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.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Green Standard

When rehabbing or redeveloping old Neighborhoods in Baltimore, it's important to take a look to see how energy efficient the homes were, and how energy efficient they can be. With advances in all types of Green Technology coupled with rising energy prices, home builders and buyers alike have become more energy cautious. It's time to establish a standard in which new homes and rehabbed homes can be built to. This will save home owners money on energy and if the State allows it, a reduction or exemption from the controversial Rain Tax. I give you the Green Standard.
Lets start with my favorite Green Feature; The Green Roof. With so many Baltimore Row Homes that have flat roofs, this makes them perfect candidates for Green Roofs. A lot of Row Homes have rooftop gardens which are great additions but do they reduce cooling bills? Green Roofs do. That's not the best part either, they reduce storm water runoff. Storm water runoff, when mixed with pavement and oils that leak on to the road, through the sewer and pollute the bay. This is why the Rain Tax was implemented. If the rain can be stopped at the rooftop and water the garden instead, that will reduce the amount of tainted water polluting the bay.
 For the next Green device we remain on the roof for all the important solar panels. What better way to save on your energy bills and reduce your carbon footprint than harnessing the Sun's free natural energy source? These days it's never been more affordable to have Solar Panels installed. Coupled with a green roof your home's energy bills will plummet.
Next we go underground to harness still more free energy from Mother Earth. This time we will use the natural heat of the underground. This temperature remains the same regardless of what time of year it is and what the above ground temperature is. This can be harnessed through "Geothermal Wells." These are usually fields a few feet away from the house and there are coils that hook up to the HVAC system. In Baltimore there are tons of under utilized alleyways that can be converted into Geothermal Wells with grass covering them instead of concrete. This reduction in concrete will help the City's Urban Heat Island as will Green Roofs. The Urban Heat Island is when the temperature in the City is higher than in greener areas because of the lack of trees and excess of tar and concrete. If no cars park in these converted alleyways, they can be used as Pocket Parks and Gardens.
Next we go inside the house to look at water consumption. Let me blunt, we as a society waste too much water. It isn't always our fault though, it's just the way that water based appliances have been built up until recently. That's why New Home Builders and Rehabbers alike should listen carefully. First there's the obvious; Hot Water Heaters. Just look at the size of those things. To heat water that massive tank must be filled with water. Sounds efficient right? I didn't think so either. That's why new homes and rehabs should be fitted with tankless water heaters. It heats the water being used and that's it. No massive tank and no excess water. 
When showering there's that time where you're applying soap and shampoo and you're not standing where the water is. Yet, the water is still running and you're wasting said water as well as upping your water bill. New homes should be outfitted with a shut off valve in each shower so that when you're applying soap and shampoo the water isn't running thus saving water and money. When it's time to rinse off, simply turn the water back on and feel good about the water and money you have saved.

Last but not least we have the high efficiency Washing Machine. I lived in a house that had one for a few months and watching how little water it used was mesmerizing. The same holds true with Dishwashers newer models are built to save on water and electricity. New homes and rehabs that are outfitted with these energy savers should be given a tax credit for saving a valuable natural recourse.
Now lets imagine all of these energy saving measures done on a grand scale. With all of the new and rehabbed housing coming down the pipeline with all of them having these things the amount of pollution, urban heat island, and will save vast amounts of natural resources and tax payer money. We must truly hold Baltimore up to the Green Standard.

Please note that post will have future links to it because when redeveloping Neighborhoods I will reference the Green Standard a lot in the future and this is what I mean by it.

