Saturday, December 28, 2013

New Posts Coming in 2014

After a December that produced nothing in the way of Baltimore Posts I'm happy to say that next year looks like it will start off well with a wealth of new ideas stirring in new head for Baltimore. This month however wasn't a bust for me, far from it. I had plenty of ideas pertaining to my sister blog; Columbia and Howard County Maryland's Past Present and Future. I predict to be finished writing and publishing the rest of those posts before the ball drops on December 31st and look forward to putting pen to paper with my Baltimore Blog and making 2014 the best ever. Stay tuned. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Making The Super Block A Little Less Super

 The Westside of Downtown has had many success stories over the past several years such as the rehabs of three of the major Department Stores, Avalon Center-point, Lexington Market back on the upswing, and Camden Court Apartments to name a few. Unfortunately there is still a good amount of blight in Downtown's Westside and most of that can be traced back to the ill fated "Super Block." The Super Block, bordered by Fayette St, Howard St., Lexington St., and Park Avenue/Liberty St. is almost completely boarded up and nobody wants to touch it.
The City's in a bit of quandary because other projects in Downtown's Westside have stalled because of the Super Block but at the same time nobody wants to touch the Super Block. It's been this way for quite some time now and I'm afraid the City has reached an impasse. I still think the Super Block is prime Real Estate because of those three magic words; location location location so hows about we make the Super Block a little less super?
Plans to redevelop the Super Block can be traced all the way back to the 1990s Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke decided that he had to destroy the Westside of Downtown in order to save it. Preservationists fought him tooth and nail and eventually won. What did they win exactly? They won what is now the Super Block, although the buildings have beautiful architecture, their practicality in luring big Retailers has proven to be impossible. Could it be that now Retailer wants to be the first one to test the waters? If that were the case I certainly wouldn't blame them. Could it be developers who think the project is to big to risk that kind of investment on? Again, I wouldn't blame them if that were the case? Could it have been the City who has insisted on selling the project as an all or nothing deal? 
I think the fact that the Super Block has been an all or nothing deal has been a major hindrance in its come back. Not helping matters is the fact that the footprints of the buildings are so old and not conducive to a modern Retailer's needs. Do I think these architectural gems should be demolished for that fact and replaced with the cookie cutter big box Retail that has just opened in Canton Crossing? Absolutely not. Just like with the all or nothing impasse, I think an agreement can be reached. 
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake has withdrawn the Request for Proposal (RFP) for the Super Block saying that the project is too big for just one developer especially during these economic times where developers and lenders aren't taking such high risks. I personally agree that the project is too large but that begs the question; Where do we go from here? I mean just because the project is too large isn't an excuse to allow the Super Block to just sit and decay. I think that it's time to break up the Super Block into smaller "mini districts" that will each have its own strengths and weaknesses to play off of.
First we have the 100 Block of Howard St. I would propose that this be the first piece of the Super Block to tackle. On the west side of the 100 block of Howard St. one can see success stories such as the Atrium, and Avalon Center-point. Also with the Light Rail running right through it, this can be touted as TOD. Although there are success stories on the west side of the 100 block of Howard St., there are some opportunities. There are some Retail vacancies that I believe are a direct result of the Super Block side being neglected. As a result, I think it only fair that the City make an (RFP) for both sides of the 100 block of Howard St. so both sides can grow together. 
Next, we have Lexington St. Lexington St. has reopened to vesicular traffic through the Super Block in hopes of luring a developer. So far no dice. For Lexington St. in the Super Block as well as the few blocks west of it I want to name the "Lexington District" making it form as a "Gateway" to Lexington Market. In fact I would like to reopen Lexington Market from Park Avenue/Liberty St. all the way to Charles St. This create an energy from Charles Center all the way to Lexington Market. I think the two pillars of Downtown being linked together via Lexington St. will make the Lexington St. side of the Super Block all the more attractive. 
