Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Will the Existing Westport Community Benefit from Development?

The redevelopment of Westport's Waterfront has been a long time coming. It will be the crown and jewel of the Middle Branch transforming a vacant industrial wasteland into an upscale mixed use community. It will be close to the Blue and Yellow Lines and the MARC Camden Line and the more local Orange Line. When completed the Westport Waterfront will have 3 million square feet of Office and Retail Space, 2,000 Condos, and at least one Boutique Hotel. This will instantly transform the Westport Waterfront but what will it do for the existing Westport Community?
One thing the media hasn't shed light on is the fact that Westport is not new, it's been a community with long time residents and row homes that are close to 100 years old. Westport itself looks like a throw back to the 1960s as the industrial uses that were the back bone of employment in Westport shut down or were moved due to interstate construction. So far the promise of new development on the land that once housed the Community's jobs hasn't had much benefit on the existing Westport Community. Now lets see if the finished product will be a united Westport in every corner of the neighborhood.
The way I see it, Westport is divided into three distinct sections; the abandoned waterfront which is poised for redevelopment, the "core" of Westport which is centered along Annapolis Road, the community's Main Street, and Westport Homes a public housing development located west of the BW Parkway and the neighborhood's core which is east of the BW Parkway. The light rail tracks separate the core from the waterfront. One selling point of the new Westport development is its accessibility to major highways and rail lines. The truth is; it's anything but. It's near these things but just because it's near something doesn't make it accessible. In making the entire Westport Community more accessible the three sections of the neighborhood will be stream lined to make one neighborhood that is truly accessible. The BW Parkway and the light rail, although assets act as barriers between sections of Westport.
In order to accomplish this the roadways and rail tracks that divide Westport will have to be reworked and redesigned. I have always been a supporter of getting rid of highways in urban areas that don't benefit the city and act as a barrier. In this the culprit is the BW Parkway. I envision it as an at grade Boulevard with two lanes in each direction with row house type shops on either side with an upstairs apartment. This will serve as Westport's new Main Street. It will be pedestrian oriented with traffic and pedestrian signals at intersections. Upon entering the city the BW Parkway will cease being a highway and will turn into "South Russell Street. Part of Annapolis Road will be done away with at the the city/county line and will branch off from Russell St. upon entering the "core" of Westport. Turning the BW Parkway into an at grade Main St. will re enforce the urban grid that was disrupted when the Parkway was built.
This will reunite Westport Homes with the core of Westport, I will discuss Wesport Homes later. This will also reunite Westport with the MARC Camden Line tracks and the localized Orange Line which will have a stop here that will serve Westport, Mount Winans, Morrell Park, and Saint Paul.Speaking of rail tracks the other barrier of Westport is the light rail tracks. Having light rail service for Westport has been and will continue to be a community asset but it will act as a barrier between the Westport Waterfront and the "core" of Westport. The solution, you guessed it! Tunneling! The BW Parkway is set to be widened but instead we'd use those funds to turn it to South Russell St. and via my "Transit Fund Bundling" iniative, will partially pay for the tunneling of the tracks. Patrick Turner, the developer of the Westport Waterfront will pay for the tunneling as well.Now lets talk development, the development potential of Westport does not stop at the Waterfront by any stretch of the imagination. There are plenty of parcels ready for development. There are two that face I-95 on the north side one east of the BW Parkway one west. They will each be two high rise condos totaling four. There will be a fifth high rise but that will be a mixed population public housing high rise (The Elderly and Disabled) and will serve as a model for the city's existing mixed use high rises to renovate into the 21st century. Westport Elementary will close and its students will be redistricted to Lakeland Elmentary/Middle. The old Westport Elementary will be perfect for loft apartments. Two identical loft apartment buildings will be built on the fields surrounding the School.
As part of my phasing out of public housing family developments Westport Homes will be demolished. Westport Homes Extension has already met this fate. Many older Westport Homes residents may eligible to move into the new mixed population building. Town homes will go in place of Westport Homes. They will range in price and size starting with a two bedroom one and a half bath no garage no basement at $175,000 and topping out with a four bedroom three and a half bath with a two car garage and basement at $375,000. The "core of Westport will be surrounded by new development. However, this part of Westport will not hit the wrecking ball. Their value will obviously go up and homesteaders will jump at the opportunity to buy and rehab one. If older home owners or renters here feel they can no longer afford to live here due to tax increases they can move into the new mixed population building.The "core" may be eligible for historic designation, this would be great to further ensure that no demolition occurs here. One project of note is the restoration of Mount Auburn Cemetery. The disinvestment here was unacceptable but Community activists cleaned it up and now looks better than ever.
Now for the original question "Will the existing Wesport Community Benefit from Development?" It will but we'll have to knock down some barriers in order to make it an all around success.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Trading Residences for Hotel Rooms: Not the Right but the Right Now