Friday, August 23, 2013

North Baltimore: A Food Monsoon

It's hard to believe that in Baltimore, a City plagued with food deserts that a food monsoon exits within the very City Limits of Baltimore. It's true though and that food monsoon is located in none other than North Baltimore. North Baltimore has always had suburban characteristics to it with the exception of Hampden so it's not surprising that Grocers would flock to that area verses say East Baltimore where (if you're lucky) the blocks are filled with tightly packed high density row homes.
Now let me take this opportunity to tell you about what I mean by Food Deserts and Food Monsoons. A Food Dessert is a part of the City that is barren of quality Supermarkets. Examples of this may include Wilkens Avenue, Park Heights, and Cherry Hill. In the middle are what's called a Food Oasis where there are Supermarkets but not an over abundance of them, this includes Fredrick Avenue, Canton, Inner Harbor East, Federal Hill, and South Baltimore. Finally there's North Baltimore which falls under the category of Food Monsoon where there's an over abundance of Super Markets, with more to come.
So this begs the question; what Supermarkets are in North Baltimore that earn it the title of "Food Oasis?" Well there's the Target & Shoppers at Mondawmin (pictured above), the Whole Foods in Mount Washington, the Giant in Hampden, the Safeway in Charles North, Eddies of Charles Village, Eddies of Roland Park, the Belvedere Market, the Giant in Waverly, and the Safeway in Lauraville. That's not including Farmers Markets, Drug Stores, Convenience Stores, or Corner Stores. North Baltimore despite pockets of low density, is quite walk-able which allows for Residents to shop at a multitude of Supermarkets without driving to them even if on a map of the City, it appears further away. Despite the walk -ability of North Baltimore, the vast majority of Residents have at least one vehicle at their disposal.    
Now with a multitude of Supermarkets at the disposal of North Baltimore Residents, it would be safe to say Grocers would look elsewhere in the City given how stiff the competition is North Baltimore right? Wrong! There are three proposed new Supermarkets in North Baltimore. This begs the question; Can North Baltimore support all these Supermarkets? And where are they slated to go?
First there's the obvious, the Rotunda. The Giant leaving left a big hole especially for Residents of Roland Park Place who find that the new Giant at Greenspring Tower Shopping Center is too far for them. Whatever store "replaces" the Rotunda Giant won't actually "replace" it by occupying the same 41 year old 33,000 square foot space. As I'm sure you're aware, there have been plans to redevelop the Rotunda for years now and this is where and when the replacement Grocer comes in. Usually when redeveloping a Grocery anchored Shopping Center bigger is better so it seems easy to assume that a larger Grocer would replace it.
Well if you assume that you're wrong because the developers of the Rotunda would like a 10,000 Square Foot Grocer. This had made contenders for the coveted title of the Rotunda's nervous because that's simply too small at least according to Graul's who is neck and neck with MOMs and the Fresh Market to replace Giant post redevelopment. Graul's, if given a lease would like 20,000 square feet. The Fresh Market agrees that that's just too small. MOMs appears more at ease with the idea of 10,000 square feet although having been to the one in Jessup, I feel that it's larger than that. 
Although a "Boutique Grocer" has been what Residents have wanted for the Rotunda, it begs the question even at 10,000 square feet; Aren't there already enough Boutique Grocers in the area? Already there's the Mount Washington Whole Foods, Eddies of Roland Park and Charles Village, and the Belvedere Market. How much of a hit would these Grocers take? To be honest, the Rotunda's VERY small Supermarket which ever it ends up being probably won't be a real threat to any of the existing Grocers for the mere fact that it's just so small and that North Baltimore is the most well to do area in the City, in fact if the Grocer were to double to a whopping 20,000 Square Feet I wouldn't bat an eye.
Meanwhile in Remington, there's a large redevelopment project that has people on both sides of the isle up in arms. The project, known as 25th St. Station is to be located at the former Andersen Auto Group site after their move to the suburbs. They sold their land to the developer but have since asked that the sale be nullified. 25th St. Station was originally supposed to have a Lowes, Wal Mart, Staples, Ana's Linens as well smaller tenants as well as Residences making it a Mixed Use Project. Lowes and Wal Mart would be multi level and built around a parking garage.  
25th St. Station however is hanging on by a thread. Lowes has pulled out of the project, no word on whether this has effected Staples and Ana's Linens, attempts to lure another tenant in place of Lowes have been unsuccessful, Wal Mart is committed to staying on but its attempt to be a purchaser of the land with the developer has sent the Sellers (Andersen Automotive Group) into a tailspin of law suits and attempts to annul the sale of the land. Although I like the concept of 25th St. Station I'm not too keen on having a Wal Mart suck up all the business from Supermarkets throughout North Baltimore. Wal Mart Super Centers go soar way past 100,000 Square Feet and carry everything known to man. Unlike the Rotunda Grocer I think Wal Mart is a huge threat to the area. 
Last but not least there's Charles Village. I have written about the ill fated Olmstead at Charles Village and how its proposed $700,000 condos were hit by the economy and the site across St. Paul St. from Eddie's remains vacant. What I haven't written about (because I just found about it) is that the site is finally going to be developed. It will either be Apartments, Condos, or Student Housing. I seriously doubt that if it's Condos that they will cost $700,000. Olmstead, surrounded by all the Retail along St. Paul and being less than a block away needed no anchor. That being   said neither should new development. So why then, is this project slated to be anchored by none other than a Grocery Store? 
Luckily this new project is in its infancy and the Retail aspect of it is subject to change. Eddie's, which does a widely successful business is worried that another Supermarket will put them out of business. Given Eddie's super star status in North Baltimore I highly doubt that another Supermarket will put them out of business. That being said, I don't think it's wise to add another one in Charles Village. I think the new Supermarket doesn't stand a chance against Eddie's. Eddie's may lose some business but nothing too drastic. I also don't know how large the proposed space is for the new Grocer. Shoppers at Eddie's when interviewed for The Baltimore Sun were in favor of a Pharmacy going there stating that's a niche in the area they feel is unfilled. Personally I could see a Pharmacy co-anchoring the St. Paul St. Retail Strip with Eddie's in Charles Village. The two would complement each other quite well.
In North Baltimore, the status of the Supermarket scene is that of a Food Monsoon. If all these new Supermarkets do in fact open the monsoon could flood the competition and turn the area into a Food Desert. It will take some careful and diligent planning to keep all stores open for business and successful.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Patrick Turner's Westport: A Series of Unfortunate Events

