Quicksand for Baltimore Beach Volleyball at Rash Field

Over the past 13 years, beach volleyball has become a success in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, drawing young adults for clean, athletic fun in a beautiful setting. But as the city moves ahead with plans to replace the volleyball courts with a parking garage and rooftop lawn, typically unengaged millennials are fighting back.

Baltimore Beach Volleyball

Fun in the Baltimore sand. All images by Katie Howell Photography

Under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore hasn’t poured a lot of public resources into sexy projects, focusing instead on keeping the city afloat and the books balanced. That’s why it was surprising when the visionary Inner Harbor 2 Plan emerged.

The plan’s headliner is an iconic bike/pedestrian bridge across the harbor. Other smaller complimentary projects, like adding stationary exercise bikes, food kiosks with outdoor seating, kayak ports, bike share, playgrounds, more beach, or a pool barge, would collectively make a big difference.

But there’s been pushback to a proposal to build a $40 million, 500-space parking garage, which would replace the volleyball courts where the Baltimore Beach Volleyball league has operated since 2001, as well as a memorial to the Pride of Baltimore, a sunken clipper ship.

The garage, which would have a rooftop lawn, appears to be the very first project out of the gate, causing the Inner Harbor 2 plan to get off to an unpopular start for many. Millennials, often criticized as a demographic for being politically absent, are expressing their unhappiness about losing a popular recreational area for a parking garage.

Volleyball supporters have written at least five letters to the Baltimore Sun over the past month advocating for the beach at Rash Field and noting its ability to draw young people. An unscientific poll from an earlier post I wrote in February received over 850 votes of 900 total for keeping beach volleyball.

Rash Field could use some improvements, but the many smaller projects in the Inner Harbor 2 plan could give the space the punch the city is looking for. Todd Webster, owner of Baltimore Beach Volleyball has been willing to help pitch in, if he could secure a multi-year lease for the league.

Baltimore Beach Volleyball

Beach volleyball is a social attraction for Baltimore

A parking garage isn’t what will make Rash Field and the Inner Harbor a better place. There are many cheaper ways to make Rash Field better without displacing Baltimore Beach Volleyball or the Pride of Baltimore memorial. Doing so would not only be in keeping with the city’s bent for fiscal responsibility, but it could also free up money for projects that are truly a game-changer for the Inner Harbor.

JL

*crossposted on Greater Greater Washington and Sustainable Cities Collective

America can learn from this French city’s complete streets

Strasbourg, France is a beautiful city that takes its complete streets to heart. The roads through the old (and new) city gracefully mix street trams/lightrail with bicycle paths and friendly traffic calmed streets. Pedestrians move easily. Its central intercity train station is housed in a glamorous historic building, sheathed in a chic modern glass shell.

Gare de Strasbourg

Strasbourg’s central railway station. Photo by Cha Gia Jose on flickr

My family moved to Strasbourg when I was 12.  In French school, I comprehended little, and regularly escaped the gates of Le Lycée International des Pontonniers to explore the city by foot and public transportation.  It was liberating to take my lunch money and spend it in boulangeries around town or even into Germany across the Rhine River.  My parents thought I was in school and I may not have been in the country!

Given the quality of its infrastructure, it would be easy to think the French city is quite large. In fact, Strasbourg is a metro area with a population the size of Albany, Little Rock, Colorado Springs and would rank 73rd in US metro size behind Columbia, SC.

6 tramway lines ply this small city

The Strasbourg metropolitan area of 760,000 people is served by six tram lines, 56km (36 miles) of track, 72 stations, and daily ridership of 300,000 (2010) No US city near this size, has this kind of rail system. During the day, trams run every 6 minutes  (M-F), 7 minutes frequency on Saturday and 12 minutes on Sundays. Yearly passes are 456 euros ($620 dollars) with discounts for those over 65 and under 25. Single fare is 1.60 Euro. ($2.18)

Crossing the L'ILL

Tram gliding through town. Photo by Gerry Balding on flickr

(Strasbourg’s trams function as a hybrid of US Street cars and US Light rail. The rail vehicles are similar to streetcars because they are mostly in the roadbed and integrate into the city’s fabric, but unlike streetcars, operate with their own right of way separate from traffic, in this regard more like light rail.)

Bicycle infrastructure abounds

To complement the tram system, Strasbourg has almost 500km (311 miles) of cycling paths, 18,000 bike racks that serve over 130,000 cyclists. Secure bike parking lots and tire inflation facilities are available at bus and tram stops for transit card holders.

