Monday, October 29, 2012

Reisterstwon Station: A Promise Delivered 28 Years Later is just the Beginning

TOD in Baltimore as a whole has been something of a broken promise, then again how could TOD be warranted when Rail Transit hasn't taken off the way it has in other Cities. When Baltimore's Green Line was built there were sketches of Mixed Use TOD at Reisterstown Station at the City/County line. Finally 28 years later (the sketches were from 1984) the land surrounding Reisterstown Station and a few other stations along the Green Line are ready for development at long last. But can TOD be warranted when parts of the City and County are still in the midst of a Rail Transit Desert?
In the far Northwest corner of the City one can easily forget that they are still in the City. This due to the fact that this area was built at the same and in some after its suburban counterparts. That means that homes have expansive lawns, garages, and roads are wide to accommodate vehicular traffic as the mass production of the automobile had become the norm for American households.
Despite Baltimore's population loss, Planners wanted to build a massive Heavy Rail Transit System to serve the City and surrounding areas and had come up with a Master Plan by 1968. Funding difficulties and lack of cooperation kept construction of any kind on the back burner for more than a decade to come. 
By the time the late 1970s rolled around as was the case in most Metropolitan Areas, there had been a lot of population loss in the Cities but many suburb dwellers were still commuting back and forth to the City day in and day out. With streetcars long gone it was time to reintroduce Rail Transit into Baltimore's landscape to ease commutes. With other Cities losing population like Baltimore, Rail Transit has helped curb the population loss and have been responsible for population growth in the City proper. Could Rail Transit do this Baltimore?
Early renderings of a comprehensive Rail Transit show a north south line (Today's Light Rail or "Blue Line"),  an east west line (Future Red Line) and U shaped line that would run from Owings Mills to Martin State Airport (Today's Green Line) with the MARC Camden and Penn Lines acting as regional lines.
This got off to a very slow start with the Green Line opening in 1983 from Reisterstown Station to Charles Center. Planners had still envisioned a much larger and comprehensive Rail Plan as shown in the Charles Center stop which includes a stop for a future line built into it.
In 1987 an extension from Reisterstown Station to Owings Mills opened.
In 1994 the extension from Charles Center to Johns Hopkins Hospital opened.
Rail Transit in Baltimore has been under intense criticism for its entire existence, it has been to blame for "bringing the criminal element from the City into the County." Personally I think that claim is false and if Rail Transit has been successful in almost every other large City in the world then it should also work in Baltimore as well. So this begs the question; What's wrong?
What's wrong is that the existing Rails Line weren't built near anything. They're very out of the way, usually a Transit Line is in the middle of it all to catch high ridership. In a lot of cases TOD shouldn't even have to be built because the ridership is already so high and the area that it serves is built. This provides a sharp contrast to Baltimore's Light Rail and Metro Subway whose only populated stops are Lexington Market and State Center.
So what's the solution? More lines and more development. Rail Transit is one of those weird anomalies where adding more of the "problem" is the solution. The problem with Baltimore is that new lines will have to be re thought and not built along the outskirts of Downtown and the Harbor and into the very epicenter of Baltimore's population. This means rerouting the Red Line Downtown and points east for starters.
But what about lines that are already in assistance? Well that's where TOD comes in. They had it right 28 years ago when they showed a drawing of a fully developed Reisterstown Station and why they strayed away from that method of thinking is beyond me. TOD makes an otherwise under utilized Transit Stop and puts enough housing, retail, there that it becomes a destination in and of itself. Its density is so high that you HAVE to take the Transit Line serving the Neighborhood because using your car is just plain futile.
So what now? Well, developers should continue pursuing vacant sites around existing Stations and building high density mixed use TOD. Reisterstown Station should just be the beginning and wouldn't know it? It's beginning to catch on. Just south of the Reisterstown Station is the Rogers Avenue Station where 400 Market Rate Apartments will be built on surface level parking lots.
