Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Social Security Complex Relocation: Frankly I'm Pleased

The behemoth Social Security Building in Downtown's Westside is going to be vacated. Advocates for the rebirth of Downtown's Westside call it a blow to the area. Granted the loss of 1600 Jobs will no doubt have an adverse effect on the area but from a design/planning perspective, I think it's time that the two block sky-way connected building(s) with a monster parking garage be razed in favor of mixed use development that will connect the Westside of Downtown with its Neighbors to the west. Perhaps crossing MLK Boulevard might not seem so taboo.
The Social Security Complex originally moved to this newly constructed Super Block fortress as part of an Urban Renewal Effort with the theory that bringing public jobs Downtown would fuel private investment in the already ailing Westside of Downtown (pictured above). This did not occur and Downtown felt became all the more blocked off from West Baltimore as a result. Connectivity between Downtown and West Baltimore had already weak due to the Road to Nowhere, MLK Boulevard, and the crime ridden high rises of Murphy Homes and Lexington Terrace on either side of the Road to Nowhere. 
Today this area of the City along with State Center, Lexington Market (pictured above), and the Super Block represent some of the most potential and hope for Downtown, Downtown's Westside, West Baltimore and the City as a whole. It's time too streamline development plans so that each parcel of land has its full potential recognized. It's also important to note that there are some bright spots in the area, both Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes have been torn down and replaced with The Townes at the Terraces and Heritage Crossing respectively and the new Red Line is slated to run right through the area. Just to the south in Lexington Market is the potential for a transit hub connecting the existing Light Rail, the existing Subway, and the Red Line.
Before any real dialogue can take place regarding the redevelopment of the soon to be vacated Social Security Complex, we must first talk about the Road to Nowhere. I find that to be the biggest hurdle in opening up the barriers between West Baltimore and the Westside of Downtown. Currently there is a Master Plan for dismantling and redeveloping it however it has an obvious fatal flaw; they're doing it backwards! The plans for redevelopment start at the opposite end of the Road deep into West Baltimore at the MARC Station (pictured above)where the redevelopment energy now in Downtown's Westside is still eons away. 
When it comes time to demolish the Social Security Complex, it must be done cohesively with the Road to Nowhere. As soon as the larger than life than life intrusion hits the wrecking ball, so too should the bridges (pictured above)that carry the Road to Nowhere traffic over MLK Boulevard and into Downtown where the re-assume being parts of Franklin and Mulberry Streets. Westbound, from Downtown Franklin St. traffic will never merge onto the Freeway as its right of way will be gone. Eastbound from West Baltimore, the freeway can remain almost in full except ALL traffic will exit onto the MLK Boulevard "ramp" thus eliminating the bridge. This idea for the Road to Nowhere is not my own, it was first proposed by fellow Blogger Gerald Neilly several years ago. I just happen to support it.
Now that the Social Scurity Complex has been demolished, we can finally have a real conversation about redevelopment. West of MLK Boulevard, I would build a Town Home Community to bridge together Heritage Crossing (pictured above)and the Townes at the Terraces. It will be a mixture of Home Ownership units both market rate and affordable. Fremont Avenue will be reopened between Franklin and Mulberry Streets and will serve as the western edge of this new Community. As for the Social Security Complex, I don't really know what to do with it at this time. All I can do is say what I don't want.
I don't want anymore Office Space. Well, I don't want anymore now. The City has way more Office Space than it can handle. The Central Business District (pictured above) has high vacancy rates as Offices have begun to move to Inner Harbor East and Harbor Point when it comes online. In fact if you read my "Keeping the State Out of State Center" post you will see that I intend on demolishing the State Center and having all of its Office Space move to the Central Business District to lower the vacancy rate. I would purposefully stall the any Office portion of State Center's redevelopment until the demand for it has returned. 
I also don't want incredibly tall buildings. I don't wall to wall off the Westside of Downtown from West Baltimore like the Social Security Building does already. A big reason I want the building gone is to create a seamless transition from the low density town homes (pictured above) west of MLK Boulevard into Downtown. Block by block the buildings should gradually get a little bit taller. New development can be high density without being very tall. Also I want to get away from parking garages that are visible. As the buildings get taller they should mask parking garages that will inevitably grow in height as well. Development should be mindful of the eventual Red Line, making room for would be stops.              
I'm pleased that the Social Security Complex is being vacated and relocated. I'm even more pleased that the jobs are staying in the City and I hope this means major redevelopment for the building and surrounding areas. One reason I'm being so vague about what could go in its place is that the possibilities are endless. It's no wonder that I'm pleased about the pending move. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Baltimore's New East Side: Could Lving Near Hopkins Be Enough?

The recession had and is continuing to put the brakes on redevelopment efforts in Baltimore's New East Side. Baltimore's New East Side was and is primarily funded by John's Hopkins Hospital one of Baltimore's Major Employers and headquartered in East Baltimore. The original Master Plan for Baltimore's New East Side was to include a state of the art Biotech Park which was to be the Major Attraction to get new Residents moving to the East Side's 1200-1500 new and rehabbed housing units.
As the recession has wore on, it has become increasingly clear that the interest in the Biotech Park has waned, start up companies have gone belly up or have downsized the amount of Office and Lab Space needed. This was a major blow to the redevelopment efforts of Johns Hopkins to build a new sustainable Community in East Baltimore. On the Residential side however we have seen more sign of progress despite a rock economy. To redevelop the new East Side, block after block of vacant row homes have been or will be demolished to make way for new mixed income housing that was aimed at workers of all levels at the beleaguered Biotech Park. With the Biotech Park looking like less and less of a Reality the question arises; Could living near Hopkins be enough to attract new Residents to Baltimore's New East Side?
East Baltimore had always been a working class Neighborhood. Small two story Row Homes were built to house workers from the Factories and the Docks both South and East. Bethlehem Steel was a major Employer of East Baltimore as was the American Can Company and the Breweries on Brewers Hill. Johns Hopkins and Church Hospital at the time occupied small spaces in the Neighborhood and their staffs were a fraction of the number employed by Hopkins today. In short, Hopkins workers didn't make up a large percentage of the East Baltimore Workforce.
As the 20th Century wore on East Baltimore began changing, White Flight and Blockbusting changed Neighborhoods from White to Black almost overnight, industry in America as a whole began drying up which made this once proud working class Community fall into Poverty, Public Housing High Rises were being erected between Downtown and Hopkins, and just as quickly as middle class Blacks began settling into East Baltimore, they began fleeing just like their White predecessors had as crime had begun to spillover from Neighboring Public Housing Developments. Poor Blacks in the area did not have the resources to move out of their once tidy row house Community so they were forced to stay in their constantly shrinking increasingly violent Neighborhoods where by the end of the 20th Century, boarded up row houses were beginning to outnumber occupied ones.
One fascinating detail of this all too common story of urban decay is the tremendous growth of Johns Hopkins Hospital during this time. As East Baltimore's row homes were being abandoned, Hopkins was acquiring land to expand their Hospital to offer more Patient beds, build new departments of growing Medical Fields where they hired the best and the brightest Doctors, and classrooms for Med Students, Interns, and Residents to become the best Doctors they could be. This expansion led to Patients coming to Hopkins and only Hopkins from around the Country and around the World to be seen by Doctors at Hopkins because they knew they were getting the best treatment in Medicine. This propelled Hopkins to become one of Baltimore's largest private sector Employers bypassing Bethlehem Steel.
The growth of Hopkins and the decay of the surrounding East Baltimore Community seemed to contradict one another. If the Neighborhood was decaying so much how could an institution like Hopkins grow with such surroundings? On the flip the question was asked, why weren't efforts being made to make more of the Hopkins Staff into East Baltimore Residents? The answer was and still is crime. The Hopkins Campus is heavily guarded day and night by Security and Police Forces alike. However. if somebody gets lost trying to find Hopkins or an exit from Hopkins, well that's a different and often scarier story. Hopkins workers for the most part have the means to live elsewhere, therefore they do.
In the early 2000s, Biotech Parks were sweeping the nation by storm. It seemed that every Hospital and/or University wanted to add one to their campus(s.) On the West Side, University of Maryland had wanted to add one (pictured above) and took the bold step of crossing MLK Boulevard into Poppleton, a West Baltimore Neighborhood that has seen the same crime and blight that East Baltimore has. Hopkins also wanted in. Only difference with Hopkins is that they wanted to use their Biotech Park as a springboard for full scale redevelopment of 1000+ row homes in East Baltimore north of Hopkins.
Neighborhoods south of Hopkins such as Washington Hill, Butcher's Hill (pictured above), Historic Jonestown, and Patterson Park had begun to see new signs of life partly due to the dismantling of the public housing high rises and new mixed income Town Homes that risen up in their place. These Neighborhoods have also provided a link from Hopkins to the Harbor as well as Downtown. Suddenly Hopkins and East Baltimore didn't seem so far from Downtown and the Harbor.
As the Master Plan for the Biotech Park and the redevelopment of the 1000+ vacant row homes north of Hopkins began to take shape, the recession hit. Today, the housing market is beginning to pick up some steam but there are those who say the entire New East Side is in Jeopardy because the Biotech Park part of the plan is in lingo. I'm sorry but isn't John Hopkins Hospital one of Baltimore's largest Employers with a infinitely growing staff? On that same note aren't people in general moving back to Cities because they're sick of long commute to and from work? The answers to both questions is yes.
The idea of actually having a thriving safe sustainable Community surrounding Hopkins is a relatively new idea. Most of the reasoning of it being so new is because Hopkins was so much smaller and employed so few people when East Baltimore actually was a thriving Community. The thinking has to be; Biotech Park or not, The Neighborhoods surrounding Hopkins can and should be desirable simply because Hopkins is such a huge institution that it's a magnet that draws Residents to it. 
Neighborhoods south of Hopkins have fared much better than those north of it so full scale redevelopment or even small scale redevelopment isn't needed like it is north of the Hospital. That being said, Baltimore's new East Side should continue to build and reach its goal of 1200-1500 new and rehabbed homes. The only real question is what to do with land that had been set aside for the Biotech Park. I'm sure there are uses for it such as Community space, additional housing, or the land could be banked in case the demand for a Biotech Park resurfaces. I also don't see the Hospital's expansion stopping anytime soon so the Biotech Park land could also be used by the Hospital.
Living close to where you work has begun to be the new way of thinking. In order for Hopkins to continue to thrive and attract World Class Doctors and Researchers alike, the surrounding East Baltimore Community must in turn thrive as well. That is why the full scale redevelopment of the area north of the Hospital is crucial to its future. Living near Hopkins has always been enough to sustain Baltimore's new East Side and always has been. It's only been recently that people are starting realize it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Could Denisty be to be Blame For Food Deserts?

Lets take a trip to the Suburbs. Yes that's right the suburbs, the place that is magical land where everybody has cars, green manicured lawns, brand new schools, clean streets, and large Grocery Stores that would take up an entire City Block. Of course there are pit falls to living in the Suburbs but to a City Dweller trapped in the middle of a Food Desert the access to Grocery Stores that life in the Suburbs affords you seems almost too good to be true. But how do so many Grocery Stores wind up there and so few wind up in the City? Could it be the City is too dense? Lets find out together!
This begs the question; What were the Grocery Stores like in the City before the flight to the Suburbs? Most of them were nothing more than corner stores in which the first floor of a row house was turned into a small Grocery Store that served little more than a block or two. In fact the vast majority of clientele of a corner store walks there from home and has no car. In order for these stores to survive, the density of the blocks surrounding them must be very dense and full.