Watch Out For Bikes

Streets are for diners and transport of different varieties. Photo by Brisan on flickr

Baltimore County, Baltimore City, and US  far behind Strasbourg

Many US cities have adopted complete street ordinances and individual streets have been retrofitted.  Close by, Baltimore County has been recognized as a national leader for Complete Streets.  Baltimore County ranked 6th among 83 communities in the US with Complete Streets programs. Despite this recognition, the County’s on road bike network is minimal, members of the Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee are agitated at the lack of commitment to projects, the county has missed the mark on its pedestrian safety campaign, and now it’s county executive struggles to find a $50 million contribution for the $2.4 billion Red Line his administration says it supports.

Future home of the Towson Bike Beltway in Baltimore County

Future home of the Towson Bike Beltway in Baltimore County

In Baltimore City, Council Bill 09-0433 was adopted in 2010 directing the Departments of Transportation and Planning to apply “Complete Streets” principles to the planning, design, and construction of all new City transportation improvement projects.

Despite the accolades and the policies, “complete streets” in Baltimore County and Baltimore City still feel foreign. On the ground implementation remains the elusive prize. High incidences of tragic pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle crashes are more associated with user error than engineering design. Complete Street advocates look forward to seeing first rate projects in the city and the suburbs get designed, funded and become reality. In the meantime, please enjoy a few photos of a “complete streets” city that I used to roam.

Similar article crossposted on Greater Greater Washington and Sustainable Cities Collective

Strasbourg urban “complete streets” gallery

(All gallery images from google street view)

This gallery depicts regular infrastructure treatments in the heart of the city that help create a safe and user friendly balance of transportation options.

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Strasbourg suburban “complete streets” gallery

Strasbourg’s outer areas have also built extensive infrastructure to serve multiple types of transportation and keep vehicles at safer speeds.

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The National Zoo and DC Metro fit together, So could Baltimore’s Zoo and its Metro (but they don’t)

While Washington has a Metro stop with “Zoo” in its name, the Metro subway in Baltimore and its zoo appear to ignore each other.

Underutilized open space between the Mondawmin Metro Station and the (Baltimore) Zoo entrance. Image from Google maps.

Underutilized open space between the Mondawmin Metro Station and the (Baltimore) Zoo entrance. Image from Google maps.

At the nearby Mondawmin Metro stop, there is scant evidence the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore (Baltimore Zoo) even exists. At the zoo, there’s little mention of the subway. Meanwhile, the Washington Metro, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, and nearby commercial retailers have a symbiotic relationship.

The Woodley Park/Zoo Metro station and the National Zoo are the same distance as the Baltimore zoo entrance and its nearest subway station, 0.4 miles or a 9 minute walk.

metro to zoo

Image from Google maps.

The zoo could be even closer to the Metro

The Baltimore Zoo is tucked away inside a park, Druid Hill Park. Unlike in DC, where the National Zoo’s entrance is right on Connecticut Avenue, the Baltimore Zoo entrance isn’t at the edge of the park. If architects designed a gateway closer to the station, or even across the street on the grounds of the beautifully renovated Parks and People Headquarters, it would create a stronger connection.

The station could reflect the zoo

Renaming the Mondawmin Station the Mondawmin/Zoo Station is an easy fix. Even bolder would be a zoo inspired interior/exterior design competition for the gloomy station. Baltimore’s Red Line light rail planners are currently seeking qualifications from artists for design projects for its stations. The subway’s stations could use some fresh design, too.

Better designed and safer pedestrian crossings would also help integrate the station, the Zoo, and Druid Hill Park. Auchentrolley Terrace is the size of an interstate and should shrink by multiple lanes.

In Baltimore, lots of open space exists between the Mondawmin Station entrance (left) and the hidden (Baltimore) zoo entrance (right). All photos by author.

In Baltimore, lots of open space exists between the Mondawmin Station entrance (left) and the hidden (Baltimore) zoo entrance (right). All photos by author.

In Washington, transit and the zoo integrate into the city.

In Washington, transit and the zoo integrate into the city.

The zoo could boost the Metro brand

The zoo in Baltimore has plenty of parking and most patrons arrive by car. Integrating the subway and the zoo won’t change this. What can change is the perception that the areas around the Baltimore subway stations never change and that the subway has few destinations at its stations.

Taxpayers have invested $1.3 billion in Baltimore’s Metro Subway. One of the valid complaints about the subway is that it does not serve enough places that people want to go. For the subway to attract new ridership and development at its stations, it needs to build its brand. By increasing the destinations it serves and refreshing its stations, Baltimore citizens and investors, may look at the line in a new way.

The new Social Security complex, potentially a State Center transit oriented development, a revitalized west-side, and an enhanced zoo stop would add momentum for the subway.

A connection could help businesses

The Baltimore Zoo draws almost 375,000 people who spend $10.8 million each year, according to a 2011 study. Linking the Baltimore subway with the zoo will not turn Auchentrolley Terrace into Connecticut Avenue overnight. But by integrating the zoo with the station and its neighborhood, there is more economic spin-off potential than with its current isolated location. It is not hard to imagine businesses that benefit from hungry or thirsty zoo visitors opening near the subway and zoo entrances.