After that there are endless possibilities such as Coldspring, Mondawmin, and Penn North along the Green Line on the Light Rail there's Cherry Hill, Patapsco Avenue, and Mount Washington. This will put pressure on the MTA to build a comprehensive Rail Transit Plan including the Yellow Line from BWI to Towson, The Green Line from Hopkins to Martin State Airport via Harford and Belair Roads and the localization of the MARC Lines which will make for the Orange and Purple Lines. Believe me when I say that delivering the promise of TOD at Reisterstown Station 28 years later is just the beginning.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Jones Falls: Front and Center

Please note; this post will waste the Tax Payer's money more than the ICC and makes no logical sense. That being said, I'm writing it anyway because of my love for the Jones Falls Valley and Hampden Woodberry. So enjoy the craziness.
Senator Barb saved Baltimore from two huge freeway projects that would have ruined it. First came the I-83 extension into Fells Point and Canton. I-83 would have roughly run along Boston St in Canton. Would Canton have made the comeback it did if there were an elevated freeway obstructing views of the Harbor? I think not! Same goes for Fells Point. Would Baltimoreans and Baltimorons alike be able to enjoy the new Gwynns Falls trail with I-70 and all its pollution running parallel to it? I think not! Did West Baltimore survive the Road to Nowhere? Absolutely not. 
With the exception of the Road to Nowhere, Baltimore's highways haven't been all that intrusive. I-695 was built at the same time as the suburbs which made for a situation that both developers and highway planners had enough land to pursue their respective projects. I-95 was going to intrude on Otterbein and Federal Hill but planners rerouted so that those Neighborhoods wouldn't be torn down unfortunately Otterbein was vacated in preparation for the new freeway which resulted in Dollar Row House Homesteading program. I-83 respected Ruxton by joining I-695 rather than running contiguously from the JFX to the Harrisburg expressway. I-83 for the most part respected the beauty of the Jones Falls Valley except for one part; The Hampden Woodberry area. That is what this post will be about. Hampden and Woodberry used to be just one Neighborhood, the Fallsway helped break the Neighborhood in two while the JFX was the final nail in the coffin for the once unified Hampden Woodberry.  
When I look at Hampden I see an emerging Neighborhood that was once a Mill Village but has since become a magnet for young professionals looking to embrace the culture that is Baltimore. 36th St. or "The Avenue" has become the year round showcase for Hampden and just two blocks away on 34th St., the whole street comes to life at Christmas Time. Hampden's once desolate commercial district has become vibrant with independent Businesses and Row Homes that were once boarded up have become occupied once again.    
When I look at Woodberry I see a Neighborhood that was devastated by the closure of the Mills that employed the majority of its Residents as well as those of Hampden. These mills include but aren't limited to Meadow Mill, Union Mill, Clipper Mill, Poole & Hunt, and Mount Vernon Mill. Currently there are plans to bring these diamonds in the rough back to life with mixed use developments some of which have been completed while others are in the planning and construction phases. 
Today I-83 is a dividing line between Hampden and Woodberry with each Neighborhood on either side of it. When I look at the JFX between Hampden and Woodberry I see what could have happened to other parts of Baltimore had Senator Barb not intervened and put a stop to the Highway Construction. Hampden and Woodberry's Mills were built in their locations because of the Jones Falls and its quick access to the Inner Harbor. This very important water way is the very reason for Baltimore's existence. 
I think it's high time that Hampden and Woodberry be reconnected by tunneling the JFX between 29th St. and Cold Spring Lane. This will unify both Neighborhoods and will allow for new development to occur around the Woodberry Light Rail which will be renamed Hampden Woodberry. As it stands right now both Hampden, Woodberry, and Medfield don't have enough long term housing stock as is to fulfill future growth. I think new development where I-83 now obstructs it is the way to go. In fact the Avenue can be extended all the way to Woodberry so the Light Rail Station and the Mill development won't compete with the Avenue as they will now be one and the same.
