Friday, May 30, 2014

North Avenue: Baltimore's Spine for Reinvestment Part I East Baltimore

From the middle of the 20th Century and up until the 2000s, North Avenue has always been associated with some of Baltimore most blighted Neighborhoods that nary a developer or investor would dare touch. Much of that still holds true today however, the Station North Neighborhood has given a sign of life to a select few blocks of North Avenue. The question is, how do we capture that synergy from Station North and help it spread from Walbrook Junction to Berea. I've got some ideas and there are already a few signs of life that I will bring to light to ensure North Avenue as Baltimore's Spine for reinvestment.
In order to make all of North Avenue a viable corridor, we must look at the ground zero of reinvestment; Station North. It appears the reason it works is due to location location location. Nestled in between the already thriving Mount Vernon and Charles Village Neighborhoods and just blocks away from Penn Station, how could this Artist Enclave NOT be thriving? Businesses are opening up that serve the Neighborhood and draw people in from other Neighborhoods while creating a welcoming environment in the process. As a bonus, very chain stores exist which adds to the unique diversity of Station North.
For a few blocks on North Avenue from Howard St. to St. Paul St., there are gorgeous streetscape enhancements done by local Community Artists. In addition to well landscaped medians there are also sculptures that add to the unique welcoming environment. The only problem is these enhancements are only a few blocks long. After that, on either side of North Avenue, the vacated blighted landscape resumes. I think these streetscape enhancements should be extended eastbound to Greenmount Avenue which is the technically the eastern edge of Station North and westbound to Pennsylvania Avenue which will help connect Bolton Hill, Reservoir Hill, MICA, and University of Baltimore to Station North aesthetically. This will give the illusion that the reinvestment area that is Station North continues down a much longer stretch of North Avenue.
Now lets talk buildings east of Station North. There are lots of Row Homes, and Businesses that are boarded up and vacated and even if they are occupied they are in a severely distressed state. Just east of Station North along North Avenue is the Headquarters for Baltimore City Public Schools. This is a major Employer that doesn't benefit the area at all. Think about it, shouldn't there by a demand for adequate housing and Retail so School System Employees can live near their work? One would think so.
Fortunately however, there are plans for major redevelopment on the horizon for much of the Barclay Neighborhood. Barclay is just above North Avenue and east of Station North. Barclay has become blighted with an ever increasing vacancy rate and unhealthy living conditions for Residents left behind. Redevelopment was in the air for Barclay in the mid 2000s however the economy collapsing has put the brakes on these plans. When it comes time to redevelop Barclay however, North Avenue must adjust itself to serve the everyday needs of the new Barclay Community. This can be done by limiting commercial uses only to North Avenue and leaving the remainder of Barclay new and old to be solely Residential. 
Another attraction along this area of North Avenue is the Greenmount Cemetery. I think this should be treated as one of Baltimore's famous public squares. Notice in blighted areas of the City like Union Square, Franklin Square, Madison Square etc. the blight stops at the area facing the square and some of Baltimore's most sought after Row Homes are an island of hope in a sea of blight. That being said, the area surrounding Greenmount Cemetery is in very bad shape. However there are a few signs of life in the Oliver Neighborhood directly east of the Cemetery in the form of newer homes. Older Row Homes however have not fared so well. This can be made into an opportunity to attract a mixed income community by bringing back the $1 Row House initiative. Although they will be symbolically buying these homes for $1 they must both occupy the home and qualify for a hefty construction loan to rehab their home. This would mark a substantial amount of money being reinvested into the Oliver and East Baltimore Midway Communities and create a welcoming area on all sides of Greenmount Cemetery.           

Further down North Avenue eastbound on the south side lies a community known as Broadway East. This is where the population loss of Baltimore is most evident with vacancy rates as high as 45% and that's not including vacant lots. Fortunately, Broadway East is just north of the Hopkins redevelopment area. This is where a lot of redevelopment must occur. I don't see very many of these Row Homes surviving which has been true for the actual Hopkins Redevelopment area. Although the Hopkins Redevelopment area has Retail/Commercial Space Master Planned into it, I would like to limit a redeveloped Broadway East to having North Avenue be the sole area for Retail/Commercial space. 