Connecticut Avenue

In Washington, Connecticut Avenue has vibrant retail between the zoo and the subway entrance.

According to American Public Transportation Association, forty-nine million vacationers will use public transportation to sight see. Car-less Inner Harbor tourists in Baltimore and downtown residents might be tempted to take the subway from Charles Center to visit the zoo or seek the green space of Druid Hill Park, especially if they could grab a nice lunch near the station.

When the Baltimore Ravens provided Quarterback Joe Flacco a 120 million dollar contract and he was getting regularly sacked, people clamored for the need to protect the investment in the QB by shoring up the offensive line. Baltimore’s can also shore up the investment in its subway with a few strategic projects and destinations at its stations. A better connection to the Zoo warrants a look.

Jeff La Noue

A similar article is cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington

The Historic Beginning of Baltimore’s Downtown Bicycle Network

In the Enoch Pratt Central Library’s Edgar Allen Poe room, an overflowing enthusiastic audience witnessed history. The Baltimore Department of Transportation (BDOT) planners presented the “Downtown Bicycle Network“, a plan that could catapult bicycling forward in the central business district (CBD) and city. The plan’s signature infrastructure piece is Baltimore’s first ever cycletrack ranging 2.6 miles from near Johns Hopkins University in the north to the convention center near the harbor on Maryland Avenue. Installation is to take place in  fall 2014.

A cycletrack is a leap beyond today’s on-road bicycle investments in the city.  Baltimore bicycle enthusiasts look to DC with both envy and inspiration.  The hope is, the Maryland Avenue cycletrack will prove popular enough to open the door for building a bicycle system on par with the District.

Downtown Bicycle Network Meeting; photo by the author

Downtown Bicycle Network Meeting; photo by the author

Will the Downtown Bicycle Network actually serve downtown?

While its name is the “Downtown Bicycle Network,”  the projects are mostly actually in Mt. Vernon, a neighborhood to the north of the central business district. The cycletrack will get a bicyclist downtown, but for now that is where the network ends.

The proposed Downtown Bicycle Network. Image from Baltimore DOT

The proposed Downtown Bicycle Network. Image from Baltimore DOT

Pratt Street cycletrack could provide an east/west complement to the north/south Maryland Avenue Cycletrack.

Pratt Street is the main artery of the business district and because of its width and concentration of businesses, hotels, tourist attractions, and facilities like the convention center and institutions like the University of Maryland, it remains the grand prize for a cycle track. Bikemore, Baltimore bicycle advocacy organization, is pushing this idea.

Image: Pratt Street in Baltimore. The south lane (on left) is a bus/bike lane. Photo by author.

Image: Pratt Street in Baltimore. The south lane (on left) is a bus/bike lane. Photo by author.

Officially, Baltimore’s bike map lists bus/bike lanes on Pratt Street.  However, these lanes are not often enforced and not comfortable for many bicyclists.

Some maps and officials also tout the Inner Harbor Promenade and the Jones Falls Trail adjacent to Pratt Street as bike facilities. But in summer, they are often packed with tourists, strollers, pedestrians, and are often impassable for bicyclists.

If not for Bixi’s financial troubles, it is likely Baltimore would have Bikeshare by this summer.  Hopefully, Baltimore can use the delayed launch to continue to build a better network to support cycling.  The better the infrastructure, the better bikeshare will work when it eventually launches.

Baltimore Bikeshare

Proposed bikeshare stations. Image from Baltimore DOT

Baltimore can learn from DC and Pittsburgh

Washington is not the only nearby city for Baltimore to seek inspiration. Pittsburgh has integrated quality bike facilities along its water front and made connections to nearby neighborhoods. In a Pittsburgh Magazine article about the steel city’s revitalized river front, Lisa Schroeder, president and CEO of Riverlife, likens the increased traffic along the riverfront to the growth of the regional trail network.

“The more trail that was created, the higher the number of users was,” she says. “We hit that momentum point along the rivers this year. People realized, ‘Aha — this is a network, and I can go in all directions.’ Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh’s new bicycle-friendly mayor wants his city to be in Bicycle magazine top ten US cities, despite its hilly contours.

Will the Maryland Avenue Cycletrack be the first of a series of complementary projects, extensions, and improvements to Baltimore’s bicycle network?   The fast growth of DC and Pittsburgh’s network make us optimistic that charm city will catch the momentum too.

Jeff La Noue

similar article cross-posted on Greater Greater Washington and Sustainable Cities Collective

Baltimore’s car-stuffed waterfront is poised to keep adding more cars

Fancy office towers, hotels, museums, and tourist attractions line the contours of Baltimore’s Chesapeake Bay harborfront. So too, do massive parking garages and interstate-sized roadways that feed them. What does the future hold? According to a new plan, still more parking.

Baltimore waterfront parking garage

One of several waterfront parking garages at Baltimore’s harbor. All photos by author.

Like much of America, Baltimore waterfront development since the age of cars has been designed for the age of cars. That looks likely to continue as the waterfront grows.

The Greater Baltimore Committee and Waterfront Partnership hired architecture firm Ayers Saint Gross to prepare Inner Harbor 2.0, an overarching new plan for reinvigorating Baltimore’s Inner Harbor waterfront.

The Director of Landscape Architecture for Ayers Saint Gross, Jonathon Ceci, said about a parcel of harborfront currently covered by beach volleyball courts, “The site is basically an island cut off from the rest of the Inner Harbor. Besides Key Highway [on one side], you’ve got the water [on the other side] and a lack of parking garages. The question was, how do you make it a magnet for urban activity?”

How does Ceci plan to create “a magnet for urban activity”? Apparently, with parking garages. The Inner Harbor 2.0 plan recommends a $20 million garage on this waterfront site at a public cost of $12-14 million.

Baltimoreans should question the line of thinking that big garages are the best magnets for urban activity. Big garages and wide roads go hand in hand. They create the “island effect” that Mr. Ceci wants to eliminate.

Baltimore’s near waterfront has more high-rise parking spaces than high-rise residential units with waterfront views. There are at least 6 waterfront parking garages, and at least 14 large parking garages within one block of the waterfront. At least 9 parking garages rise to between 7 and 12 stories tall. The waterfront has around 4,500 parking spaces already planned or under construction: 4,000 at the Horseshoe casino and about 500 at Rash field.

Meanwhile, the one-way street pairs adjacent to the harbor have 10 lanes of through traffic, while at many times, cars cannot make it through a light in one cycle. Baltimore has used these streets for 180-mile per hour races.

What Baltimore’s waterfront has gained by attracting tens of thousands of cars it might have lost by being unfriendly to pedestrians, bicyclists, urban livability, and more local populations. Walkers can enjoy a promenade ringing the water, but to venture inland, they have to cross many lanes of unfriendly traffic. These physical road barriers separate the water from Baltimore’s traditional downtown and may limit economic development from more easily sweeping inland.

 

A family racing to safety at Baltimore's Inner Hrabor

A family racing to safety at Baltimore’s Inner Hrabor

Ironically, all the car infrastructure may not make car driving easy. Supersized roads and garages contribute to congestion that can offset cars’ theoretical time-saving advantages. Driving across town and up and down garages sometimes is slower than walking and bicycling. The business case for more parking erodes if corresponding congestion leads to traffic jams and stress.

Pratt Street

Rush hour traffic near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

By adding four high frequency Charm City Circulator bus routes, Baltimore has made progress. It can do much more to shift the balance.

Here are some additional ideas to consider near the waterfront:

  • Create an app that directs cars to affordable satellite parking spaces.
  • Create a tax on new parking garages and dedicate the revenue to non-automotive transportation.
  • Let developers choose to pay into an alternative transportation fund instead of building parking as required by zoning.
  • Encourage parking at outlying transit stations that serve downtown.
  • Re-introduce and enforce bus-only lanes downtown.
  • Create peripheral park & ride lots with frequently departing shuttles servicing downtown, similar to the way airport shuttles work.
  • Create iconic Inner Harbor bus shelters.
  • Operate Camden Line trains on weekends for special events and Orioles games.
  • Ask the Orioles to reward fans for not bringing a car.
  • Create a discounted MTA family pass.
  • Ask downtown employers to create financial incentives for employees to not bring a car.
  • Build Pratt Street and Key Highway cycletracks to support bicyclists and bikeshare.
  • Add Charm City Circulator routes to South Baltimore, Canton, the Casino parking garage, and new park & ride locations.
  • Make sure the east-west Red Line moves forward.

Baltimore’s waterfront must be accessible to people who own cars. However, with more affordable, safe, and convenient alternatives, some drivers would be happy to visit the city’s downtown waterfront, while leaving the car outside of the city center.

Jeff La Noue

cross posted on Greater Greater WashingtonSustainable Cities Collective , and Rustwire

 

Do Baltimore Magazine’s “Best Places To Work” promote gridlock?

Many employers give us no commuting choices.     Photo by biofriendly,  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribute 2.0 Generic

Many employers give us no commuting choices. Photo by biofriendly, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribute 2.0 Generic

Area magazines often issue lists of the “Best Places to Work,” but they don’t consider what the commute to those places is like. The real best places to work shouldn’t make employees sit in traffic for hours each day.

Each year, Baltimore Magazine releases its list of the Best Places to Work, based on factors like salaries, benefits, career mobility, and workplace culture.Washingtonian Magazine has a similar ranking.

But when my wife comes home from work, she does not talk about her employer’s 401K plans, her healthcare, or the free gym. Most often, I hear about how long or stressful her commute by car is.

I try to empathize, but my commute is a leisurely fifteen-minute bike ride that I love, or a two-stop light rail ride when it rains, getting me to work relaxed and clear-headed. Shouldn’t magazines talk about those things, too?

“Best Places to Work” rankings don’t talk about commutes

Virtually every rush hour, one or more of our major regional highways is backed up when some unfortunate driver’s car is mangled in a so-called car-b-que. The DC area usually ranks among the highest in the nation for traffic congestion, while Baltimore isn’t far behind.

Beyond causing stress and eating up time, commuting by car can be dangerous. In 2010, Maryland had 493 traffic deaths. 296 were in passenger cars or light trucks vs one fatality in a bus. 383 fatal car crashes were on urban interstates.

Meanwhile, employers on the Baltimore Magazine list highlight commuting options with about the same frequency as company picnics and employer-paid pet insurance. Of the top 25, there are only eight employers with a walkscore rating over 70. A high walkscore can indicate whether an employee can walk to a place to eat, to live, or a central bus or transit line from their workplace.

Six of the eight employers are in downtown Baltimore with lots of amenities and transit within easy reach, while one is in Towson, a walkable downtown in its own right. The seventh, America’s Remote Help Desk, is in Eldersburg in Carroll County, which isn’t a walkable area but earns a high walkscore due to being in a shopping mall with shops and restaurants. The middle seven are somewhat walkable. The remaining 10 companies are in more remote or isolated locations where driving to work is likely the only feasible option.

By walkscore (WS) ranking, Baltimore Magazine’s “Best Places to Work”:

Baltimore Magazine Top 25 Employers (2013) The higher the walkscore the greater the ability to get around without a car.

Baltimore Magazine Top 25 Employers (2013) The higher the walkscore the greater the ability to get around without a car.

Another way to measure the “best places to work”

Some area employers recognize that the best perk might be a variety of commuting options. Johns Hopkins, Baltimore’s largest employer, deserves credit. Its hospital is located at a Metro subway stop and has six bus lines. It runs an express shuttle service connecting its Homewood and medical campuses with Penn Station.

Hopkins is making investments so its community can conveniently live, shop, and play near each campus without a car. As importantly, Johns Hopkins has a robust Live Near Year Work program with downpayment/closing cost grants of up to $36,000, and is investing in the local public schools and business districts near its campuses as part of its Homewood Community Partners Initiative.

Let me tout my employer, the University of Baltimore. It has a 403b plan, comprehensive health and dental coverage, a free, full-service gym and library. But it also offers many choices for where its employees can live and how they get to work.

It’s within walking distance of many types of housing with different price points. Employees can choose to walk to work, and some do. Those who live slightly further out have the option of biking to work with new cycletracks on Maryland Avenue and Mount Royal Avenue, as well as the Jones Falls Trail, which I use.

The university offers discounts on Maryland Transit Administration service, meaning employees can take advantage of the 5 nearby bus lines, the MARC Penn Line, the light rail, and the subway, as well as a fleet of Zipcars. Penn Station, across the street, offers Bolt Bus and Amtrak.

If my colleagues want to be on the highways, go to Jiffy Lube, replace the tires, they can. But they don’t have to. Having the choice is a benefit.

There are many ways to get around.  Image source: Jeff La Noue

There are many ways to get around. Image source: Jeff La Noue

As employers and office developers across the region make decisions about where to locate and to build, it is time to give employees choices about transport. There should be no more LEED-rated, “green” buildings in the middle of auto-oriented sprawl that costs employees their time, money, and health.

Greater Baltimore has plenty of available real estate a short walk from transit stations. There are office infill opportunities on or near commercial main streets and within walking distances of where people live. State Farm in Atlanta is one of many big employers who are moving to more transit-friendly locations.

But employers may not feel the need to offer employees more travel choices unless it’s recognized as a desirable feature. Baltimore Magazine, how about adding commuting alternatives in the criteria for your “Best Places To Work 2014” list?

JL

Cross posted on Greater Greater Washington, Sustainable Cities Collective , the American Public Transportation Association’s publication  Passenger Transport and profiled on Streetsblog and Planetizen

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor Poised to kick out Millennials

Baltimore Beach Volleyball poised to be asked to leave this location

Baltimore Beach Volleyball poised to be asked to leave this location

Thirteen million visitors a year come to the Inner Harbor.  The city has much to gain if it puts its physically active young professionals out front on display.  By playing at the Inner Harbor, Baltimore Beach Volleyball helps create a desirable healthy active image for the city. Instead of being celebrated, Baltimore Beach’s millennials are getting kicked off-stage.

The Inner Harbor has been home to Baltimore Beach Volleyball (BBV) for eleven years.  BBV has 2500 weekly participants, plays games seven days a week from May to September. It draws players who are 87% millennials, or adults between 20-34, 88% single (in case you’re looking), and 37% come from outside of Baltimore City, according to Todd Webster, who runs the league. BBV has been touted as the largest inner-city metropolitan league on the east coast, hosted games for the International Olympic committee, and become a permanent stop on the Toyota Pro Beach Volleyball tour. Baltimore ought to give BBV the proverbial keys to the harbor, instead there are plans to boot the volleyballers from the Inner Harbor to Swann Park. This is an unambiguous demotion to a low visibility location two miles to the south in the shadow of Interstate 95.

 

IH2 Phase I will trade Baltimore Beach Volleyball for a $40 million parking garage and what is depicted in the rendering

IH2 Phase I will trade Baltimore Beach Volleyball for a $40 million parking garage and what is depicted in the rendering

The city of Baltimore, Waterfront Partnership, and Greater Baltimore Committee recently released  The Inner Harbor II (IH2 ) plan , which looks at ways to improve open space around the harbor. It proposes replacing BBV’s courts and an existing park as well as the Pride of Baltimore memorial with a  subterranean parking garage topped by an oval grass lawn and a small sand “destination.” How this lawn will be programmed is unclear.  The plan will cost $40 million, though parking revenues will likely offset some of these costs.

Do the dollars allocated for IH2 efficiently address the issues highlighted in the Citizen Survey?

Do the dollars allocated for IH2 efficiently address the issues highlighted in the Citizen Survey?

Baltimore leaders have concluded that the Inner Harbor and Rash Field needs a refresher.  But the results of a citizen survey say about the area suggest that residents prefer more local retail in the area and want to address the lack of activity in some parts of the harbor. The plan does not ignore those concerns, but its bigger proposals do overshadow them.

There are good ideas in the plan, like the pool barge. But unfortunately, leaders are rushing to start with Rash Field,  a controversial and expensive part of the plan. How did the architects choose a grass oval lawn and sand lot for the top of the garage?  How is the proposed lawn not redundant with West Shore Park and grassy Federal Hill?

Baltimore and the Inner Harbor planners would benefit if they mixed-in some of the affordable ingenuity demonstrated by Janette Sadik-Khan’s New York City project portfolio.  Her matra: “Do bold experiments that are cheap to try out.”   She loves to talk about how Times Square was successfully transformed with lawn chairs and paint. All urbanists should view her Ted Talk.

Instead of replicating park-like amenities that already exist, there are ways to provide things citizens asked for and retain an existing draw, all at a much lower cost. Beach volleyball could be an anchor and destination for the area with the addition of local food and beverage vendors, water features, specialty kiosks, seasonal activities, and tables overlooking the courts. The space could also accommodate other activities like bocce, ping pong, yoga, zumba, stationary bikes, and kayaks.

Meanwhile, the Rash Field garage is not only expensive, but unnecessary with the existing 45,000 parking spaces in downtown Baltimore.  Has the city studied the possibility of valet parking service operating from the visitors’ center as an alternative? A valet service might make better use of existing parking capacity, be more convenient for visitors, and provide jobs. To increase access, extend  Charm City Circulator coverage to more neighborhoods. Creating a safe network of cycle-tracks to serve bicycles and bikeshare, which will launch this July, on the bike-unfriendly roads ringing the Inner Harbor would help.

In addition, building the parking garage will disrupt a public space for up to two years of construction. The view from Federal Hill is a very photogenic spot, and a popular site for locals and tourists.  A parking facility isn’t enough of a compelling reason to take this space away when smaller changes would have a much shorter and disruptive effect on the area.

The view from Federal will soon look a lot like this

The view from Federal Hill will soon look a lot like this

This plan also would have an impact on the city’s millennial community.   Many young professionals seek healthy and active social amenities. The data shows clearly that millennials are driving Baltimore’s growth more than any other generation.  For young professionals, Baltimore Beach Volleyball is arguably the Inner Harbor’s top draw.  Unceremoniously kicking them out will not be viewed charmingly by this opinionated generation.

Millennials heavily populate nearby neighborhoods and have brought new life to the city. Why not ask them to help program the harbor?

JL

crossposted at Greater Greater Washington, Rustwire, and Sustainable Cities Collective

If Investing: Move Baltimore’s Downtown Prison

Land just south of the Baltimore jail facility-What is the highest and best use of the jail and nearby land?

Land just south of the Baltimore jail facility-What is the highest and best use of the jail and nearby land?

Baltimore’s downtown prison complex is a physical barrier between the City Center and impoverished neighborhoods desperate for investment. Could moving the prison help heal the city?

Sprawling over 27 acres, the forbidding penal facility consumes a vast amount of acreage on potentially lucrative real estate. Surface parking, blight, bail bonds, and strip are the complex’s pitiful neighbors. It does not have to be this way forever.

Many cities have sensibly relocated their prisons away from their economic centers. Baltimore has yet to do so, but may have that opportunity.  Taking steps to move the penal complex from downtown was a pie in the sky idea until the state began publicly planning to sink over a half a billion dollars into demolishing and rebuilding the facility in place. Alternative locations exist nearby.

The penal campus is in the red box.  The shaded area is the impact area of the prison.  Mt. Vernon is directly west.  Johns Hopkins Medical campus is to the east. Downtown and the Inner Harbor are to the south

The penal campus is in the red box. The shaded area is the impact area of the prison. Mt. Vernon is directly west. Johns Hopkins Medical campus is to the east. Downtown and the Inner Harbor are to the south

City Marketing 101 says don’t put your prison complex as the welcome mat to your downtown or your top research hospital. By doing so, Baltimore sends the thousands coming to visit, to work, or to invest a grim reminder that Baltimore houses lots of dangerous people.

There are many questions. What could the land yield over time if the prison facility was not there to repel more promising development?  What new synergies could exist between downtown and the number 1 hospital in the nation?(2013)  How much new development could take place?  What is the potential for new tax revenues?  How many jobs could be created in addition to retaining existing prison jobs in a different location? Could a different future jump start Jones Town and the long stalled Old Town Mall redevelopment? Could the Mt. Vernon neighborhood expand east? Could a badly needed park to serve downtown residents be created? Could a portion of new tax receipts from future development support jobs for youth?

We should be cautious about building costly new prisons.   America must find a way to reduce its world leading incarceration rates, while preventing violent crime.  Locally, Baltimore’s recent prison issues are certainly as much about management as with the aging physical facility. Improved training and wages for prison guards and personnel would be astronomically cheaper than constructing new facilities. However, at some point, new facilities are going to be built. As these dollars are allocated, good money should not be spent on a misplaced location.

The current prison location may be convenient for visitors and employees. Furthermore, criminal courts are nearby.   By this narrow prism, the prison is well located. By considering the land’s far greater potential, relocating prison facilities to Jessup and or abandoned industrial zones are better options.

Many other cities have moved their prison out of their downtowns.  Baltimore has this chance.

Many other cities have moved their prison out of their downtowns. Baltimore has this chance.

Relocating large prison facilities from downtown is not only unprecedented, it is common.  Atlantic seaboard neighbors; New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Boston have all done so.  New York City’s main prison is an island in the East River.  In the Midwest, Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard is now leading a plan to relocate its jail out of downtown.  Noted urbanist Aaron Wrenn explains the benefit of moving the Indianapolis jail in his article “My Plan to win the war for Indianapolis Government Buildings.” The argument for Baltimore is similar.  

Maryland is projected to add a million people by 2040. Baltimore needs to position itself to capture a portion of this growth.  Adding dozens of acres available for development adjacent to the city’s most prominent employers, as well as I-83 and the subway, is a promising opportunity.

Top City and State decision makers don’t need to follow the narrow agenda of bureaucrats at the State Department of Corrections. There are innovative ways to reduce incarceration, provide opportunity, and remove barriers to Baltimore’s economic potential.  Rebuilding a prison campus in place should not be a rubber stamp.  If other cities understand this, Baltimore should too!

JL

crossposted at Greater Greater Washington and Sustainable Cities Collective

One of Baltimore’s most beautiful neighborhoods is dying

No, not San Francisco. This block is in Reservoir Hill, a dying neighborhood in Baltimore

No, not San Francisco. This block is in Reservoir Hill, a dying neighborhood in Baltimore

Baltimore has an increasing collection of lively neighborhoods sprouting new residents, businesses, and construction.  Their vibrancy vividly contrasts with nearby neighborhoods besieged by abandonment and decades of depression-level disinvestment.  Many are aware of this pronounced dichotomy. However, there are neighborhoods between these extremes. One indicator of Baltimore’s progress should be the trajectory of these tweener neighborhoods. Improving neighborhoods offer valuable lessons for those regressing.

This article will briefly analyze three historic neighborhoods; Hampden (improving), Remington (improving), and Reservoir Hill (regressing). These neighborhoods are clustered close together about four miles from Baltimore’s glitzy harbor on different sides of the 750 acre Druid Hill Park and Interstate 83.

The Avenue in Hampden is the spine of this revitalizing mixed-use neighborhood

The Avenue in Hampden is the spine of this revitalizing mixed-use neighborhood

Hampden is an unlikely  success story.  It has created a destination restaurant and retail scene, driven largely by independent local entrepreneurs that punches way above its weight class. Its primary retail street, “The Avenue” is integrated into an affordable neighborhood with a mixture of bare bones row houses and single family homes. Hampden, with about 7000 residents, has well over a 100 small businesses.

The neighborhood’s charm and success comes from the energy of its kitschy residents mixed with a homespun entrepreneurial spirit. Forbes magazine honored Hampden as America’s 15th best hipster neighborhood. The criteria? Walkability, coffee shops per capita, the assortment of local food trucks, the number of locally owned bars and restaurants and the percentage of residents working in the arts.

Remington is on the cusp. Corner stores and restaurants give the neighborhood flavor. A private sector developer, Seawall, has buoyed Remington by developing creative mixed-use projects. Seawall has recruited clusters of educational non-profits as well as renovated the Miller’s Court into apartments for Teach for America.  Most interesting, Seawall is partnering with the Single Carrot Theatre to renovate Mr. James Tire Shop into performance space, restaurants, and nonprofit office space. The Company is doubling down. It has plans to build a “massive” main street of independent stores with residences above.

Remington’s resurgence is poised to accelerate with the creation of the Homewood Community Partners Initiative launched in 2012 and funded by Johns Hopkins.  This fund has $10 million dedicated to the “physical, social, and economic well-being of its surrounding neighborhoods.”

Vacancy in Reservoir Hill

Vacancy-an all to common sight in Reservoir Hill

Reservoir Hill, historically the strongest of the three neighborhoods, is a sick patient.  Its population is dropping to near 6000. The neighborhood’s bounty of beautiful historic buildings and homes is shrinking. Grand rows of houses are pockmarked by emergency demolitions. It is plagued by vacancy and troubled by crime. Market values often are less than renovation costs, which makes investment a risky proposition. Demolition is as common as renovation. Unlike Hampden’s abundance, obviously helpful enterprising businesses don’t exist in Reservoir Hill.

Reservoir Hill is only sick, not dead. It attracts architecturally inspired home-buyers. Eutaw and Madison Streets are still relatively healthy.  There are many residents who care about it. However, these strong blocks are slowly losing inch by inch a long running tug-of-war with nearby blocks in desperate shape.

My analysis is simple.  Reservoir Hill cannot remain a residential island with no businesses, offices, retail, and restaurants. A housing only strategy is not going to work. For decades, its promotion, energy, and resources have been spent on (affordable) housing.  Reservoir Hill’s current housing programs; Vacants to Value and Healthy Neighborhoods will lead to home renovations, but not reverse the tide of the neighborhood. HUD and Baltimore HCD programs should also not be relied on to turn around neighborhoods. They are much better at housing and social services than they are urban and community development.  Their core competencies are not restoring market confidence in declining neighborhoods.

The Reservoir Hill Improvement Council (RHIC), with roots that date to the late 1970’s have also not been able to turn the neighborhood around.  Its approach is notable for its lack of interest and expertise in fostering neighborhood business enterprises. RHIC could be far more useful if it had the focus, talent and resources to recruit and nurture small businesses. A new organization, the Mount Royal CDC was launched in December 2013.

The data on population and vacancy show Reservoir Hill is unequivocally failing.  For the neighborhood to reverse course, Reservoir Hill must become more like Hampden and Remington. It must energetically seek small entrepreneurs, artists, businesses, and restaurateurs. Of Baltimore’s urban neighborhoods, those with desirable commerce have the brightest futures. Attracting a neighborhood-minded creative developer like Seawall would be an immense coup.  City, institutional, and philanthropic partners could help. Historic preservation advocates are natural allies. Without a profoundly new strategy, Reservoir Hill’s trajectory is unambiguous.

Reservoir Hill's trajectory is clear. The neighborhood can ascend, but new strategies are needed

Reservoir Hill’s trajectory is clear. The neighborhood can ascend, but new strategies are needed

By attracting entrepreneurial investment and a new mix of people, there might be blow back from a myopic few concerned about theoretical gentrification. In Baltimore, far more affordable housing is lost to disinvestment and uninhabitable buildings, than rent increases. More people leave, not because they are priced out, but because other neighborhoods offer more.

Vacant mansion in Reservoir Hill

Vacant mansion in Reservoir Hill

Reservoir Hill is important.  Its substantial architectural assets, diverse housing stock adjacent to a beautiful park, and access to major transportation arteries, give it an advantage over other declining neighborhoods.    A robust Reservoir Hill turnaround could stimulate the resurgence of other neighborhoods west of Druid Hill Park that are in worse shape.

Teetering neighborhoods in Baltimore and other rust belt cities should recognize a relatively simple reality. Urban neighborhoods with retail, restaurants, and businesses are doing better. Millennials and empty nesters are coming to urban neighborhoods, but they are not likely to pick yours if there is nothing to do.

JL

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