Speaking of the Avenue, a new one can now be created via Clipper Road. In Medifield Roland Heights Avenue. can be extended to meet it while Clipper Road can be given lighted sidewalks that will run all the way to an extended 36th St. Clipper Road will then end at Clipper Mill Road east of where the current expressway is. The Jones Falls will be front and center and the entire Hampden, Woodberry, and Medfield Neighborhoods will be waterfront destinations with the removal of the above ground freeway. The JFX tunnel can also better connect Hampden to Druid Hill Park, another casualty of the building of the Falls Way and now the JFX.
One Mill that hasn't received any attention as of yet is the real Clipper Mill. The new development in Woodberry named Clipper Mill was actually that of Poole & Hunt a large cotton & textile mill while the real Clipper Mill is located deep in the depths of Hampden on Clipper Mill Road between Union Avenue and Falls Road. It's actually the only major Mill in the area that hasn't seen plans to restore it to its former glory. I suspect with its new founded front and center views of the Jones Falls the real Clipper Mill will see as much investment that its impostor has. 

Now I don't condone taking a stretch of the JFX and burying it underground, that would be foolish so as a result the entire content of this post is null and void BUT I don't like how the JFX tears through Hampden and Woodberry and that route never should have been approved. Given its constraints (The JFX) both Hampden and Woodberry are doing great despite the hulking elevated freeway in between the two. I personally would like to see Hampden and Woodberry bridged together and the Jones Falls front and center by TOD at the Light Rail Station but I don't see that happening with the JFX in the way.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

30 Years Later Should MLK Boulevard Have Ever Been Built?

In 1982 Downtown Baltimore and West Baltimore were very different places. Downtown was still in shambles unless you were at the Harbor or Charles Center and not a block further from those places. The Westside of Downtown was feeling the effects of suburbanization while West Baltimore was entrenched in a decades long drug war centered in Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes. This was the urban climate in which Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (MLK) was built. It served and still does serve as a bypass to Downtown and was supposed to be a quick route to get to midtown. MLK ends at Chase St. right in between Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon at the State Center. If MLK Boulevard was supposed to act as a thoroughfare like it was supposed to it would have had an interchange with I-83, I'm thinking like a mid to late 20th century highway planner in order to reenact the climate of 1982 where it was still a "good idea" to destroy City Neighborhoods in order to build highways. MLK Boulevard has since become just another north south route through Downtown with the same amount of gridlock as the very streets it was supposed to bypass begging the question; Should MLK Boulevard  Have Ever Been Built?
West Baltimore and the western edge of Downtown was something to be bypassed in 1982 and in the planning and construction years leading up to it as well. Stately Neighborhoods such as Ridgley's Delight and Barre Circle had not yet gentrified and Pigtown was in worse shape than it is now. The Stadiums (M&T Bank and Camden Yards) were a good 10-20 years away from materializing and Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes were war zones. So long story short, the MLK Boulevard corridor was in shambles. The only real draws were State Center and the massive Social Security Building. These were nothing but Office Buildings without any Retail or Residences nearby and the workers in those buildings lived in the suburbs or on the outskirts of the City. Given the state of the Neighborhoods surrounding State Center and the Social Security Building workers didn't exactly want to stick around the City after hours.
So this begs the question; What is a bypass? Well as its name suggests it bypasses a certain area that's congested and provides a shorter unclogged route. So does MLK Boulevard bypass Downtown? Yes it does but it doesn't do it in a manner that's much faster than say Howard St., Calvert St., or Charles St. so in that aspect at least given today's landscape of the road and its surrounding areas, it fails as a bypass. Also I can't help but wonder if earlier in the planning stages if MLK was supposed to be more limited access. Sure, there are the bridges at the road to nowhere but those still have traffic lights on MLK. Could MLK Boulevard have originally been a freeway with grade separated interchanges? I haven't seen evidence of it but I given the sad state of West Baltimore and the Government's willingness to plow through distressed Neighborhoods in the name of Highway Construction, I wouldn't have been surprised if that had been discussed.
Another way to more effectively make MLK Boulevard more of a limited access freeway to merely cut off access to east west roads like they have done with Lexington St. Granted there's still a traffic light there due to heavy pedestrian activity but having other streets stop and start on either side of the Boulevard would have made for faster travel times and allowed it to have nothing to do with the Neighborhoods it's bypassing. With that being said, MLK Boulevard was quite successful in bypassing Downtown in its early years because the route it took was relatively deserted. 