In the Broadway East Area of North Avenue there are a couple of areas that stand out to me and I think should be target areas. First there's the complex that contains the Eastside State Complex and Baltimore City Social Services. I think there should be a Master Plan of some sort created to redevelop this area and allow for higher density. I'm not exactly sure how I would do it but I think this can be made into a Mixed Use block that can spur further reinvestment along North Avenue. Next there's Harford Heights Elementary and William C. March Middle Schools. Both are located in a sprawling building on Wolfe St. between Sinclair Lane and Holly Cross Lane. I believe there are plans to build a new school that houses grades K-8 according to the School Facilities Master Plan. I would build a more compact building that would have Holly Cross Lane frontage and would allow for rows of new Homes to be built along the east side Broadway between Harford Road and North Avenue and additional homes along the north side of North Avenue between Broadway and Wolfe St.
The last part of Broadway East is the boarded up building once known as "Ashley Apartments." This old Section 8 Apartment Building fell into disrepair in the 1990s and the Feds who owned sold it back to the City only to have boarded up to rot inside and out. I would love to see a rehab of this building similar to that of the American Brewery (pictured above.) Instead of housing the Offices of Humanim which the American Brewery does, I would turn Ashley Apartments into low income Senior Apartments. They will include Apartments spanning from Independent Living to Assisted living all the way to Nursing Home beds. They will be amenity filled with a 24 hour Police Substation in the front to curtail crime and provide safety for its Residents. Seniors who need assistance in the area will be first on the list to rent an Apartment. The Ashley Apartment Building is an architectural gem that must be restored.
North Avenue minus a few blocks in Station North may appear to be completely blighted but looking eastward toward it Gay St. terminus, I see that there are numerous opportunities to make it the spine for reinvestment in Baltimore. Stay tuned for Part II that addresses North Avenue west of Station North.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Station North: On Its Own Terms

Station North has always been somewhat of an enigma. Its existence came about by meshing together parts of existing Communities such as Old Goucher, Charles North, and Greenmount West. Although at the time, these Communities were in decline, partly because North Avenue runs right through it and partly because its industrial past became just that, the past. It was also high on the City's priority list for gentrification due to its proximity to I-83, the Amtrak/MARC Penn Line, Penn Station, the Light Rail, and thriving communities such as Charles Village and Mount Vernon as well as the expanding University of Baltimore and MICA.
So what was the City's tool for spurring gentrification? Dubbing it an Arts & Entertainment. Unbeknownst to the City however Station North was ALREADY a thriving underground Arts & Entertainment created by new and existing on their own terms by Residents under the City's nose. The City however still had grandiose plans for Station North despite successful sweat equity projects like turning the Copy Cat Building into Loft Apartments, turning the old North Avenue Market into a series of successful Art Galleries & Bars such as the Wind Up Space,and block after block of rehabbed Row Homes. New construction includes  the City Arts Building in the 1500 block of Greenmount Avenue as well as Station North Town Homes on Calvert St.
By 2008, the City had completed a Master Plan for the Charles North side of Station North. It was pretty much what everybody had expected and feared; a decidedly upscale Community that's filled with high rises, an "Asia Town", and an over abundance of "cultural gateways." This plan was not well received by existing Residents. One thing that drew them to the Neighborhood and continues to draw them here is the affordable housing that can be personalized via sweat equity, the Mom & Pop Shops that flank its Main Streets, and the walk-ability and easy access to Rail Transit as well as being located near several Colleges that many Residents attend.
At first I was more supportive of this Master Plan and its high rises with their high rents and desolation of the affordable Artist Housing that built this Community and the chain stores that will surely buy out the Mom & Pop counterparts that are popular with current Residents. My opinion on issues evolves constantly and the Charles North Master Plan is no different. I realized that high rises and all the gentrification that comes with it will destroy a Community that was and is continuing to be built on its own terms. Will Residents who put years of sweat equity into their homes and businesses be able to afford to live in the Community they worked so hard to build? That is why I no longer support the Master Plan and its high rises.
