Sunday, February 17, 2008

Public Housing: Let Me Set the Record Straight

Now public housing has always been somewhat of a hot button issue in Baltimore and every large city across the country and I would like to tell you where I stand on it. First of all I keep reading that's a waiting list to get in to public housing that's growing by the day. At the same time I hear that complexes continue to grow vacant. One could use the argument that beggars can't be choosers but that would be ignorant and wrong.Now why are complexes going vacant? It's not due to a decreasing number of qualified residents it's simply a matter of safety and the condition of the structures. Even with renovations in the 80s and 90s many complexes have fallen into a state of disrepair and residents are moving out and residents on waiting lists simply refuse to move in. Still it's not that simple there are some who would love to move in to the vacant run down complexes but the city is systematically emptying them out to demolish and rebuild them as new mixed income communities. If you've read my blog for any length of time you will know that I'm in favor of this and I'm against deep concentration of poverty that were the order of the day in the 1940s through the 1970s when the bulk of these complexes were built. I'm not against public housing in fact I think it's a necessity in breaking the cycle of poverty that's plagued Urban America for generations. Now how can government hand outs break the cycle of poverty you ask?Public housing in my opinion should be used a stepping stone. When you move into public housing your goal and the goal of the city should be to get you out quickly. In other words don't get too comfortable. Now how do we achieve this? When someone moves into public housing they will be assessed on their current situation and what it will take for them to be gainfully employed and no longer needing public housing. Now what all does this include? It includes free college education, job training, daycare, health and dental insurance (this can include drug rehab and counseling) and proper interview etiquette. Now that our public housing resident has become gainfully employed he/she can move out on their own and not need the assistance of public housing and the unit that's been vacated someone else can move in the whole process will start all over again. If the number of residents who need public housing dwindles the number of units allocated for public housing will go down as well. It almost sounds too easy right? This is just my Utopian ramblings that will never see the light of day.Now lets get back to the physical condition of the complexes. HOPE VI funding has dried up thanks in no small part to the war in Iraq so the city has stepped up the plate with redeveloping their blighted complexes. Uplands, O'Donnell Heights, Westport Homes Extension, 100 units of Cherry Hill Homes, and Somerset Homes either have or will hit the wrecking ball. There is talk of demolishing Douglass Homes and Perkins Homes. Other complexes that need redevelopment are LaTrobe Homes, Mount Winans Homes, Owsego Mall, and Poe Homes. Sure on paper the number of public housing units will go down but the vacancy rates in these complexes are so high that the number of functioning units once the redevelopment is complete won't be a whole lot lower than they are now. Not only that deep concentrations of poverty have been broken up and middle and upper income families will begin moving into once depressed neighborhoods.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Northern Parkway:Every Cloud Has a Silver Line

They say every cloud has a silver lining, that after every tragedy something good comes from it. Land on Northern Parkway west of I-83 is tragically underutilized but something good can come from it, redevelopment and a transit line; the Silver Line.

Northern Parkway was built in the earlier part of the 20th century before interstates to accommodate the automobile, the declining streetcars, and the increasingly suburban nature of north Baltimore. Today Northern Parkway is a four to six lane thoroughfare that runs east west from Belair Road to Liberty Heights Avenue. East of I-83 Northern Parkway isn't much of an issue, the neighborhoods although suburban are generally clean, relatively low crime and vacancy rates, and low poverty rates.

Now let me shift gears a little bit and talk about transit. I've spoken my opinions on the state of Baltimore's rail transit but I'm going talk right now as if everything in the Baltimore Regional Rail Plan was built already and exactly to my specifications granted hell will have frozen over and pigs will be flying but stay with me anyway. Many of the transit lines go through north Baltimore but they've got no connection within North Baltimore they all meet up Downtown. Suppose someone wants to stay in north Baltimore but wants to ride rail transit? That's where the new silver line comes in. It will allow north Baltimore region to ride rail transit without having to go Downtown if they don't want to.