Then around the late 1980s, Neighborhoods along MLK Bouleard began to experience one by one. First came Reidgley's Delight which went through a similar homesteading experience that Otterbein did just under a decade earlier. Now Ridgley's Delight is an ultra sought after address. 
Next came Oriole Park at Camden Yards Its April 1992 opening date set a new standard for Baseball Stadiums across the Country      and it increased traffic on MLK Boulevard and all of Downtown during home games so much so that Lee St. got its own exit from MLK Boulevard while it's still considered part of I-395. 
In 1996 the first of two pubic housing high rise developments were demolished; Lexington Terrace which directly abuts MLK Boulevard. This scary development was over run by drug dealers, violent crime, and deplorable living conditions. This and the adjacent Murphy Homes may have been to blame for the bad reputation of the Boulevard. In 2000 "The Townes at the Terraces" was completed on the site of Lexington Terrace. This new mixed income Community contains mostly Town Homes 1/3 of which are market rate home ownership while the rest are public housing. In addition there's an 88 unit Apartment Building for Seniors. Upon completion of the Terraces, crime has gone down and the quality of life has gone up.
In 1998 following the footsteps of Camden Yards M&T Bank Stadium opened across MLK Boulevard from Camden Yards on land originally cleared for the first stadium. This, like Camden Yards set the new standard for building of future stadiums. It most certainly increased traffic on MLK Boulevard especially during game days. 
In 1999 Murphy Homes was demolished, located just across the road to nowhere from Lexington Terrace Murphy Homes had also fallen victim to the crime, blight, and drugs that so much of Baltimore had and continues to from the latter half of the 20th century until this day. In 2003 Heritage Crossing was completed. As Murphy Home's successor there's no comparison. Unlike the Terraces the majority of the new Town Homes are market rate home ownership and a minority are public housing units. Heritage Crossing also boasts more green space and a much more suburban appearance. Like the Terraces the successor is worlds better than its predecessor. 
Very quietly University of Maryland at Baltimore (UMB) has been expanding its campus from to engulf everything from MLK Boulevard to the west, Greene St to the east, Fayette St. to the north and Pratt St to the south. Recent additions include 
The Institute of Virology Opened in 1996 
A new Library that opened in 1998
A Museum of Nursing that opened in 1999
New School of Law Building opened in 2002
New School of Dentistry opened in 2006
Institute of Genome Science opened in 2007
New Southern Quad opened in 2009
New Ambulatory Medical Center slated for 2012
All of these expansions in both program and space has made for larger enrollment at UMB and still more traffic on MLK Boulevard. As new buildings open it gives the University the opportunity to renovate, expand, and modernize older existing buildings. In addition to the School itself generating more traffic the adjacent Neighborhoods have become magnets for Students of UMB. MLK Boulevard has become filled with Students who live in Ridgley's Delight, Pigtown, Hollins Market, and Barre Circle and walk to School. 
Speaking of UMB and crossing MLK Boulevard, UMB has been constructing a new Biotech Park since roughly 2005. It's going along West Baltimore St. in Poppleton on the grounds of dilapidated row homes. The new heavily guarded park is slated to bring new jobs to the area and will boost redevelopment efforts throughout Poppleton. 
There are future plans along MLK Boulevard; State Center. The very suburban park is slated to be redeveloped and bridge the gap between Mount Vernon, Bolton Hill, Upton, Seton Hill, and Heritage Crossing. This project has had numerous pit falls and controversies. First off, there are those who think the State shouldn't be investing that kind of money during a recession, the State's developers Streuver Brothers, Eccles, and Rouse going bankrupt, the design having to be modified because McCulloh Homes are no included, and a host of other hurdles that have halted construction that should have been underway many times over.