I also don't believe Station North is suited for high rises. The average building height is about three to four stories. Station North also offers great views of Downtown when walking around the Community. What will become of those views if these high rises are built? The neighboring communities of Mount Vernon and Charles Village have done in great job in ensuring new construction is in-keeping with the existing structures both in height and in style. I believe that Station North should use that same consideration and that will contribute to the continued success of the Neighborhood.
There are some facets of the Master Plan that I'm more inclined to agree with. I like the concept of Asia Town considering Charles North has a very high concentration of Korean Americans while Charles Village has a high concentration of Chinese Americans. I do like the concept however I don't think it should be forced. If Asian Businesses (both in theme and ownership) would like to continue to open around Charles and 20th St. I support it completely. However, if Businesses owned by other another ethnicity(s) choose to open up shop in that same area and have more interest in the area in general I don't think anybody should stop them.
I also agree with the idea of opening a Boutique Hotel on the vacant floors above Penn Station. It think this goes along perfectly with the idea of re-imagining under utilized spaces and putting them back to good use. I have found this to be a core principle as investment and sweat equity continues in Station North. I also agree with the whole creating of a cultural gateway along Charles St. and Penn Station. Actually let me rephrase that, I would agree with the concept of a cultural gateway if one weren't already there. Indeed, just take a walk around Station North and tell me the place isn't already a celebrated melting pot of cultural diversity. Station North is one of the most integrated areas of the City so I think that facet of the Master Plan is already covered.
So how should Station North continue to move forward? I think it's currently on the right track now. 
The City Arts Building is a great example of new construction blending in with the existing Community while providing Artist Space and keeping rents affordable. The renovations and reopening of the Parkway Theater will be another welcomed addition to the Neighborhood. The vacant lots that were proposed for the high rises as well as other infill opportunities should be built on to fit in with the height and style of the existing Community with a mixed use Retail/Residential/Office vibe.
Station North has always grown on its own terms and it should continue to do so. One reason Residents are drawn to it is because it's different from the Harbor Neighborhoods. Any proposal to take away the identity of Station North and to make it just another over gentrified chain ridden over priced Harbor Neighborhood should be taken off the table and allow Station North to evolve on its own terms.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Does Formstone Play A Role in Gentrification?

Baltimore has always been a City obsessed with its history. This obsession has produced many successful rehabs of old buildings and in the case of Fells Point, Canton, and Otterbein, the rerouting and abandonment of a highway that would destroy some of the City's oldest housing stock. The renewed interest then sparked a massive rehabilitation effort in Neighborhoods bordering the Harbor and has stretched above Patterson Park and will eventually make its way to Pigtown. Quietly there's been a debate going on as these Neighborhoods have made a come back concerning the role formstone will play (if any) in the continued reinvestment of these Row House Neighborhoods.
Now what is formstone first and foremost? Formstone came in to existence in the Great Depression as a means to better insulate aging brick Row Homes. If you're in a working class Neighborhood of Baltimore and you see homes that appear to have stone facades, chances are you're looking at formstone. This method of insulating homes proved much cheaper and less hassle ridden than replacing the brick facade of these homes especially as these homes had begun to lose value as the flight to the suburbs was on. Historic preservation was not a very important priority when formstone began to spread throughout the City.
Like I said before, the routing of I-95 out of Otterbein and the abandonment of I-83 going through Fells Point and Canton brought historic preservation to the forefront of homesteaders' minds. This meant restoring the Row Homes of the Neighborhoods that were "saved" from highway related demolition to their original charm. This meant original bricks in, and formstone out. After all, Baltimore's Row Homes were uni-formally brick and as it turned out, the initial Neighborhoods that began gentrifying, were not huge on formstone to begin with. This made it relatively easy to rid the homes of it that had it. 
