tend to see lots of displacement, both on the residential and the business side. Just this  week this NYT article describes the massive public investment in affordable housing  and small stores in Paris to maintain the authenticity and diversity of the city. It looks like CPB and its partners are on the right track. 

Klaus Philipsen FAIA

(As president of D:Center the author was a tenant in the North Ave Market around 2012)

Related on this blog:

Is North Avenue Rising or Sinking?

Good bye, Liam Flynn

Other sources:

Friday, March 8, 2024

Density - Dirty Word or Solution?

A history of separation

The nation is ripped by a housing crisis. Especially affordable housing is in low supply, across the US, in Maryland and in almost every local jurisdiction. The causes are multiple. High cost to construct housing, an ever shrinking pool of public housing and rent restricted housing where more units fall out of the restrictions than come into it on average, red tape, "redlining" and the fear of density. 

Suburban fight against new development in Baltimore County
(Photo: Baltimore Banner)

Onerous regulations have been not only been a tool of separating use, race and class for a long time, they also control how many people can live in a given space, in other words: Density. Discriminatory regulations are alive and well to this day, often in the guise of respectable goals. For example: Use segregation has long been seen as a good way to protect housing from  fumes, noise and other impacts of non compatible uses, even though today many industries have become quiet and clean and the livability of places where each use has its own quarter in town have long become a question. Fear of density, however, remains. 

Race and class separation isn't openly pursued any longer, but lives on in regulations and housing production that favors spreading things out. Whole streets or subdivisions see only one type of home which shares a common price point, mandates large lots, lot coverage, and setbacks. The result is the particular "product" that homebuilder prefer and that leads to complete income stratification that too often is also a race stratification: The single family home. Thus hidden discrimination is still rampant, further cemented by lenders and real estate agents which give loans or show certain homes only to certain clients. 

Not so lovely: Underperforming suburban commercial corridors
(Photo: Philipsen)

The ramifications of these mono-cultures manifest themselves in urban design: Rarely can one see rental multi-family housing mixed in with single family homes, smaller and larger homes mixed up or a store in the middle of a residential neighborhood and even schools, post offices and town halls are set aside, far away from people that are supposed to use them. The endless monocultures of single family homes breed owners who defend their status tooth and nail against any change, no matter that older towns, cities and villages with their mix of uses, styles and incomes are often very attractive and in high demand for their authentic character and the high efficiency of walkable communities with close by services. By contrast, the commercial corridors of suburban communities show clear signs of ailing.

The many obstacles to change

The favorite weapon against change in those suburban communities are their ubiquitous "adequate public facilities ordinances" (APFOs). They presumably exist to prevent an overload of infrastructure from too much development, but they are fundamentally based on the very common misunderstanding that density causes overload. In many ways the opposite is the case. Density makes far better use of infrastructure by using it more efficiently, reducing the extent of stuff that needs to be maintained. This becomes obvious every time a snowstorm hits and the plows have a hard time to keep miles and miles of suburban lanes and cut de sacs cleared. Density allows schools that are better equipped with libraries, gymnasiums and auditoria and density also reduces traffic congestion. This last point may seem counterintuitive, but it becomes immediately clear when one compares how many trips are needed and how long the trips are to cover daily needs in a low density suburban setting versus an urban one. The three cars in many suburban driveways are not just decoration, they actually move from all sides to the nearest intersection on streets that don't know redundancy (i.e. alternative routes) and cause massive congestion in spite of double turn lanes, four phase signaling and the almost complete absence of pedestrians. The congestion is then used to prevent any new development inside existing communities, potentially opening up some cultural de sacs and forces more sprawl in adjacent fields and forest, creating yet more traffic.

Beyond these matters of logic,  APFOs provide a convenient smoke screen to block others from come in on the grounds of lacking sewer, school or road capacities. Stifling residential development then begins to stunt the tax revenues that would pay for an improvement of the failing infrastructure.

A train without development: Failing mall next to a transit station
(Photo: Philipsen)

With zoning squarely in the hands of local council representatives, NIMBY pressure is always on them to keep new housing in existing communities at bay, especially denser multifamily housing that could bring "those people" to their neighborhood.  

Re-zoning: The hottest trend?

But the housing crisis has become so rampant all across America that many local governments have begun to rethink their regulations, no longer simply listening to neighbors who don't want to see new neighbors, increased densities, or really, any change in their community. The housing shortage is not only accompanied by missing economic development,  it is the cause of it. People begin to notice: Homelessness has become overwhelming, companies have trouble finding employees, taxes go up to maintain aging stuff without growth when jurisdictions run out of new land. The current course is not sustainable. 

We have a supply and demand problem. Maryland is not unique in this respect. And this is not just a problem for those who are low- and middle-income. Lierman’s report also noted the many stories of businesses turning down potential relocation plans to Maryland due to insufficient workforce housing. Fewer businesses mean fewer jobs and less revenue for the state and local governments. Fewer housing options also means longer commutes, more time on the road, more pollution and less time to help kids with schools.(Peter Engel, Director, Howard County Housing Commission)

With people of middle income jobs not finding housing where their jobs are the often mentioned teachers, firefighters, nurses and EMTs have been priced out along with the salespeople, the mail persons, the roofers, framers and shopkeepers, in short, all the people that make a community work. At the same time changing shopping habits, work from home have made many of the older commercial strips that line arterial roadways in the suburbs all across America obsolete, underutilized or lying entirely fallow. Their look is far from the original suburban dream.

It is in this context that NPR identified new zoning as a hot trend. Is hope on the horizon?

