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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Oldtown Mall: You Tube Worthy

What would you do with Old Town Mall? That's the question that's on the mind of a few young women who travelled the severely vacant and distressed property with a video camera asked themselves and each other. Each member of the group put in their two cents about what would be done with the property and then they gave panoramic views of just how bad the property is. One can also that nobody else was there. The mall was trash ridden, the stores were shuddered and the center square with the mall's logo, was obsolete and dated. The video, two of them actually was submitted to you tube and while I was gathering info about Old Town Mall, I just happened upon it.First a brief history of Old Town. As its name suggests the neighborhood is old. It was one of Baltimore town's earliest settlements because of its proximity to the harbor and the Jones Falls. Throughout the 1800s Old Town played host to German, Irish, Italian, Polish, Russian, and Lithuanian immigrants. The neighborhood was poor and living conditions were rough but each group of immigrants persevered and eventually prospered. Once residents made enough money they left for a more prosperous neighborhood, usually uptown to the northwest and then a new poorer set of immigrants repopulated the neighborhood. During World War I the city's black population continued to grow and Old Town became a black neighborhood. Old Town, always being a working class neighborhood always thrived but being at the city's center it began to decline after World War II. As the flight to the suburbs got into full swing the population of Old Town swelled especially the poor population. Old East Baltimore plays host to the highest concentration of public housing in the city. As part of "blight elimination" and "urban renewal" of the 1960s Old Town Mall was built. Old Town Mall is a pedestrian only plaza that used to be the 400 and 500 blocks of Gay Street. Old Town Mall opened in the 1960s catering to the area's poor population. It was surrounded almost completely by public housing or privately owned subsidized housing. The mall catered to this and offered goods and services at discount prices. The architecture screams retro urban renewal of the 1960s and 70s. The never really thrived but it held its own for a while. It was spared during the riots following the MLK assignation.
A few things contributed to the down fall of Old Town Mall. First, the opening of Harborplace and the Gallery at the Inner Harbor. Although the glitzy new shops of the Inner Harbor didn't cater to the same market as Old Town Mall, there was a definite drop off in patronage. Second, crime since Old Town Mall is located in the middle of several low income housing development crime was almost inevitable. At this point I'd like to list just how many public housing developments are near Old Town Mall they are or in cases were; Flag House Courts, Lafayette Courts, Broadway Homes, Douglass Homes, Somerset Homes and Extention, Monument House, Latrobe Homes, Clay Courts, and Lester Morton Courts. This bring me to my third factor HOPE VI. Although HOPE VI helped with crime and blight in its targeted developments, it lowered the density in its targeted developments at the same time. Fewer people living near the area means fewer shoppers. Since the 1990s there have been proposals to redevelop Old Town Mall but nothing has to come to fruition. Lots of high hopes for the future turned into broken promises. Old Town Mall is about 70% vacant according to a recent article.One reason plans haven't left the drawing board is because they only contain the small pedestrian mall. What needs to be done is take a comprehensive look at the mall and the surrounding neighborhoods.My plan for redevelopment includes the entire Old Town Neighborhood, Penn Fallsway, and Douglass Homes. Current conditions can't support the businesses of Old Town Mall, so we change current conditions. Old Town is a neighborhood comprised almost exclusively of public housing, Penn Fallsway is nothing but office buildings with sprawling almost suburban like surface parking lots. Douglass Homes, located in the Dunbar Broadway neighborhood, which according to the 2000 census has a 40% vacancy rate. There are many things that can be favorable to this area. First, in Penn Fallsway there are many surface parking lots that can be used to increase density. Second, its proximity to Downtown.
The proposed demolition of the Jones Falls Expressway will make this area an extension of Downtown. Third, the proximity to mass transit. The Metro Subway runs underground and has a stop at the Shot Tower and Johns Hopkins Hospital. My plan includes creating an Old Town Mall station in between the two. Fourth, lack of historical buildings. The blight elimination of the 1960s and 1970s that created these deep concentrations of public housing and poverty demolished many buildings that could have been considered for historic designation. Old Town Mall and its suroundings today will hardly be missed. Lastly, the East Baltimore Biotech Park. The East Baltimore Biotech Park will have a domino effect on surounding areas thus creating a demand for housing of all types.Normally when public housing is demolished what goes in its place are fewer housing units at a lower density. In this case it will be just the opposite. When you add up the number of units demolished in Douglass Homes, Somerset Homes and Extension, Monument House and Latrobe Homes the number is staggering. Although the end result will mean fewer public housing units the overall number of units will be higher. The new development will use the traditional urban grid and contain mid to high rise apartments, condos, office buildings and a hotel, all with ground floor retail and underground parking garages. In short the site will be mixed use in and mixed income with some public housing units sprinkled throughout. Unlike Old Town and Penn Fallsway the Douglass Homes site will feature town homes with two floors stacked on top of each other for a total of four floors per structure. Since the Old Town Mall area isn't too close to the harbor it can get away with taller buildings. Baltimore's skyline will surely expand and cover more ground once complete.
Now what would you do with Old Town Mall? I look forward to watching your responses on You Tube!