Well lets face it, we're in the throws of the worst economic melt down since The Great Depression. One of the largest factors that led to this melt down was the Real Estate Bubble that began inflating in 2002, leveled off in late 2006 and burst in late 2007. Everyone knew this was coming, but like an addiction Home Builders over built and over borrowed, Home Buyers bought homes they couldn't afford using an adjustable rate mortgage where they paid only interest and put nothing down. Once the bubble burst these inflated home prices began to fall drastically leaving millions of home owners paying more for a house they bought two years ago than it's worth today. Even worse, the low interest rates began to rise inflating mortgage payments even higher. Another problem with adjustable rate mortgages is that when you're done with that initial period you're mortgage can go double or even triple. Very few people's salaries doupled or tripled so making these new higher payments have become impossible especially since many home owners could barely make the initial interest only payments, amassing huge credit card debts.
So what's happening now? Foreclosures. Homeowners who got in way over their heads are now unable to pay their mortgage and can't sell their house either, nobody's buying and if they were the home owner would take a huge loss because of the depreciation of the home's value. Now how does this translate into an economic melt down? I'm no economist but I'll take a crack at it anyway, when lending and credit agencies aren't paid back the money they've lent they can't do business and they go bankrupt, this also means that businesses that wish expand can't do so. Homebuilders are unable to sell new construction or take out loans themselves and what they've borrowed to build the houses they can't sell, they're unable to pay back.
Before the economic meltdown there were many signs of the upcoming doom that nobody paid attention to. Baltimore caught wind of this before many other cities and counties which made the impact minimal here.
It all started with the fate of Olmstead at Charles Village which would have been $700,000 condos. Then Streuver Brothers Eccles and Rouse, the builders scaled the project back to rental apartments and sought subsidies from the city. The site remains vacant.This was all Baltimore developers needed to put the brakes on development projects, a very smart move. One type of construction that hasn't been effected as bad as the housing market is the demand for Hotel Rooms. This means that certain projects have been converted from residential units to Hotel Rooms.Now is this the right thing to do? Or is this the "right now" thing to do? Granted the city will over time need a total of 7,500 additional hotel rooms but putting them where residential units were originally supposed to go may halt the city's plans to help regain the 337,000 people it lost since its peak in 1957. There are many other parts of Downtown that could use the hotel space than around the harbor. The Westside of Downtown, State Center, Station North, and Mount Vernon all could benefit from Hotel Rooms which will help some of these neighborhoods become more of a tourist destination and make these neighborhoods a more happening place. Also, the city wouldn't gain the tax base it would get if these developments were turned into Hotels.
So far only four devlopments have either committed to or discussed switching from residential to Hotel but I fear there will be many more to come.
There's 30 East Pratt which is in between the Galleria and the old Examiner Offices,
The Old Mechanic Opera Theater in Charles Center,
The Parking Lot at Light St. and Conway, and the old Hutzlers at Calvert and Lombard next to the Brookshire Suites (yes Hutzlers opened an Inner Harbor Store from 1981-1986.)The Hutzlers site is the only one where construction has begun and two hotels of the Hyatt Brand have committed to opening there.
Now I recall someone inking a post last June instructing developers to "Sit on it" until the economy becomes development friendly once again and resume with their original plans. Well, it was me who inked that post and I stand firmly in that belief. There are other sites in Baltimore that have put their development on hold and I'm hoping that they can be salvaged and eventually built as they were first planned. They include; Waterview Overlook in Cherry Hill,Pinnacle 1 and 2 in Harborview, The Residences at Lexington Market,
Federal Place in Federal Hill, Vistas on the Lake in Reservoir Hill, Harbor Point in Fels Point,
Canton Crossing (the residential part),Tide Point (the residential part), Greektown condos, (1,000 + in high rises), the parking lot surrounded by Guilford Ave., Holiday St., and Saratoga St.,Brewers Hill, and the Gateway at Washington Hill.
There are those that began building before any signs of economic crisis and are having trouble selling or renting out their units. they include
Camden Crossing in Pigtown, Spinaker Bay in Inner Harbor East,
Athena Square in Greektown, Apartments at the corner of Charles and Preston in Mount Vernon,
The Ritz Carlton Residences,Silo Point in Locust Point,
Sailcloth Factory,
Stewarts,Greenhouse,and the Atrium all located in Downtown's Westside.

Yes, the economy is bad and while trading residential units for Hotel Rooms may be the "right now" thing to do it's not the long term right thing to do, those 7,500 Hotel Rooms can be better spread out throughout Downtown.

Monday, March 9, 2009

MLK Boulevard: Living Up to its name

I was watching a CNN Special and it talked about places named after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mostly roads and schools. Now to have an honor like that bestowed upon a road or school said road or school must be in a great neighborhood that is the living embodiment of Dr. King's Dream. The population must be integrated and the races and income levels coexist peacefully and harmoniously where everyone loves and respects one another. The CNN Special basically reported the exact opposite. I knew this to a certain extent but it was something that I like most other Americans but in the back of our minds. I grew up in Columbia, a place (a very rare place) where Dr. King's dream flourishes.

Now we come to Baltimore, a city where incidentally there's a school and a road named after Dr. King. The school, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary is located in Lower Park Heights, one of Baltimore's roughest ghettos. It also became that way through blockbusting where the Jewish home owners left in the drop of a hat for the suburbs making for a drastic full racial turn around in a very few years. (1965-1970) Dr. King's assignation in 1968 only sped up this process. The Elementary School, in sync with CNN's Special is segregated and low performing even in Baltimore City School Standards.
Then there's Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, it's located on the western border of Downtown designed to bypass the gridlock of Downtown. MLK Boulevard runs from I-395, the nation's shortest interstate and Howard St.
When it was completed in 1982 MLK Boulevard was thought of barrier between Downtown and West Baltimore which it was essentially. At the time the road was built its surroundings were completely different than they are today. There were no Stadiums, The Westside of Downtown still had a Department Store or two.Lexington Market was in shambles, University of Maryland was much smaller. It has the only interchange with the tragedy that is I-170.
To the west of MLK Boulevard was Pigtown, although it gained population in the 1980s it still was struggling with crime, drugs, and prostitution.Hollins Market was trying to hold its own despite population loss and racial turnover. Poppleton was in shambles. There were four public housing sites three of which border MLK Boulevard. First was Lexington Terrace, and Poe Homes (this doesn't have MLK frontage), Murphy Homes (nick named "murder homes"), and McColloh Homes. The sprawling Social Security Complex marks the end of I-170.
The State Center Complex occupies the western end of MLK while the Seton Hill Neighborhood occupys the eastern end. At the inception of MLK Boulevard it had not lived up to its name.
Today, MLK Boulevard is both on the cusp of major change and has undergone major change already. Pigtown, although it lost population on the 1990s (I think the 2010 census will reveal that the population is the same as it was in 2000) has undergone major changes. Long time residents fear that it's on its to be the next Harbor East.
Camden Crossing, a Brownfields redevelopment has brought new blood into Pigtown and Washington Boulevard has been designated a "Main Street." Before the economy tanked investors were buying and handsomely rehabbing Pigtown's housing stock.
There are two new stadiums for the Orioles and Ravens Camden Yards and Mt&T Bank Stadium respectively. Hollins Market did not undergo a complete racial turnover, it has become of one Baltimore's most culturally and economically diverse neighborhoods. Like Pigtown, Hollins Market's housing stock is being rehabbed and repopulated. I expect very generous population gains in the 2010 census despite our current economic woes.Poppleton has benefited from the demolition of Lexington Terrace and its replacement with the low density "Towns at the Terraces" which through my phasing out of public housing family developments will see a broader income mix.
Murphy Homes has also hit the wrecking ball in favor of "Heritage Crossing." Heritage Crossing has a broader income than its neighbor to the south and it's also a little more secluded.
Another Poppleton victory has been the University of Maryland Biotech Park encompassing two blocks of Baltimore St. which will bring new blood into the neighborhood.
Speaking of UMB it has grown leaps and bounds and has become a magnet for Grad Students in the field of Medicine. Recent and or upcoming additions include the UMB School of Pharmacy, Dentistry, and a new student library.The next big things for MLK Boulevard are the State Center Redevelopment and the Red Line. The State Center Redevelopment is a TOD Site where the Blue Line and Green Line (both currently) meet up.
It's also a quarter mile away from Penn Station where there are MARC and Amtrak stops (proposed Purple Line) This is great for high density development where residents, visitors, and employees alike don't have to use their cars to get around. Also it will help reintegrate the neighborhoods of Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon, Madison Park, Seton Hill, and Station North together.
Originally the plan was larger and included the redevelopment of McCulloh Homes which will integrate Upton, Heritage Crossing, and the Red Line into the plan. This part of the plan has been scrapped at the request of McCulloh Homes residents. Speaking of the Red Line, in Option 4C which is supposedly what the community wants (they've signed a community compact) will run along MLK Boulevard from the former I-170 to Lombard St. with no stops. I believe this to be a mistake because MLK Boulevard only skirts the Western Edge of Downtown rather than going right through it. The Red Line should make a southeastern journey from the fromer I-170 down to Pratt St. with several stops that connect existing lines and provide service to the Westside of Downtown to ensure proper redevelopment (refer to my transit funds bundling post for a detailed look at this.) Another bad move involving MLK Boulevard is to extend it to meet I-83. This will waste funds that should go to building transit lines and iproving existing infrastructure. This will also cut the UMB Mount Royal Campus in half.Now here's what needs to be done, I'm just going to list them because I'm going to dedicate future posts for this. McCulloh Homes has got to go, The Social Security Building and its intruding parking structures have got to go, and the former I-170 has got to go. I already said the Red Line's Route along here will be a mistake as is its proposed intersection with I-83. Traffic patterns must be improved to promote better pedestrian access and blend West Baltimore neighborhoods with Downtown.Now to answer the question I proposed had Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard lived up to its name? Not quite but it's getting there and I'm very confident that it will. Baltimore, it's time we went against the peices of infrastructure named after Martin Luther King Jr. and honor him.