As the flight to the Suburbs was on in full force so was the plight of the Neighborhood Corner Store. The City Blocks that they served were emptying out and the Shoppers who were moving to the Suburbs had big new Grocery Stores they could shop at. During the flight to the Suburbs the automobile became front and center in American Life and your Neighborhood Corner Store doesn't exactly have "acres of parking" something that Suburban Grocery Anchored Shopping Centers would boast about when trying to lure Shoppers. The Automobile and the Flight to the Suburbs effectively killed the Neighborhood Corner Store.    
Meanwhile, the lower density Suburbs sport many Grocery Stores some with square footage exceeding 100,000. Take Owings Mills for instance. Its population is growing rapidly and according to the 2010 Census it had reached 30,622. Now lets take a look at the Grocery Stores serving Owings Mills. There are two Giants one in New Town Village Center the other in St. Thomas Shopping Center, there's a Safeway, a Food Lion, a Wal Mart, a Sam's Club, a Target, and a Wegman's under construction at the old Solo Cup Factory. That's a lot of Grocery Stores.
Now lets go into the City and find a plat of land that has roughly the same population as Owings Mills. Lets try SoWeBo, West Baltimore, Downtown, East Baltimore, and Southeast Baltimore. As long as you don't trek into North Baltimore, you will find food deserts.
These plats of land in Baltimore may in fact have a larger population than Owings Mills yet it doesn't have nearly the amount of Grocery Stores. Why? I mean everyone needs food to survive right? What makes the City so different from Owings Mills? If a Grocery Store were to open anywhere in the City the amount of people living within a square mile of it is staggering compared to a Suburb like Owings Mills yet there they aren't.
The density of the City is so high that if the same amount of Grocery Stores that are in Owings Mills were built for every 30,000 Baltimore Residents, there would be a 60,000 Square Foot Grocer every couple of blocks. The fact that this hasn't happened is partially why many parts of Baltimore appear to be barren Food Deserts. There could in fact be a Grocery Store a couple of miles away but the area is so dense, it would warrant one or two Grocers to be closer especially when comparing populations with Owings Mills.
Luckily all hope isn't lost. Some of these Food Deserts are seeing new signs of life in the form of Grocers right here in the City! In Pigtown the once vacant Safeway is now home to a Price Rite, In Canton/Brewers Hill a Target has opened in Canton Crossing and later this year a Harris Teeter will also open. In Locust Point/South Baltimore a Harris Teeter opened as well alongside the Shoppers one block over. Also in Inner Harbor East the Whole Foods has expanded. In Howard Park, construction is beginning on a State of the Art Shop Rite. 
Despite the good news in the above paragraph, there are still many Food Deserts in Baltimore. Some of these Deserts are even located in some of Baltimore's most sought after Neighborhoods that are receiving large amounts of Population Growth. Fells Point, Butchers Hill, Mount Vernon, Downtown, Highlandtown, and Patterson Park are some of the areas in question. All of these Neighborhoods could each get their own 55,000 to 65,000 Square Foot Grocery Store and the Market wouldn't be saturated. If I were a Grocer, I would be looking to open in any one of these areas.
Not all Food Deserts are located in sought after Neighborhoods that are growing. In fact one reason these Neighborhoods are Food Deserts is because they're also "People Deserts." So many Neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore as well as Park Heights in Northwest Baltimore. These Neighborhoods have some of the most concentration of population loss in the City with nearly half the buildings and lots vacant in some cases. In East Baltimore especially near Hopkins, there are redevelopment Master Plans in effect that are aimed at attracting growth and with it more Grocery Stores. The Park Heights redevelopment plan also calls for Grocery Stores. Both of these plans are using the "if you build it they will come mentality."
Now that I have compared and contrasted Baltimore's Grocery Scene with that of Owings Mills and how many Food Deserts Baltimore is home to, I think we can come to the conclusion that density played a huge roll in creating Food Deserts as the Corner Store made way for large Grocery Stores. Even as Baltimore was frantically losing Population, Grocers still could have come into some of these Neighborhoods and had a viable successful Business but they didn't. They opted to focus solely on the Suburbs and their Population and thought the City was too dense to support their larger Grocery foot prints. So my answer is yes, density is to blame for food deserts.