The hottest trend in U.S. cities? Changing zoning rules to allow more housing (NPR)

In response to the failings, some towns and cities have taken zoning for single-family-housing off the books altogether, others relinquished setback rules, lot sizes or allowed accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to be used not only by family members but also by renters that can augment the income for a homeowner. All of this would allow a gradual densification of neighborhoods, a nightmare for many. For example the Harford County Executive:

“As ADUs proliferate, a tipping point will be reached whereby all taxpayers and system-users will bear the costs of increased housing density,” xBill 24-001 would immediately increase the allowable density of residential properties in Harford County, resulting in significant known and unknown costs and other impacts affecting all residents and taxpayers countywide.” (Executive Cassilly).

This fear mongering is silly and describes the opposite of what happens. Properties with ADUs would certainly be assessed higher and yield more tax income. 

Hope and improvement is especially bright in the commercial zones where failing malls and their giant parking lots have been repurposed for denser mixed use. Mall conversion has almost become a national sport. Converting inward looking shopping bunkers, surrounded by a sea of asphalt, into new mixed use "town centers" which resemble remarkably those of traditional towns has become a success story: A grid of small streets, curbside parking, outdoor restaurant eating, small parks, a central plaza with a fountain or a skating rink and shops underneath apartment buildings and townhouses with some office and services here and there are elements that make attractive places, boost economic development and bring housing choices previously not seen in the suburbs. 

Demographic shifts to ever smaller households make these mixed use centers not only economically viable but also necessary. Regulation and code adjustments help things along: The fire code now allows four story wood framed buildings on top of a one or two story concrete base for stores, offices or restaurants and local mixed use zones make it possible for developers to build them. 

In some cities such as New York, Denver and San Diego four or five stories of apartments above stores are now the most common building type under construction, the same is true around many older suburban malls. Still some jurisdictions cling to the outmoded mono-culture sprawl model of the fifties. 

Current bills and Populism in the Village

Political populism has taken a hold in the suburbs as well: populists go to war against rezoning initiatives. They insist on the old "Euclidian" zoning that keeps everything nicely separated and make additions, accessory dwelling units, modular or manufactured homes dirty words. Subdividing larger houses or the adaptive reuse of old abandoned shopping centers into multi-family housing is a populist" "southern border" that needs to be shut down.  In Baltimore County a single councilman can block mixed use instead of a derelict mall right next to a rail transit stop just because it isn't allowed by the current zoning code. He can also block re-zoning or a planned unit development. The regulations lay both controls in the hand of a single district representative because the others defer their own judgement out of "councilmanic courtesy". 

When the Baltimore County Executive thought he could cut through the logjam with a bill that would allow mixed use (i.e. residential use) in business districts by right as long as they sit in one of the redevelopment nodes which the new masterplan defines, he ran into a buzzsaw of opposition of the "no apartments- no compromise crowd" combined with almost unanimous animosity by the council members who felt they were circumvented. Even after he announced he would rescind the bill, two councilmen still snubbed him by removing critical nodes in one case and all nodes in the other from the masterplan. The removal of the nodes was like cutting the legs off from the Masterplan 2030 in the last minute. The plan had been in the works for over two years, had passed the Planning Board and had gone through many public meetings. (How to make a mockery of planning). A "compromise bill that leaves all the power with the council is already in the crosshairs of the populists even before it is officially introduced.

No small wonder then, that the State is striking back with a very remarkable bill currently wending its way through the Maryland legislature: SB 0484

This state bill put together by the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) and M-DOT requires local jurisdictions to allow new manufactured homes in single-family zones and increased densities in specific zones for affordable housing projects. The bill prohibits a jurisdiction from imposing unreasonable limitations or requirements on a qualified affordable housing project including requiring more than one public hearing and unreasonable restrictions based on adequate public facilities laws and requires local jurisdictions to allow specified densities on property formerly owned by the State, property within one mile of a rail station located in the State and land that is wholly owned by a nonprofit organization. 

The legislation is a small step into the sanctified ground of local land use control. But land use, like all other local power, is given by the state and can be taken back by the state when it is abused. Local restrictions on housing production are harming the state as a whole, working against the greater good, causing hunger and exacerbating poverty for hundreds of thousands of Maryland residents, driving out-migration from the state, slowing the economy and reducing tax revenue. (Peter Engel, Howard County Housing Commission)

Strong words from a public official, but true. Anyone who has followed land use discussions in the State of Maryland (or anywhere in the US, really) knows that local governments cherish nothing more than their rights to control land use. Any attempt of the State to get into that privilege has always been met with open hostility. Yet, the bills sailed relatively unscathed through committee hearings thanks to careful coordination with the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) and the Maryland Municipal League (MML) by Housing Secretary Jacob Day who was the mayor of the town of Salisbury before where he had unleashed a true housing boom (Here is Home). Now State Housing Secretary, Day described the purpose of his housing legislative package on the radio station WYPR. Referring ton the housing crisis he said that "on a scale of severity it can't get much worse" referring to 25% of Maryland renters paying 50% and more of their disposable income on housing.

In his 2022 "State of the City" address, then Mayor Day reported the success of his initiative:

Homebuilders, landowners and real estate developers responded to overtures by the city over the course of a 90-day window for proposed projects with $1.4 billion in new housing proposals. According to Day, that is a 175% increase in the total existing housing in Salisbury. That also represents a 67% increase in the total assessable base of the city. (Delmarva Now)

The bill still needs to be voted in both chambers in Annapolis. The sheer existence of the bill, though, shows that the housing crisis is not only recognized but that all levels of government begin to act on it. Density is no longer just a dirty word.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related on my blogs:

                    How to make a mockery of planning 

                    A bill that could make zoning more inclusive 

                    Why "lovely suburbia" is the cause of many troubles

                    From American Icon to Pariah?

See also my article on Bloomberg's CityLab: 

When suburbs go to war with transit

State Housing bills currently under review: