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

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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

Millennials Lead Baltimore Forward

Baltimore Beach Volleyball

Recreation is a social magnet for Millennials-Baltimore Beach Volleyball shown here Image source: SouthBMore.com

Mayor Rawlings Blake has an oft-stated goal to add 10,000 net households in Baltimore by 2020. The city’s newly adopted slogan is, “Baltimore, A Great Place to Grow.”  This growth is badly needed to reverse the toll of losing 1/3 of the city’s population since 1950. In 2011, Baltimore had its first uptick in population in over 60 years.

How did this happen? Who is coming and who is going? Is it sustainable?  Let’s dig in.

The charts show very clearly that one group is doing all the heavy lifting.  Baltimore is more popular for 19 to 33 year olds, with a sweet spot of 26, than at any point in the last half century. This age cohort is the one group that is coming to the city, while all other age groups are roughly leaving Baltimore just as they have for the last half century.  Baltimore is so popular with twenty somethings that it has tipped the net population scale positive.

Baltimore population

Millennials are the demographic group helping Baltimore gain population for the first time in a half century

This data must be encouraging and scary for those who care about cities with these trends. The Baltimore millennial spike is profound, but loses steam with age.  Baltimore’s urban scene might help you find your mate, but after being hitched, young families eventually look for the exits.  The millenials or echo-boomers (Birth years 1982 to 2004) are a big 70 million strong demographic bubble with a pipeline of rising young professionals that should last another decade.

Dense walkable neighborhoods that have an active restaurant/retail scene complemented by parks that provide young professionals with recreation have been the overwhelming winners.  Safe and efficient transit and bike infrastructure will raise the city’s appeal to this cohort. City leaders can help more neighborhoods be successful be adding these amenities. Millennials bring vitality, energy, and do not demand much in the way of public services.

Patterson Park

Patterson Park and its surrounding neighborhoods provide the community, recreation, and lifestyle that many millennials want

Baltimore can retain young families longer with school choice. A family in Baltimore may understandably not like the bulk of the schools in the system, but they only need one good fit. There are a few good schools and they should be able to distinguish themselves.  Families who can choose one matching school may stay in the city. It is important for centrally led systems to not meddle with successful schools and dynamic principals. Competition will lead to better options and benefit more families.

For young professionals that have come to the city, lived in an apartment or small rowhouse, found their mate, and are starting to achieve professional success, property tax issues loom.    They may want to move because they are cramped.  There are many city neighborhoods with big enough houses. However, the data shows young families cross the border.

Will they stay in Baltimore city?  Source: Kathleen Hertel Photography

Will they stay in Baltimore city? Source: Kathleen Hertel Photography

For a $300,000 house in Baltimore city, the family will inherit a $6600 annual property tax bill compared with roughly $3000 for an equivalently priced house in the adjacent suburban counties.  The city can, at a minimum, adopt a new tax credit for city householders that want to move, but stay within the city. If Baltimore is the city that is “A Great Place to Grow”, there should be some ability for growing city families to buy bigger places in neighborhoods with quality urban amenities without getting whopped with double the property tax.

City boosters are appropriately gleeful about Baltimore’s first population gain in a half century. However, senior policy makers should acknowledge that it is young professionals that are leading the population reversal. There are tactical steps that should be taken to attract more millennials and keep young families in Baltimore longer. These steps warrant a sweeping plan that we can all see. Furthermore, it might give investors, philanthropists, and citizens a blueprint to rally around.

JL

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