Today, as gentrification continues, Neighborhoods that were much more effected by the formstone epidemic are being targeted and are beginning to see growth once again. This is some 30 years after the original Row Homes next to the Harbor bean their gentrification. During that time, some people's attitudes and views on formstone had changed. Some had begun to view formstone itself as a piece of Baltimore's History and others want to keep it on the homes because it has become a Baltimore Gimmick in its own right. Granted this isn't all of the population, there are many investors who still wish to  rid their homes (and their Neighbor's Homes) of formstone and restore them to their original redbrick facades.
This has caused debate between proponents and opponents of formstone. Both can lay claim to being "preservationists" because formstone has now been etched to the History of Baltimore regardless. If you take a trip to some of Baltimore's most sought after and stable Neighborhoods like Fells Point, Canton, Butchers Hill, Federal Hill, and Otterbein and Patterson Park however, formstone is noticeably absent. If you take a trip to Neighborhoods that are just beginning to turn the corner toward gentrification and large amounts of investment like Highlandtown, Pigtown, CARE, Bayview, and Hollins Market, you will see an abundance of formstone. You will also see an abundance of boarded up Row Homes as well.
So what does the future hold for these up & comers? As investors and start up families begin setting their sights on rehabbing row homes in Neighborhoods with high concentrations of formstone, how they will address it? Or will they even have a choice? Some have considered banning formstone all together saying that it goes against the History of Baltimore especially in historically designated zones. So what's MY view on the future of formstone?
When I look at some of Baltimore's most sought after areas with newly restored fresh redbrick facades I think those Homes, no matter how small they may be in reality, look grand and impressive. If I were to buy a house in a Neighborhood that's up & coming but still has an abundance of formstone houses, I would hope my new Neighbors would join me in stripping off the layers of formstone and putting up brand new fresh redbrick facades. That's right, I would rehab my hypothetical home and restore it to its original grandeur. 
That being said, I don't think the City or any preservationist group should take an eraser to the pages of Baltimore's History that contain formstone either. I think throughout Neighborhoods there should be couple of blocks that can be designated as "Formstone Historic Districts." Since formstone is a piece of history, no matter how tacky it may be, should be celebrated. Homes not contained in those designated blocks however should go back to their roots and be restored to their original redbrick facades when purchased and rehabbed. However, if these homes are occupied existing home owners should not be forced to make that change. If and when they do decide to, the switch back to bricks should be made affordable. 
Baltimore has always been obsessed with its history. Preservationists are trying to rid the City of formstone which has in its own right earned a place in Baltimore's History. I don't want to abolish formstone completely but I appreciate a Neighborhood where its Row Homes have been completely restored to their redbrick grandeur.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Cherry Hill Homes: Too Big to Fail

All Photos are from Google Earth or the Cherry Hill Master Plan
Cherry Hill has always been a bit of an enigma, what with its views of the Baltimore Skyline, easy Light Rail Access, beautiful Parks and pools it's a wonder that Cherry Hill hasn't been sold to the highest bidder. I can tell why this hasn't happened in one word; crime. An area with such a stubbornly high crime rate and the site of numerous gang wars doesn't appeal to the yuppies who have gentrified the Harbor and are looking to do so in Westport. Also,making Cherry Hill attractive to yuppies will involve redeveloping Cherry Hill Homes, one of the largest public housing developments in the City. This will create a domino effect of increasing crime rates in neighboring communities in both the City and the County. This begs the question; Was Cherry Hill doomed from the get go?
 Cherry Hill differs due to the mere fact that the barracks and public housing built there was on land that was undeveloped before hand. Think about all the other public housing developments in the City and you will realize that they were part of slum clearance redevelopment efforts. Cherry Hill had a few small single family homes homes as well as some row homes within its boundaries when the City annexed it in 1918, other than that, it was Country. 
This lack of development in the majority of Cherry Hill gave the City cart-Blanche to build Cherry Hill how they wanted it. In doing so the built like a suburb ahead of its time. Entering and exiting Cherry Hill is next to impossible, the streets don't follow the traditional urban grid, there are cul-de-sac sacs and winding roads that don't really lead anywhere. This begs the question; How high were the City's hopes for Cherry Hill? At the time its surroundings were all white Neighborhoods with a solid working class base. Cherry Hill was built to house black Soldiers in the Barracks and Cherry Hill Homes, a public housing development with initially 600 units was also supposed to be all black. Granted. this was the 1940s when segregation was in full force but I can't help but wonder if the street layout was designed to keep its Residents in their own Neighborhood.