The Silver line will be the only line that doesn't go Downtown but it will connect to other lines allowing for TOD and gentrification. The Silver Line will begin at Belair Road and then meet the Green Line Northern Parkway stop at Harford Road and will travel west along Northern Parkway and meet the Yellow Line at York Road and Belvedere Square. It will then meet Charles Street marking the northern terminus of the Charles St.Trolley Line. It will then meet the Blue Line at I-83 and continue west to meet the Green Line. My tweaking of the Green Line will have it meet Reisterstown Road and travel under it above Northern Parkway and then will turn westerly to run parallel to Northern Parkway and the Silver Line until it meets Wabash Avenue and the Green Line will turn south and run under Wabash Avenue which it currently runs above. After Wabash Avenue the Green and Silver Lines will no longer cross paths, Northern Parkway dead ends at Liberty Heights Avenue right after this. Now this is where things will get complicated because although Northern Parkway ends, the Silver Line still has a journey to complete. It will have a stop at Grove Park (The End of Northern Parkway) and then turn easterly to run under Liberty Heights Avenue. It will stop at Gwynn Oak Avenue at the newly redeveloped retail center that will replace Super Pride. It will continue on Liberty Heights until Garrison Boulevard where it have a stop and it will turn south and run under Garrison Boulevard. Garrison Boulevard ends at Clifton Avenue which will be a great place for a Walbrook Junction stop. It will run under Clifton Avenue for a New York Minute and then it will once again turn south and run under Hilton Parkway. The Silver Line will finally end once and for all at the red line's Rosemont. stop.

Now lets talk benefits of the Silver Line. West of I-83 Northern Parkway may eventually have a lot to offer. The road itself will be narrowed to 2 lanes in each direction with on street parking, sidewalks furniture plantings, additional lighting, and updated traffic signals. Mt. Washington basically turns it back on Northern Parkway with a thick forest separating the two. Well not anymore, new high density mixed use development with apartments, condos, and offices all with ground floor retail will replace the trees from I-83 to Reisterstown Road. Pimlico Middle, which closed last year will be torn and redeveloped in the process. Further down Northern Parkway the aging Seton Business Park will redeveloped as a high density 21st century office park. Across the street from the Seton Business Park is Grove Park and another large swath of trees. I bet you can't guess how I'd develop it huh? Well you're right another mixed use TOD development.

Once the Silver Line parts from Northern Parkway the benefits will be more limited because the neighborhoods aren't as blighted and land isn't available for development. One benefit may include better retail selections for residents like sit down restaurants and high quality grocery stores. Residents have been waiting many years for these services and haven't gotten them yet.

Now it has been said that every cloud has a silver lining but I don't think they were talking about rail transit and the development that follows. Now Here's your Silver Line.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Hotels:The Sign of a Great Economy or an Ailing One

I work in the hotel industry so I'm particularly excited about this. The 757 room Convention Center shows a huge commitment to the city of Baltimore and the belief that Baltimore's tourism economy will be viable for decades to come. It takes decades to make back the money one spends building and operating an upscale hotel so the owner of a hotel has to have great faith before committing such huge funds.
In addition to the convention center new hotel construction is drawing board for every big development project. The State Center Development, Westport, Canton Crossing, and the Westside of Downtown are slated to have an upscale hotel while two have already been built at Inner Harbor East. These are just new hotels this doesn't even account for the dozens of hotels that vary in age and amenities. With all this new hotel construction the new hotels will no doubt have features like Hi-Def TVs, WI-FI Internet access in all areas and over all more modern decor in sleeping rooms, conference rooms, banquet rooms, and restaurants. Will this mean that older hotels built from the 1980s and 1990s will lose business due to increased competition? Well they're not going down without a fight.
Many of Baltimore's upscale hotels are going through, have gone through or are slated to go through massive renovations. A general rule of thumb is that hotels need to be renovated every 5 years to keep current with market trends, technology, and decor. The cost of renovating a hotel with several hundred rooms, multiple restaurants, a couple dozen conference and banquet rooms is staggering. Hotels try to go as long as possible without renovating (I know from personal experience) but you can't delay the inevitable. The same projection that warrants the building a new hotel is used for renovating an existing one. You'll eventually make your money back. If these hotels didn't think Baltimore had the economy to support their hotels they wouldn't renovate and may even close but they're renovating mostly to the tune of eight figures.
If you read the paper and get depressed about all that's wrong with Baltimore such as a decaying housing stock, population loss, out of control murder rate, and a failing public school system just look at the construction and renovation of hotels to cheer yourself up because it speaks volume about Baltimore's economy and that thousands will travel here whether for business or pleasure.