23 comments:

Baltimore Driver Training said...

Is this your proposal or something in the works already? I know the Somerset Court apartments are currently being demoed.

Spence said...

It's my proposal but the Planning Dept. is coming up with a Master Plan for the Oldtown Mall area. I don't know what their plan involves but I'm sure I'll bad mouth it and let it be known how worng they are and so I told you so when it fails. I'm arrogant like that ;)

Spence said...

Update the city has come with a master plan for the Old Town Mall area and its surrounding public housing developments along with most of Penn Fallsway almost exactly the way I wrote it in my blog. Two things they didn't touch on was was the reopening of Gay Street to vehicular traffic and the addition of an Oldtown Mall stop on the Green Line Metro.

Kim Sanders-Fisher said...

Some years ago I lived right on top of Old Town Mall on historic Stirling Street. I came up with a concept that could have saved the uniqueness of Old Town Mall and preserved its rich ethnic diversity. Unfortunately, the city was only focused on acquiring the buildings cheaply for demolition so they perpetuated a plan of unconscionable urban neglect, ignoring public works obligations and street crime, to try and force the remaining business owners out. Each time the city promised that if more buildings came down there would be a new market, but they never really intended to build anything until all of the property was acquired by the city. I circulated a petition for Historic District Designation and we gained a measure of protection for a portion of the remaining buildings, but I doubt it will be honored. I got a lot of press coverage for the Mall at that time before circumstances forced me to leave Baltimore. The biggest article was called “Shopworn” Go To: http://www.citypaper.com/news/story.asp?id=3392

So what was my grand idea? It was about recognizing needs, identifying a void and filling that void. Preserve the most salvageable of the remaining buildings and blend newer structures into the space. Adopt a “Global Village” international shopping theme to include viable business within the existing diverse racial mix while creating a vibrant city attraction to draw people to the site. Why? Because Johns Hopkins Hospital draws patients from all over the world; because this route to gentrification would not have included stealing property from any of the minority business owners and because Baltimore is an ethnically diverse city that needs to unite its various communities. What else would attract a unique group of shoppers who are very rarely catered to, but who exist in an above average proportion in this area? Create a shopping precinct that is ergonomically design and built to accommodate the needs of physically challenged people. Yes wheelchair access is the law, but I mean, go above and beyond the minimal legal requirements to create the ideal space with exceptionally good access. Has anyone ever really considered such a concept before?

Then I looked at the rough side of the logistics, parking and crime. We were always told that the buildings had to come down to provide a larger “parking field.” Who creates a large “field” of parking on what will become prime real estate down town? But, you could argue that high rise parking is prohibitively expensive and will those low income shoppers generate enough revenue to support such a garage? The simple answer is: no! But, they don’t need to; Johns Hopkins has a rapidly expanding parking requirement and Old Town could address that need as a way to help support the build. Identifying and filling a void; that is what will make Old Town Mall viable.

I looked at the “Grando” a modern design of automated parking garage, an innovative, highly secure, automated parking system that could place a greater quantity of cars in a more compact space than a conventional high rise garage. This is important because you do not want to visibly swamp the mall with cars. However, if you can provide a large volume of parking, more than is required by the shops, then you have a commodity to sell: namely parking. With the round structure of the Grando design some levels are below ground and some are above. Take a look at the Grando site at: http://www.grandopark.com/pages/faq.htm#conventional .

So how do you combat the crime? If parking becomes a selling point then making entry and exit to that parking safe will become a major priority, but there would be the revenues generated by parking fees to cover this cost. The Grando is also a super secure way to park and, due to the automated system, there is no risk of being attacked in a remote area of the garage. If Johns Hopkins Hospital gains a needed resource like parking it would make sense to shuttle people to and from the Mall; this would create a flow of regular visitors and shoppers. The Global Village theme would provide a point of special interest so that visitors to Hopkins choose the site as a place to park and get a bite to eat before or after a trip to Johns Hopkins. This would also helps to justify the new station stop on the Metro.

My plan was to use a specialized stamped concrete system to create something that would look like a vintage cobblestone road with brick sidewalks to match nearby Sterling Street. This would return the through road to Gay Street with one way traffic and a surface finish that looked like the original road that was covered over to form the Mall in the 70s. This is not just for old world charm and esthetics; it actually accomplishes a very important goal by slowing down the traffic to a more sedate pace. This is not only safer, it encourages people to check out the available stores and places to eat. A good variety of ethnic dining choices will also fulfill another important need for Johns Hopkins and the Bio park: where to get lunch.

Now we get to the part that has always remained a major stumbling block: the surrounding poor neighborhoods. For the city it seems that the priority is always to bulldoze and move people on, but where do these low income families move to accommodate the land grab? Some of the housing projects are locked in for decades anyway, but I believe that the residents should not be forced out. Baltimore has an appalling track record for encouraging communities to give up their homes through a systematic program of city public works neglect. There are whole streets of derilect abandoned buildings with the last few residents hanging on until they get bullied out by corporate interests. During the period of neglect basic amenities are left to seriously degrade and crime becomes rampant; this is what eventually encourages people to leave. This was the devious tactic used on the business and property owners of Old Town Mall and very few have held their ground.

I was not conned into helping facilitate or approve that ruthless agenda; I tried to “think outside the box” to come up with a viable solution. I am a very well traveled person so I can draw on the things I have seen that work well overseas. The last time I was in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999 I was really impressed by a visit to Bo Kaap, a poor district of very simple low income housing on one side of the city. In response to Mandela’s call for a “Rainbow Nation” the residents of Bo Kaap had painted their houses in a vibrant array of colors. These houses were small, squat, very plain buildings, but they came to life with the addition of a simple coat of paint. Bo Kaap went from being a poor, rather run down neighborhood to becoming a city attraction that now draws international tourists. I am sure that the low income residents surrounding Old Town Mall would welcome gentrification that left them in their homes, but addressed the years of public works neglect. I believe that if we created a “Community of Colors” around Old Town Mall, as people started to feel more positive about their surroundings they would be more protective and less inclined to tolerate crime. Take a look at Bo Kaap: http://images.google.com/images?q=bo+kaap&sourceid=navclient-ff&rlz=1B3RNFA_enGB282GB283&um=1&ie=UTF-8&ei=i2HRSazoOcO2-AbusY2gBQ&sa=X&oi=image_result_group&resnum=4&ct=title

I wrote about all of this in my suggestions to the city, BDC and it was printed in newspapers pieces about Old Town Mall, notably in the City Paper, the Review and the African American Newspaper among others. Some of these articles remain online for you to review. I am an “ideas person;” unfortunately, corporate America does not tolerate people with ideas, especially ideas that are inclusive as they do not share my ideals for spreading the wealth around. Sadly, in late 2000 my outspoken ideas also cost me my hospital job and by 2003 I lost my precious home on Stirling Street. Medical institutions, even very prestigious ones, are not immune to corporate profiteering and those who speak up for patients are unceremoniously removed. I was so disillusioned that I left the US and returned to England feeling like an impoverished refugee after loosing everything I once owned in America.

I still fight for justice with regard to medical issues and improving the safety of patient care for the residents of a country that I believe betrayed me, cheated me out of my livelihood and so much more. I know that there is a solution for what ails Old Town Mall; it starts with ending the neglect and giving existing property owners a fair deal. It requires forward thinking and innovative ideas that seek to fill an existing void. I cannot fight for Old Town Mall any more as I now live the other side of the Atlantic trying to rebuild a career that was shattered by corporate greed. If you live in the US it is your healthcare too, so please visit my Blog site: http://MedTEAM.WordPress.com

Just bear in mind people had ideas – the city didn’t want ideas it wanted bargain basement acquisition at the expense of minority business owners so the could speculate on the valuable land. The original property owners are tired of the neglect, broken promises and deception. I doubt that anything will change for the better until they are bullied into giving up their properties. I am sorry I lost my home on Stirling Street as it was a very special mixed community of wonderful neighbors, but I am too heartbroken by what happened to ever return to Baltimore. Unfortunately there are too many defenseless people stripped of their rights in Baltimore. It has been cathartic for me to put my ideas in print once again and I thank you for the opportunity. I hope you have better luck with your ideas than I did with mine,

Kim.

Spence said...

Kim, Wow, you've put a lot of thought into this post and I can tell why, having watched your neighhborhood turn into a state of neglect. The city does want to do exactly what you're proposing but it's not in Oldtown Mall. It's in Station North, the area surrounding Penn Station and the intersection of Charles St. and North Avenue. What the city plans for Oldtown Mall is massive demolition and judging by the state of the buildings it may be the only option however, I do wish they had maintained so they could be preserved. Now they're just a collapsing hazard.

Alyse said...

This is an interesting blog. I recently stumbled across old town mall, and have been fascinated with it ever sense. I am considering proposing a redevelopment plan for it for my architectural thesis project. I agree that the street needs to accessed by vehicular traffic. Do you know if the city plans to demolish any or all of those buildings?

Spence said...

Alyse, I think Old Town Mall is great for your thesis. Sadly Oldtown Mall is in a bid of a pickle. The best thing to do would be to demolish it but it's protected under historic landmark designation. I don't know if it's local or national. That would make demolition very difficult if not impossible. Extending Gay St. through it would be ok. Back filling Old Town Mall with tenants might not work either because its buildings might not meet building codes for occupation. Old Town Mall may be stuck in a time capsule it can't get out of until it naturally implodes due to decades of neglect. That's my take on it a good two years after I published that post. Thanks again for your positive comments regarding my blog and good luck with your thesis I'd love to read it one day.

Alyse said...

Yeah, it does seem really tricky. some of those facades are beautiful, but they buildings are in really bad shape. Thanks so much for your response Spence. We will be in touch.

Paul said...

Ok this topic is very important to me since I have been raised up in this area for most of my life...I like the whole thing that Johns Hopkins is doing with East side: reviving it of sorts...But personally, I feel as though it is getting rid of the East side urban community. I must admit East Baltimore is very populated with housing developments and that the demolition of somerset was needed, however, I do not agree with changing too much of the area. A plan to rejuvenate Old Town Mall should have been passed: you have all this land vacant, do something with it.
One thing that I would like to see proposed is a supermarket. For one, there are no supermarkets in walking distances of these housing developments. There was a Stop Shop and Save located in Church Square, however that was closed down not too long ago...The building of a market will create some type of in flow of people from all of these outside areas. I expect from that addition you can then build around it...adding small shopping stores and such making the area look like the upper part of Greenmount Ave, where the Giant supermarket is. Right now, I believe that the area is loosing out on money because of this simple reason. Another thing that could be done is more police surveillance should be promoted in the area... you have people standing around, selling and buying drugs all the time. It needs to stop. If that change is made, a lot of problems will be solved in that area. But trying to promote a more mixed community by tearing down houses, I believe will not solve the problem; it is just placing the problem on the back burner for another area to where these same "drug dealers" will cause problems. I do not agree with the idea of making the community apart of Johns Hopkins, it should be the complete opposite: Johns Hopkins should be a part of the community. If this trend of a dominating hospital changing the aspects of East baltimore itself, please city of baltimore, change the name of the city to Johns Hopkins immediately and get it over with.

Alyse said...

Paul,

I would be interested to hear more about what you think of this area, considering you grew up here.

Johns Hopkins is an interesting presence in this area. It seems like they are changing things for the better, but only because it reflects well on their institution. Do you know how the community feels about their involvement? I would be curious to hear about this development from the community's point of view.

Also, I have heard of at least 3 grocery store proposals, but nothing concrete. One on the old town mall site, one north, and one south of JHMC. I feel like 3 supermarkets is overkill...

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Antero Pietila said...

What would be the best sources for Old Town history before it became black, and how the transition happened?

Meet and greet Gatwick said...

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yvonne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
yvonne said...

I hope old town mall be rebuild because it was a place where everyone came to have a good time,they should rebuild the mall because it will better serve the people in the community, this will be one of the original place in the community since they are building new communities. It has great history, let us keep it.

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perry cole said...

Old Town Mall should be maintained and restored to its former glory for the sake of both, the people who have emotional attachment to it for the time spend there and those who are yet to come and live there.gatwick meet and greet

Freya George said...

It seems Old Town Mall may be stuck in a time capsule it can't get out of until it naturally implodes due to decades of neglect.
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Anonymous said...

Good evening. I purchased a row home in west Baltimore about 6 six years ago. I love the neighborhood i live in. I was born and raised in D.C. so i'm use to city living. I love all of the richness and history of the city here. From what history i've been able to follow with Baltimore City and the people that i have met and know here, Baltimore City was once the place to be. it was the happening place for everything, education, entertainment,and economic opportunities. But what seems to have been and still a very big problem in Baltimore City were drugs. It seems like for all of what our parents and grandparents struggled with sweat and tears to acquire, the drug generations gave away to the city government. Leaving us with alot of abandoned property which the city own. I pray that in my life time, I will see Baltimore City as the beautiful city it once was and should still be. God Bless