There were also plans at one point to extend MLK Boulevard to meet I-83. This would be disastrous to all of the Neighborhoods nearby as it would destroy their fabric and some very beautiful row homes might be destroyed in the process. It's also interesting that this wasn't done 30 years ago. MLK Boulevard just stops at Chase St. where had it continued would have cut through Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill. These Neighborhoods 30 years ago were in decent shape while the rest of the Neighborhoods surrounding the Boulevard were not. That gives me insight into the state of mind that the planners were in that they only wanted to disrupt poor distressed Neighborhoods while leaving wealthy Neighborhoods alone. That was just a little side note I found quite interesting.
Now that I have given a history of MLK Boulevard from 1982-2012 and beyond it comes time to answer the burning the question; Should MLK Boulevard Ever Been Built? My answer; Yes, it started out as a bypass from Downtown heading Uptown with very few traffic jams. Now that the area has gone through and will continue to go through a massive transformation it has stopped being a bypass because it takes almost as long to get Uptown than if you drove straight through Downtown. So if it failed as a bypass why should it have been built? Well I will answer that with a question; How could all of these new Stadiums, gentrified Neighborhoods, and expanded University without this new road to support the additional traffic?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Lets Dust Off the Shelves

There's no doubt that Baltimore has had to put some development projects on hold because of the great recession and some of those high profile developers (Streuver Brothers Eccles & Rouse comes to mind) have gone belly up. That would make reviving some of these once prospective developments will be that much harder to revive. Now that the economy is showing some signs of improvement some developers who haven't gone bankrupt are dusting off their portfolio shelves and reviving projects they have had to put on hold.
If one drives along I-95 just before the I-395 ramp one can see that Patrick Turner's Westport is beginning its infrastructure improvements to make way for its high density waterfront development with the first apartment building expecting to be completed in the next couple of years. I'm using the continuation of construction of Westport construction as a signal for other developers to begin dusting off the shelves and revive their old projects that I like. Lets take a look down memory lane at some proposed projects that were on hold indefinitely. 
30 East Pratt-Forget Harbor Point and Inner Harbor East, this might be the most valuable piece of undeveloped Real Estate in the City. Where else along Pratt St. in Downtown can you find a vacant lot just waiting for a daring architect to build their dream sky scarper? If you can't think of anywhere else that's because 30 East Pratt is the only place. Sure, there are buildings along Pratt St. that due for major renovations and modernizations to stay current but I can't think of any that need to be torn down and that's the only way to create more vacant lots on Pratt St. in Downtown. 
Conway & Light St- This was once part of the McCormick Schmidt plant that graced the industrial Inner Harbor of yesteryear. The Intercontinental Hotel took up a good deal of this space but there is still a vacant lot at the corner of Light and Conway that's used as a pay lot that over charges. There was a proposal to build a sky scraper here that was promised to alter Baltimore's skyline. This modern building is expected be mostly glass and contain a mix of uses including a Hotel, ground floor Retail, and Apartments or Condos. Like 30 East Pratt this is a prime piece of Downtown Real Estate especially when considering how close it its to the Stadiums and Light Rail.  
Guilford/Holiday/Saratoga- This little known piece of land at the eastern edge of Downtown what had a proposal to build a mixed use centre that would most likely be Offices and Retail. Located just steps from "the Block" it wouldn't be the best location for Residential uses. Given that there won't be much of a reduction in the amount of vacant office space Downtown especially when considering that Exelon is building its big new headquarters in Harbor Point and that will vacate the Constellation Energy Building. I don't see this project at Guilford, Holiday, and Saratoga getting off the ground anytime soon. It should at the very least still be talked about so it doesn't fall through the cracks.
The Mechanic Opera House-The victim of Charles Center Era architecture was shuttered and is awaiting redevelopment. Davis S.Brown Enterprises is looking to redevelop it and reopen the old opera house in a modern venue with Retail surrounding it and a Hotel and Residences above it. There have been pitfalls other than the recession for this ugly building, mainly conversationalists who think its architecture is historically significant. I whole heatedly disagree with them and believe that this prominently located parcel (Charles and Baltimore St.and just steps from the Metro) is holding back a potential revival of Downtown's Charles Center District. I say redevelop the Mechanic full speed ahead.