Patrick Turner's Westport Development has stayed under my radar as of late. One reason or perhaps the only reason is because the Westpoert waterfront remains quiet. There are luxury no Apartment high rises, no Office Buildings, no Retail, no 500 room Hotel, no nothing. By now in a perfect world this wouldn't have been the case especially since the first buildings were slated to open in 2008 but a series of unfortunate events has put the future of this $1.4 Billion waterfront in limbo.
All of these unfortunate events can be traced back to one thing; the Economic Downturn of 2008. It's as if Patrick Turner's Westport was held together by a single pin and that single pin was moved the whole project collapsed. But don't worry, just because there have been some unfortunate events, the project can still be dusted off and put back on track. I certainly hope this is the case.
 In 2004 Patrick Turner began assembling land on the Westport waterfront that has long since been abandoned industrial land. His hopes were and still are to turn it and the Westport Neighborhood into Baltimore's next hot spot in fact the company he formed to focus on Westport is appropriately named "Inner Harbor West" an obvious play on the now thriving Inner Harbor East. By the time Patrick Turner owned the entire Waterfront he had spent $13 million.
In 2007 Patrick Turner presented his Master Plan for the Westport Waterfront to the City and the Westport Community. The plan had won the hearts and minds of both the City and the Westport Community. Given the very large price tag of infrastructure for such a massive undertaking, the City agreed to help pay the $160 million it would cost. They were to do it by issuing bonds through a deal known as "Tax Increment Financing" which the bond holders would pay back the City over time through the property taxes generated by the development. The only problem was, the builders who would build the properties that generate said property tax had pulled out leaving the infrastructure unpaid for essentially.
Turner had also taken out a $32 million loan as well as a $15 million loan to get the ball rolling on the first phase of development which was to include a 200 unit Apartment Building, 90,000 Square Feet of Office Space, 72 Town Homes, and another 220 units Apartment Building. With news of the infrastructure deal crumbling, the Builders and Lessees of these projects pulled out. They more than likely would have done so due to the crumbling economy. With no financing for infrastructure and no Builders willing to overlook and stay signed to the project anyway, the whole waterfront and Patrick Turner himself were in deep trouble.
The combined $47 million in loans Turner had taken out were to be paid back on the contingency that he would get builders and lessees for the land. Due to the series of unfortunate events, Turner now had no financial backers aka builders/lessees. Patrick Turner still had to pay back those though. Since Patrick Turner, or any of the companies he was associated with, didn't have $47 million in cash (just land that at the current time is useless) bankruptcy and foreclosure became all too common words around the water cooler at Patrick Tuner's Office as well as the media. 
These days, despite the looming threats of the Banks who lent him this money, Patrick Turner is still very optimistic that this thing can get turned around and his plan to redevelop the Westport waterfront will come to fruition. He now claims he has financial backers who will help him buy back his $32 million loan from the Bank. Whether these financial backers are actual builders looking to develop the land or are just supplying Turner the cash he needs to stay afloat is unknown. What is also unknown is whether the City will re-agree to issue the $160 million in bonds to kick start the infrastructure needs. I know they're fronting some serious cash to Harbor Point at the moment so I'm not sure if they're willing to do so for Westport. 
Given how good the idea is and how the Westport is a gold mine of untapped waterfront City living and the plethora of existing housing in the Neighborhood of Westport I'm confident that the plan will come to fruition, whether Patrick Turner can keep control of the goings on is yet to be seen. Hopefully the series of unfortunate events will be overshadowed by an even larger series of fortunate events.            