The Park Avenue/Liberty St.side of the Super Block may not come to fruition quite yet. In fact, due to the state of neglect that Park Avenue is in I would to see blocks to the north rehabbed/redeveloped first. Why those blocks first? I would like play on the fact that park Avenue is just a few blocks west of Mount Vernon Place. That part of Park Avenue is in great shape and I would like to extend that energy further south and eventually all the way to the Super Block.
When the Super Block portion of Park Avenue/Liberty St. is finally addressed I would like to see it well connected to Charles Center. In fact I would name that section "Charles Center West." When Charles Center was built in the 1960s and '70s, it walled itself off from the decaying parts of Downtown like the Super Block. Although this was beneficial to Charles Center, it further contributed to the decay of the Super Block. I believe that opening up Charles Center so to speak will contribute in the renewal efforts of the Super Block.
So what have we accomplished so far? So far we have managed to make the Super Block a little less super by breaking it up into three smaller projects that should appear less daunting to Retailers and Developers, but what have we done to make the buildings themselves more appealing? I think that some interior demolition is unavoidable. The buildings are just too narrow to lure Retailers as they are now. The front facades will remain as they are but in the back the buildings will be modernized and redeveloped to mimic the footprint of cookie cutter Retail like Canton Crossing (pictured above). A perfect example of this type of redevelopment is going on right now on Broadway with "The Market Place at Fells Point." And wouldn't you know it? Market Place at Fells Point is being built around another public market; Broadway Market. If the Super Block mimicked that by being built around Lexington Market we just have a winner here.
The Super Block is currently at a stand still. Most people believe (myself included) that the Super Block is just too super and breaking it up may begin to lure Retailers and Developers to this diamond in the rough. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Could TOD Re-Centralize Industry?

Yet another post that I developed an idea for in 2010 that I'm just now getting to write. After World War II large Cities across the Country began decentralize everything; High Density Downtown living gave way to large lost Suburban Single Family Homes, Retail Main Streets gave way to enclosed Shopping Malls with acre upon acre of surface level parking. Also included in the list of decentralization that dominated life in Rust Belt Cities such as Baltimore; The Decentralization of Industry.
Prior to World War II, Baltimore's Waterfront was thriving with Industry that employed tens of thousands of workers. As industry abandoned the waterfront in favor of either moving to the suburbs or leaving the Country or modernizing their infrastructure at the expense of the workforce, the waterfront redeveloped and Baltimore's Inner Harbor became a worldwide model of how to turn an abandoned Industrial Waterfront into a World Class Tourist Attraction. In doing so, Retail, Commercial, and Residential began to re-centralize around the very Waterfront it abandoned just a half century earlier. Did industry follow in its foot steps? No! But it should and here's how.
Not surprisingly, as these Industrial Facilities moved out of the City they relocated on or near railroad tracks. This was and is to ensure a prompt delivery of goods and services. The main freight carrier is CSX. CSX delivers freight all over the Country using the very lines I'm referring to. Today, CSX is not the sole user of these tracks. The MTA runs its MARC lines along here as well and may at times run parallel to the Light Rail or Subway Lines. This is where re-centralization begins to come into play. There are a lot of vacant and/or underused industrial lots in the inner rings of suburbs and the outskirts of the City that are located along these lines.
Meanwhile, the MTA is trying to lure more ridership on their existing lines in Baltimore and looking to expand its reach by building the Red Line, the Yellow Line, expanding the Subway (Green Line) and localizing MARC Stops. To further increase ridership and decrease the dependence of the automobile, some of these abandoned or under utilized industrial sites located along these lines are being redeveloped as high density mixed use developments. Such developments are being labeled "Transit Oriented Development" or "TOD".
TOD is taking Central Maryland by storm by taking land that was once industrial or under utilized and building high density luxury mixed use developments. Living near the Railroad Tracks has now become a selling point rather than a deal breaker. In the CIty TOD in the City includes the proposed  Rogers Avenue, Reisterstown Station, and Coldspring redevelopment areas along Wabash Avenue. Hanover Brewers Hill may in fact be TOD for the proposed Red Line. The State Center redevelopment is slated to be the largest TOD in the City with the possible exception of Station North.