Waterview Overlook- Cherry Hill is finally realizing that it has some waterfront access to the Middle Branch. With the Billions being reinvested next door in Westport a developer before the recession saw a vacant parcel of land in Cherry Hill along Waterview Avenue and bought it. It was rezoned to permit the construction of Condos and Town Homes named Waterview Overlook. Although located in Cherry Hill one wouldn't have to drive through Cherry Hill to get there. Developers cleared the land to start construction but then the recession hit and Waterview Overlook's developer went bankrupt. Earlier this year the land was sold at a bank ordered auction. Since the land is zoned for a project like Waterview Overlook it's safe to say that the whoever bought this land will revive it in some way unless they seek to rezone it. 
Vistas on the Lake- Finally a development that takes advantage of Druid Hill Park's breathtaking views. Vistas on the Lake, proposed to be located in Reservoir Hill on a vacant parcel with Druid Park Lake Drive frontage overlooking the lake. Reservoir Hill has been on the verge of a comeback for many years and resurrecting Vistas on the Lake would be give it a huge shot in the arm. Although this project was been shelved due to the recession it was officially taken off the books when HUD claimed that the land it was to be built on had a lien on it that only allowed for Section 8 housing. I think the lien is a hindrance to large scale redevelopment throughout distressed areas of Reservoir Hill and should be lifted if only for the sake of Vistas on the Lake.
Residences at Lexington Market- The Westside of Downtown has had some modest success stories by rehabbing old buildings but there hasn't been much in the way of new building. The Residences at Lexington Market would have consisted of two high rise Apartment Buildings, a high rise Condo Building and 23 Town Homes all built atop a small parking garage (pictured above.) In addition to being a great asset to Lexington Market these 300+ new homes would have breathed new life into the Retail of Downtown's westside which is still suffering from the flight to the suburbs half a century earlier. This project was supposed to be built by the same developers as Waterview Overlook which had gone bankrupt. I haven't read anything regarding the resurrection of this project. I would love to see this built considering its proximity to both the Light Rail and Metro, this whole area could be a transit hub if done right.
O'Donnell Square- Located in the up & coming Greektown Neighborhood Ed Hale of 1st Mariner Bank Fame had purchased an old industrial swath of land near the recently completely Athena Square Town Homes on Oldham St., O'Donnell Square was supposed to be roughly 1100 units of luxury Apartments and Condos in high rises. What has been built so far without Ed Hale's backing has been 121 Town Homes. Given how well Athena Square sold during the recession, I think this was a wise choice for now. Given how close to the Harbor and Canton this is I would advise that the remainder of the land be used for Apartments & Condos. Supposedly that land is zoned for about 800 additional units but no further development plans have come through as of yet. 
Somerset Homes- This once distressed public housing development was demolished in 2009 to make way for an empty field at least that's what's there now. Then Mayor Shelia Dixon had this development demolished without any real plans or funds to rebuild. The land has been banked as part of a land banking program that former Mayor Dixon had championed. When the Master Plan for the Oldtown Mall area was completed it listed a few different options of varying densities to build on this land. I prefer a mix of high density Apartments and Town Homes with a mix of incomes. Given that East Baltimore is experiencing a rebirth due to the Hopkins Biotech Park and associated residential redevelopment the site of Somerset Homes will become a valuable piece of land.
Gateway at Washington Hill- Also near Hopkins in East Baltimore in the hot Washington Hill Neighborhood next to Butchers Hill this vacant parcel of land has been zoned for high density Apartments with ground floor Retail. The Retail will provide a much needed niche for Residents of Washington Hill, Butchers Hill, and Broadway Overlook who feel their Retail options are limited because East Baltimore's Retail hasn't caught up with the influx of new middle class Residents. Unlike some of the other developments discussed in this post, Gateway at Washington Hill is a lot closer to getting built. I think Gateway at Washington Hill is proof that East Baltimore has turned a corner for the better.
 I'm happy to say that the environment for building in Baltimore has become friendlier in the past year although not perfect it's definitely better than it was from 2007-2011 and with that good news it's time to dust off the shelves and revive these and more great projects.