Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Demise of the Central Business District and the Rise of Mixed Use

There's a development phenomenon taking our Nation's Cities by storm. That phenomenon? Mixed Use Development. Although Mixed Use Development has always had a place in our Cities, areas that were once solely Retail, Commercial, Residential, Recreational, or industrial have now been divided to house all of the above land uses in compact high density Neighborhoods. Baltimore is no different as Neighborhoods especially Downtown are suffering from a bit of an identity crisis as a result especially Downtown's Central Business District.
Up until the 1960s, mixed use was much more commonplace. Then during the flight to the suburbs, industry as we knew it died leaving swaths of vacant land throughout (pictured above), a lot of these vacant industrial Neighborhoods are today's Inner Harbor . Also the City pushed to rid Neighborhoods of "Corner Stores" which they believed was contributing to the escalating crime rate. Downtown, there was the Central Business District and the Westside of Downtown which had been the City's Shopping District. 
As suburban Shopping Malls began popping up throughout the suburbs, fewer and fewer Shoppers graced the Westside of Downtown, a problem that City Leaders and Private Developers are trying to remedy to this day. The Central Business District however has had a luckier fate. James Rouse who ironically built a large portion of the suburban shopping Malls that bled the City as of its destination Retail status stepped in to save the Central Business District. At the time the Central Business District had old Buildings that would not or could not compete with newer Office Buildings being built in the suburbs. With that Charles Center was born.
Charles Center was a no nonsense redevelopment that got rid of what was left of the old Office Buildings as well as Buildings with other uses. This only helped the City do away with mixed use. Charles Center also walled itself off from Neighboring Districts with its intrusive Office Buildings in an attempt wall itself off from the blight that those Neighborhoods were experiencing. South of Charles Center however, the walled off concept was not to be.
The Inner Harbor, one of the industrial areas that had been abandoned was the target for another Rouse Company redevelopment project. This time buildings would not be sky scrapers, in fact they would be short in stature so as not to obstruct views from the water. The beginning of the Inner Harbor redevelopment was also the beginning of the rebirth of mixed in Baltimore. The first pieces of the Inner Harbor included the Promenade (Recreational), Harbor Place (Retail), and the Science Center and Aquarium (Institutional). Shortly there after the Residential components began to take shape by rehabbing Row Homes in Otterbein, Federal Hill, and Fells Point. 
Shortly after the successful beginnings of the Inner Harbor, John Paterakis, who earned his fortune with the successful H&S Bakery turned developer and took the bold move of buying the huge swaths of vacant industrial land between Little Italy, the Inner Harbor and Fells Point. His vision was to bring in upscale high density mixed use development known as Inner Harbor East. After decades of pit falls, Paterakis's dream of redeveloping this land has come to fruition (pictured above). The Mixed Use Inner Harbor East is home to Offices, Retail, Apartments, Hotels, and an extended Promenade. A lot of the Offices that leased space in Harbor East relocated from the Central Business District and the Retail in both Inner Harbor East and Harbor Place could have gone to the Westside of Downtown. But that's old world thinking, Mixed Use is all the rage. 
As gentrification of the Inner Harbor spread to Neighborhoods like Butcher's Hill, Canton, Greektown, and Brewers Hill, so too did the redevelopment of the waterfront. Mixed Use began moving further and further southeast along Boston St. where unlike Inner Harbor East, Canton's and Brewers Hills's Industrial Past was salvaged and reused as loft Apartments, as well as Retail. There was also plenty of new construction in Canton as well. Canton had its own version of stalled mixed use development like Inner Harbor East; Canton Crossing. 
At first Canton Crossing was little more than a lone Office Building that housed the headquarters of First Mariner Bank and a large penthouse Apartment owned by First Mariner Bank President and Canton Crossing Developer Ed Hale. Due to the collapse of the economy in 2008, the Retail component of Canton Crossing had stalled and Ed Hale had to sell off the land that was banked for Canton Crossing so he could save the Bank from going under. After years of waiting the Shops at Canton Crossing was completed and lots of chain stores that were only available in the suburbs had arrived in the City.