Friday, August 16, 2013

Taking the State out of State Center

State Center is one of the biggest redevelopment projects in the City of Baltimore on the books. It promises to bring in true TOD and connect the Light Rail and the Subway. It will replace old obsolete Office Buildings that house State Offices, it will replace surface parking lots with real development, and it will usher new high quality mixed used development in an area of the City that desperately needs it. So why hasn't this project gotten off the ground and gained momentum I mean it's been close to ten years and not a single bot of building has occurred. Well....
To be blunt, we're broke. The State of Maryland is acting as developer and financier for this project that has a price tag of $1 Billion plus. That money doesn't include proposed tax breaks to lure businesses to build there which will hinder the State's ability to make that money back seeing as they will still own the land. It will also be hard to fill up the Office Buildings other than those used by the State because Downtown as a whole has a high office vacancy rate. The City also might not be able to absorb the large amount of Apartments and Condos proposed in the project. With large developments like Harbor Point and the 1,000 Apartments and Condos proposed in Greektown, the City already is experiencing a boom in new housing construction. In addition, I haven't even gotten into the all the lawsuits this project has been plagued with since day one, and the State isn't exactly winning these suits either. 
So does this mean that State Center is doomed? Well I can't say for sure and I would be very unhappy if that were the case. So with that being said, how do we revive it? As the title suggests, I'm proposing taking the State out of State Center. What that means is doing just that. One thing we know for sure is that the State is broke and that the Office Buildings on site are obsolete. Another thing we know is that the Office Building vacancy rate Downtown is high. 
My solution would be for the State to wipe its hands clean of the whole project. Given the high Office Vacancy Rate Downtown, the State Offices can easily be absorbed by existing space. That leaves the entire State Center sight empty right? Right. Now the State can sell the land and to private developers who aren't financing the project through our tax dollars. Granted there maybe subsidies granted by the City and the State but the actual cash to build it will be private money. 
I would also suggest breaking up the site into parcels. The site is so big right now that it would scare off developers if were to be auctioned off as a whole. I'm sure developers would gladly buy up small pieces of the site for future development. Now why future development? Well, the market just isn't ready for big an influx just yet, we're coming out of a recession and there are many mixed use projects coming coming down the pipeline. If the State Offices were moved throughout Downtown the demand for additional Office Space could go up because the overall vacancy rate would go down. This course of action I believe would help the market and make the State Center Project take off quicker at least in the Office space realm. The finished product will be almost identical to State Center with the State still in it, the only difference would be the deletion of the State Offices.
Now, is State Center dead? Nope, just as long as way take the State out of it.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Camden Crossing: Did We Jump the Gun?