In southwestern Baltimore County there are plenty of opportunities for TOD along the MARC lines and the crossing point in Halethorpe. Along the Howard/Anne Arundel County line there are numerous TOD projects on the books such as Oxford Square and Laurel Park Station. Both of these are on the MARC Camden Line and are slated to bring 1000 + Apartments and Condos each. There are other large developments in Elkridge that were built on the grounds of old industrial buildings but although they're close to either the Jessup MARC Station or the Dorsey MARC Station I wouldn't refer to them as TOD because it's nearly impossible to get to the Stations other than by car. I would however like to change that.
Now what do these new mixed use developments have to do with industry? Everything! These TOD developments both existing and potential ones have been built on what once suburban style industrial land. Granted the demand for such industry is significantly lower than it was 60 years ago but if suburban industrial land is eaten up by TOD, what will happen if and when industrial land is in a deficit in Baltimore's surrounding suburbs?
The answer to that question is a win win all around. TOD will consume heavily traveled suburban areas as well as those in the City but that doesn't mean that there aren't historically industrial areas in and around Baltimore just waiting to be reoccupied with the large work forces they boasted in their heyday. Such sites can be found in the Southeastern part of the City as well as Dundalk. Areas like Fort Holabird, Dundalk Marine Terminal, Industrial Canton, Fairfield, and North Point are all centrally located industrial areas that are perfect for just that; Industry Why? because they have great access to the water without having picturesque views of Downtown and the Inner Harbor that would have developers buying up the land and they're near CSX lines as well.  
Suburban TOD might even be responsible for eventually bringing the heavily industrial  Bethlehem Steel sight back to its former glory. I know it's a long shot but I think that area can and should be marketed to factories looking to expand into the Mid Atlantic Region and bring hundreds if not thousands of new Jobs to the City. All this translates into Job growth for the City and County and Job Growth translates into Population Growth. 
This was and still is a very outside the box idea that I thought up back in 2010 but never wrote until now but I think the issue of re-centralizing industry back to the City and Dundalk is the perfect next step to achieve Job and Population Growth and I think TOD in the suburbs will bring about this change by snatching up all the land.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A more Walkable Southwestern Boulevard

When Southwestern Boulevard, which runs through Halethorpe, Arbutus, and graces the southwestern edge of the City was built, it was at a time when walk-ability and mass transit accessibility were considered a thing of the past. One thing everybody says about history though is that if you don't learn from it, it will repeat itself. Well history has repeated itself and walk-able Communities are now in great demand. When I look at Southwestern Boulevard, I see a walk-able area in the making that takes advantage of its transit accessibility rather than hiding it.
Southwestern Boulevard was built as a higher speed alternative to Washington Boulevard which was and still is littered with multiple at-grade intersections, homes, and businesses. Though not a highway it was not meant to be Neighborhood friendly street as the speed limit is 50 mph. I've often wondered if Southwestern Boulevard was meant to connect to Hilton Parkway. Had it continued past Wilkens Avenue in the City through the Loudon Cemetery and connecting at Fredrick Avenue opposite the "Fred Hilton Bypass" as it's called. 
The Fred Hilton Bypass (pictured above) always reminded me of a ghost ramp, like it was supposed to be part of something bigger. I also find it strange that so much money and effort was spent to create Hilton Parkway, it has a partial clover leaf with Edmmodson Avenue and that's it. Granted, it was supposed to have an interchange with the extended I-70 but it still doesn't explain the road's short length. It is my humble opinion that Southwestern Boulevard and Hilton Parkway were supposed to connect to each other as one long bypass for Southwest Baltimore and a link to I-70. I have no hard evidence to support this and obviously none even came close to fruition but it's worth mentioning.
Now back to the issue at hand; Southwestern Boulevard. Given its fantastic location along the MARC Penn Line and not too far from the MARC Camden Line and UMBC, I think its walk-ability or lack there of should be addressed. Back in 2010 I had the idea to close the St. Denis MARC Station in Relay (not supported by commentators)  as well as the Halethorpe MARC Station and build a consolidated one where the Penn and Camden Line cross. I should also point out that this where Washington Boulevard meet as well. Coincidence? I think not. 
Southwestern Boulevard starts right where the two MARC lines meet at a partial cloverleaf that is grade separated with Washington Boulevard. Here, I think there should be a four way traffic light here instead. On the other side of Washington Boulevard, there should be an entrance to the new MARC Station created by the crossing of the two lines. The whole area would be transformed into a TOD Haven as this crossing and transfer point will no doubt increase MARC ridership. 
This dismantling of the grade separated clover leaf at which Southwestern Boulevard begins will create a newly walk-able Southwestern Boulevard that will connect the western edges of Halethorpe, Arbutus, to their eastern counterparts as well as Lansdowne. How you ask? Well I will be happy to explain.
First off, as part of the project to build a connecting MARC Hub and replace the interchange of Southwestern Boulevard and Washington Boulevard, I would tunnel the existing MARC Penn Line tracks for the duration of its parallel run to Southwestern Boulevard. This will open up the floodgates to allow for signalized intersections, sidewalks, and mixed use development along Southwestern Boulevard all in the name of re-connecting Southwestern Baltimore County. 
Now if you turn back the clock to late 2010, you will read that I had intended to close the Halethorpe MARC Station in favor of the new Hub that connects the two lines. My stance on this has not changed and I'm still in favor of doing so. The MARC Penn Line doubles as the MTA Purple line as per the 2002 Baltimore Regional Rail Plan and I would make a Purple Line at Arbutus just before I-695 to not only serve the Community of Arbutus but UMBC as well. Shuttle buses will serve UMBC Students.
Where the Halethorpe MARC Station currently stands, the parking lots will be redeveloped into a small Town Centre for the Halethorpe Community. Small shops and restaurants will flank the area with Apartments/ Condos and Office Buildings above them. These 3-4 story buildings will be wrapped around parking garages and shuttle buses will take Residents to and from the Neighboring MTA and or MARC Staions. 
Adding to the suburban boulevard feel to Southwestern Boulevard will be the addition of signalized intersections to cross streets (like the one pictured above) that are inaccessible through Southwestern Boulevard and/or the street doesn't cross which in my humble opinion severs the Community.
Such locations would be Francis Avenue/Ridge Avenue where a bridge over Southwestern Boulevard doesn't provide for an intersection. As part of the redevelopment of the Halethorpe MARC Station, the bridge would be demolished and replaced with an at-grade signalized intersection. Just north of Francis Avenue/Ridge Avenue is Tom Day Boulevard. Tom Day Boulevard acts an entrance/ exit for the western part of Halethorpe. On the other side of the train tracks is Maple Avenue. Going back to my wishes to have the tracks tunneled this will allow Maple Avenue and Tom Day Boulevard to meet at a four way signalized intersection with Southwestern Boulevard.
Southwestern Boulevard then goes under I-95 at which point it's safe to say we're in Arbutus. Just north of the I-95 under pass is a small intersection with Selma Avenue. on the other side of the tracks (which remembering I want to have tunneled) is a small Apartment and Town Home Complex known as Colony Hill. Colony Hill Court now is only accessible via Potomac Avenue which in turn is accessible through Sulphur Spring Road. Instead of driving through an industrial complex I'm proposing that Colony Hill Court connect to Selma Avenue at Southwestern Boulevard. I don't know if this intersection warrants a traffic signal or not.
Just north of here is an overpass going over Sulphur Spring Road. Sulphur Spring Road is an important link throughout Southwestern Baltimore County. Currently to access it through Southwestern Boulevard you have to turn at Linden Avenue just south of the Fire Station and take an access road to it. This "permanent detour" as I call appears to have been created when the train tracks were put in place. Well now that I'm proposing the train tracks be tunneled, I'd say it's time to dismantle the overpass in favor of walk-able and drive-able signalized intersection where the overpass currently is. The Linden Avenue intersection will be re-worked to make a four way intersection with Old Sulphur Spring Road.
Just north of the fire station on the appropriately named North Avenue lies a struggling Shopping Center with a Price Rite and a Dollar General. I would redevelop this aging relic and extend North Avenue to meet Southwestern Boulevard and give the new mixed used development Southwestern Boulevard Frontage.   
At this point Southwestern Boulevard passes under I-695. There are a couple of intersections that I believe should exist between here and the City line that don't and they are; Southwestern Boulevard and Maiden Choice Lane, Southwestern Boulevard and Beechfield Avenue. Beechfield Avenue I believe is the City/County Line for Southwestern Boulevard. Whether traffic signals will be installed at these newly created intersections is unknown.
That about sums up my plans for Southwestern Boulevard and its walk-ability, I hope in some way shape or form they come to fruition because I think this area of the County/City is a diamond in the rough with all the possible transit hubs and TOD just waiting to be discovered.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Canton Crossing: Finally Progress for a Large Development

Yesterday marked a milestone in the long stalled project known as Canton Crossing. The economy is mostly to blame for its slow progress as have the financial backings of developer Ed Hale, but yesterday, most of the shops to opened and Canton Crossing will bring lots of new chains not only to Canton but it will be their first location in the entire City of Baltimore. New stores include Target, DSW Shoe Whare House, Loft, Five Below, Old Navy, Michael's Arts & Crafts, The Vitamin Shoppe, Red Robin, and Farmsetad Grill plus many smaller shops. In 2014 a Harris Teeter will open.
Large development projects similar to Canton Crossing have stalled but this proves that waiting it out and the right location can produce results at long last.
When I look at Canton Crossing and what it means for the City I can't help but think that it has taken the place of Downtown's Westside as Baltimore's premier Shopping District. Granted it's been decades that the Westside has held this title but City Officials are still hoping to revive this diamond in the rough and bring the same type of Retail that's opened just yesterday in Canton Crossing.
The Westside of Downtown or at least the Super Block portion of it is another one of those big development project that has failed to get off the ground. Canton Crossing of course can relate given that its progress has been anything but smooth sailing. Given the fact that Canton Crossing is finally coming to fruition, large projects like it such as the Super Block, may be injected with new hope. Lets take a look around the City to see other large projects that are currently stalled,
First like I had talked about earlier is the Super Block. The large amount of problems would best be covered in a post dedicated entirely to the Super Block. That post should be written and published by the end of the month. In fact Canton Crossing may have unknowingly thrown yet another monkey wrench into the Super Block.
Next we have Westport, this was another topic I dedicated an entire post to. Given how much the odds were stacked against Ed Hale and Canton Crossiing I believe Patrick Turner, who is still having similar problems with his Westport Waterfront, is beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel with Canton Crossing opening.
Finally we have State Center. The State is too broke to pursue this and the Market is too over saturated with new development at the moment. Like the other large developments mentioned here I think the State can see that their plans will come to fruition if they hold on tight. Just look at Canton Crossing. And yes I do still believe the State should sell this property to a private developer as is evidenced on a recent post I did.
Next I'm going to discuss a large project that is beginning to see the light of day just like Canton Crossing is today; Uplands. Uplands was once a boarded up failed public housing development that after years of lawsuits and recessions is beginning to breathe new life into the Edmondson Avenue corridor. Uplands is a purely Residential development which Canton Crossing is not but the similarities in their epic struggle make up for their differences. 
Big development in Baltimore had been at a stand still for the past several years but the opening of the shops at Canton Crossing proves that if you wait long enough, your project will eventually gain momentum and get built.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Prepping the Westport Neighborhood

Although Patrick Turner's Westport Development is in lingo, it will eventually happen. Turner might not be able to call all the shots but as waterfront land becomes more and more of a rarity it WILL happen. That being said, I feel obligated to turn your attention to the Neighborhood of Westport. Westport is currently in a blighted state and has been that way for quite some time. Residents have been waiting for Patrick Turner's Development to commence so that they may benefit from the redevelopment. My question to the Westport Neighborhood is; Why Wait? Lets prep the Westport Neighborhood now.
Westport's Waterfront began as a heavy industrial zone with its most famous uses being the BG&E Plant and the Lowry Glass Factory. The Row Homes located in the Westport Neighborhood were built as housing for the workers in the industrial waterfront. As the 20th Century wore on the Neighborhood began to decline as factories in the area began scaling back their workforce in favor of cheap overseas labor and the advent of computers.
As the 20th century drew to a close the Westport Waterfront was almost completely vacant. Not surprisingly, the Westport Neighborhood was suffering from high unemployment, blight, and population loss. The disinvestment continues to this day despite the promise of waterfront redevelopment. I've always believed that in order for new development to be truly successful, the existing Neighborhood has to already be a draw for people. That's why it's crucial to make the Westport Neighborhood just that; a draw.
First lets look at Annapolis Road, the Community's Main St. Though mostly Residential, there are some commercial uses spread throughout. Other Neighborhoods with defined Main Streets such as this have applied for the City's Main Street Program which allows for beautification grants to improve building facades as well as streetscape enhancements. There are also banners that say; "Main Street Where Baltimore Happens." I think this is a perfect for Annapolis Road in Westport. That will up the excitement level and allow for the road and its buildings to be improved.
Now how should we establish these streetscape enhancements? Well first the roads in Westport are long over due for new pavement. Next, the sidewalks are due for fresh cement as and erosion issues caused by water leaks should be fixed. Traffic Lights, way finding signs, A Community Gateway Signs, street lights, benches, and trees will all be overhauled in favor of new fresh ones. This will show potential home and business owners that the City is committed to the Westport Neighborhood not just the waterfront. 
Next, we should establish a small Commercial District. I see that the largest concentration of Commercial Businesses is located at Annapolis Road and Wenburn St. I think a plan to move Commercial Business here to act as a Retail Hub would be beneficial. Given that Wenburn St. begins as exit ramps from the BW Parkway, it acts as a Gateway to Westport. It should also receive streetscape enhancements across Annapolis Road to make it one of the visual connecting points between the existing Westport Neighborhood and the new Waterfront. This should be true for streets that parallel Wenburn St. as a well but given Wenburn's status of "Retail Hub" it gets top priority.
The backbone to prepping the Westport Neighborhood is growth. Westport has experienced more than its fair share of population loss and it has the boarded up row homes to prove it. Something has to motivate people to invest in Westport other than the promise of a redeveloped waterfront. The low housing prices are a start but the high cost of rehabbing a house that's been vacant for as long it has is a major drawback. But suppose that house you buy is at a cost of $1? The dollar row house program has been a vocal part of gentrifying almost every waterfront Community in the City, so why should Westport be any different? There should stipulations to the $1 row house program such as the owner must qualify for a loan that will cover the costs of a full rehab, the owner must occupy the house, the owner can not buy and rehab the house for flipping purposes.
One big goal of the Westport Neighborhood should be (and probably is) would be to seamlessly integrate itself within the new waterfront development. The fact that I have to distinguish between the two as I write this post shows that this hasn't happened. A big contributor to this is the obstructive Light Rail and CSX Tracks. I think while in Westport (and other parts of the City as well but Westporrt especially) the Light Rail tracks need to be tunneled. Right now if the tracks aren't moved and the Waterfront is built, there will be a right side of the tracks and the wrong side of the tracks. This doesn't scream integration does it? In addition the Light Rail tracks, the CSX tracks should also be tunneled between Waterview Avenue and Manokin St. Unfortunately, the overhead power lines will have to stay above ground.
Even as the promise for a redeveloped waterfront is showing signs of movement, it's time to prep the Westport Neighborhood and integrate it into one thriving Community.