The City seemed quite content in making Cherry Hill an island of poverty stricken blacks throughout history as Cherry Hill Homes more than doubled in size and development of any other type of housing was virtually unheard of. Even privately owned complexes such as Cherrydale Apartments, and Middle Branch Manor cater to low income Residents. Meanwhile, the original Barracks of Cherry Hill had become increasingly vacant and uninhabitable. The disinvestment of Cherry Hill was about to come to an end.
The original Barracks of Cherry Hill Homes had become too small, outdated, and over crowded yet increasingly uninhabitable. Fortunately, change was on the horizon. Investors chose not to tear down and redevelop the ailing barracks but instead completely rehabbed them by turning them into large town homes decreasing density from 320 to 126. These town homes are, for the most part rentals and were renamed "River Front Town Homes". A few buildings were torn down   however and were replaced with owner occupied garage Town Homes.
In the 1990s, when HOPE VI money was over flowing there was talk of demolishing all of Cherry Hill Homes and redeveloping them as a mixed income community not unlike what was replacing the high rises at the edges of Downtown. This was met with mixed results from Residents. Residents in neighboring communities more apprehensive thinking that the violence and crime in Cherry Hill would spill into their communities. Although the number of units in Cherry Hill Homes has dropped down to 1394 from its high of 1713, there are no plans currently to redevelop the whole complex.

Speaking of the high rises that have been torn down, Residents on the outskirts of the City and in the inner-ring suburbs complain that the spike of crime since they high rises were torn down because of the displaced Residents from the inner City. Whether or not this is true has been debated ever since but it makes Residents of Brooklyn, Landsowne, Baltimore Highlands, Curtis Bay, Lakeland, and Brooklyn Park wary of having a similar effect on their communities if Cherry Hill Homes were torn down. With Cherry Hill playing host to the largest public housing complex east of Chicago, how does the Neighborhood move forward?
As I had said in the beginning of this post, Cherry Hill is located near the water on the Middle Branch with great views of the Baltimore Skyline,something that signals rapid gentrification in Baltimore. But Cherry Hill's high concentration of poverty makes the Neighborhood unattractive to developers. If you take a look at Westport, whose $1 Billion by Developer Patrick Turner development of its waterfront will eventually come to fruition, you will see that both the Westport Homes Extension and Mount Winans Homes have been torn down. Could the demise of these public housing projects have been a deal maker to move forward on Patrick Turner Development? Granted Westport Homes is still in existence but the public housing in the Wesport area has no doubt decreased. Indeed, many areas of the City have begun to gentrify once their public housing has been torn down.
So what does this mean for Cherry Hill? I think what it means is that Cherry Hill Homes is too big to fail. Regardless of what happens with the remainder of Cherry Hill, Cherry Hill Homes must remain a public housing development with all 1394 of its units occupied. Does this mean that efforts to reduce crime and increase the quality of life in Cherry Hill Homes should stop? Absolutely Not! Cherry Hill Homes has just as much right to be a safe healthy environment to raise a Family in as Roland Park. When I say that Cherry Hill Homes must remain a public housing development, I mean that redevelopment isn't the solution but reinvestment certainly can be. I would ask the City to renovate all 1394 units inside and out to modernize the complex and create a sense of hope. 
If down the line, Developers set their sights on Cherry Hill once large projects like Westport and Harbor Point have been built out, there are plenty of other developments in Cherry Hill that could be redeveloped/gentrified. There's the site of the ill-fated Waterview Overlook, Middle Branch, and Cherrydale Apartments could be redeveloped while River Front Town Homes could become a mix of Market Rate Rentals and Home Ownership. There are still the old Row Homes scattered about the Neighborhood that could be rehabbed as well. All of these developments are located much closer to the water than Cherry Hill Homes as well. Regardless of the larger Neighborhood's fate, Cherry Hill Homes is simply too big to fail.