Pigtown has been in transition for decades now waiting and waiting to be Baltimore's next up and coming Neighborhood. It seems for every victory it achieves there are just as many defeats. As housing in gentrified Neighborhoods becomes more and more scares, wanna be Harbor Dwellers will look for a new Neighborhood. I would like very much for that new Neighborhood to be Pigtown. Now all that needs to be done is to make it a good sell.
Pigtown in the early 2000s began showing a few signs of life, rehabbers had begun investing in vacant row homes and businesses along Washington Boulevard, the Community's Main Street. I truly believed Pigtown a this point was going to gentrify and be the next hip Neighborhood thinking that more vacant homes and businesses would be filled. 
What happened was something I was not counting on. DEVELOPERS took an interest in Pigtown and announced their to redevelop a "Brownfields" site bordered by Scott St., McHenry St., Poppleton St. and Clifford St. Their intention which is now coming to fruition, was and is to build luxury garage town homes known as Camden Crossing. Now wait a minute doesn't this sound a little pre mature? I mean Pigtown at the time was just beginning to rebound after decades of blight and disinvestment and now a big developer is sucking all the would be rehabbers money out and into these over priced out of scale town homes?  I believe Camden Crossing jumped the gun and the history and reinvestment vs. redevelopment in other Baltimore Neighborhoods agrees with me.
The catalyst for Residential growth in Communities Neighboring the Harbor was not Harbor Place or Charles Center as much as it was the Great Freeway Revolt. No I'm not talking about the infamous "road to nowhere" I'm talking about a the proposed route of I-95. It was supposed to run right through Otterbein and displace what was then a poor Neighborhood. Senator Barb built her career on the Great Freeway Revolt and successfully had I-95 rerouted and the homes in Otterbein saved unfortunately however the poor Residents had already been displaced. This is when Mayor William Donald Schaefer introduced the $1 row house program. The $1 row house program was intended to make homes affordable for owners to buy and take out what would have been a mortgage loan and invest it into construction instead. This saved Otterbein and many other Communities Neighboring the Harbor as well.
The Great Freeway Revolt was not just the placement of I-95. There were also plans in place to have the JFX continue as a highway past Fayette St. through Fells Point (pictured above) and Canton along Boston St., cross the Harbor and meet I-95. The number of row homes that would have been destroyed was staggering. As Residents and non Residents of Fells Point and Canton revolted against this freeway with the help of Senator Barb, outsiders couldn't help but gain an appreciation for the old row homes of Fells Point and Canton. 
Thus, as the Great Freeway Revolt claimed another victory, people began buying and rehabbing vacant row homes in Fells Point and Canton using the $1 row house program that originated in Otterbein. As the supply of these old row homes dwindled so desire to live there did not. Some would be Residents began seeking old row homes north of the Harbor in Upper Fells Point, Butcher's Hill , Patterson Park(pictured above), Greektown, and eventually Highlandtown. Others who still wanted a Fells Point or Canton address moved into Glitzy new Apartments and Town Homes built on vacant land. This has been the history of reinvestment vs. redevelopment in Baltimore; rehab existing homes first then once that supply has been exhausted, build new homes.
This brings me back to Pigtown. When Camden Crossing was built had the Neighborhood been void of vacant homes? Nope! Now don't get me wrong I don't dislike Camden Crossing I just think a lot of these buyers would have invested in the existing Pigtown housing stock had Camden Crossing not been built. I also look at Camden Crossing as a self sustaining fortress. It's hard to get in and out of which gives me the feeling that perhaps they're not very integrated into Pigotwn i.e. patronizing businesses along Washington Boulevard where they're desperately trying to make it a class A Main Street.
Camden Crossing has been a phased development. It was not complete at the time of the housing crash and that has delayed phases for years. Some phases have yet to be built. Luckily there have been some new homes finally starting to go up in the final swathes of land and they have been selling well. For what it is I would call Camden Crossing a success. It would have been a greater success had it not jumped the gun and been built after the existing housing stock was gentrified.        
So that's it right? No more new development in Pigtown until existing housing stock is gentrified right? Wrong, there are plans to build 99 condos and town homes on a vacant surface lot. This new development (whose name is unknown) is slated to be workforce housing. Although more quality workforce housing is needed in the City I believe that can be found in existing housing stock throughout Pigotown. If the City reinstated the $1 row house program home owners can pay off their construction loan in lieu of a mortgage. Not only that, the City will have a smaller stock of vacants on their hands which instead of costing them money they will now make money because the homes are occupied and its owners are paying taxes. 
Was I ever against Camden Crossing? No I just believe they jumped the gun. Am I against this new workforce housing development? No I just believe that if it got started now we would be jumping the gun yet again. Do I want Pigtown as a whole to grow and become a destination Neighborhood? You bet! Do I think Pigtown can do it? Absolutely!