Meanwhile, across from Canton Crossing where Canton meets Brewers Hill meets Greektown, Apartment construction has been continuing at a break neck pace. I also read in an article that there is a high demand for Office Space in Canton in addition to the demand for Office Space in Harbor Point and what has yet to be built in Inner Harbor East. This southeasterly shift of Office Space from the Central Business District has been remarkable, but how has the Central Business District fared?
Given that this post is about how Mixed Use Development in Baltimore has become the current development trend I'm sure you know where this is going. As much as the there's now demand for Office Space in Harbor Point, Harbor East, and Canton, there's as much if not more demand for Residential development Downtown. The Central Business District is now playing host to mixed use as well, 10 Light St. is being converted into 445 luxury Apartments, as well as 301 N. Charles St., and 114 E. Lexington St. are slated to do so as well. Also in the Central Business District is 414 Water St. which is new construction which are Condos not Apartments (pictured above). There have also been numerous Hotel recently built in the Central Business District.
The future of the Central Business District and areas directly surrounding will only add to the new Mixed Use feel of Downtown. Vacant parcels such as 300 E. Pratt St.,(pictured above) the Conway St. parking lot, and the Mechanic Opera House all have mixed use development and redevelopment plans on the books. There were also plans to redevelop 1st Mariner Arena by adding additional floors by Ed Hale's financial problems put that on the back burner. 
There has also been a demand for Residences in Downtown's Westside. Residential towers both new and re-purposed have been completed. The idea of re-converting the Westside back into Baltimore's Retail destination have fallen flat however. It is unknown if and when Retail will return to the Westside but it's comforting to know that there's at least a small Residential renaissance.      
Although the demand for Office Space in the traditional Downtown area has gone down, the need for Residential space in that same area has gone up. Also the demand for Office Space Citywide has gone up it's just that the demand is in places that aren't the traditional Central Business District. The end result is a plethora of mixed use development throughout the City's gentrified areas that will surely expand Baltimore's showcase.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Can the Horseshoe Casino Give Pigtown a Good Shot in the Arm?

For decades now, Pigtown has been on the sidelines waiting to be Baltimore's next hot Neighborhood. It has so much going for it; a storied history, a diverse population, close to public transportation (Light Rail, MARC), close to both of the Stadiums, close to UMB, and close to Downtown. Yet Pigtown is struggling with population loss, crime, drug use and sales, prostitution and boarded up homes and businesses. Something big needs to happen in Pigtown that will turn it around and bring change to the Neighborhood.
Fortunately, it appears that day has come. Baltimore City's first Casino known as the Horseshoe Casino is opening later this year. Its location is right by the Stadiums and borders Pigtown. Now what makes the Horseshoe Casino different than other potential "shots in the arm" for Pigtown?Well, it's promising to bring over 1500 year round jobs to the area. I personally believe that Pigtown's struggles are due in part to there not being enough employment opportunities in the area. In its heyday, Pigtown was very much an Employment Center mixed with Industry related to the B&O Railroad whose stop at Camden Station provided Employment for generations, and of course the famed slaughter houses in which Pigs ran from Railroad Cars through the steers of Pigtown to meet their makers. This is how Pigtown got its unique name.
During the flight to the suburbs and the dawn of the Computer Age, Industrial Jobs all around the City had dried up. Baltimore had gained a Central Business District and the redevelopment of the once industrial Inner Harbor both had brought job opportunities to the City. The new "Service Industry" economy has been great for Baltimore's eroding tax base (though Baltimore is still very much a broke City) and has stemmed growth in almost every Neighborhood near the Harbor. With the synergy created by the gentrification on the Residential side, it was only a matter of time that same synergy would come to Pigtown, but so far it hasn't.
That's not to say Pigtown hasn't had its successes. In fact, Washington Boulevard is seeing homes and businesses being rehabbed and some small businesses have set up shop. Granted some have also closed up shop but the willingness to invest and give Pigtown a proper Main Street is promising. I think the uptick in investment got the attention of developers a little too soon however when the project known as "Camden Crossing" came to fruition. Would be rehabbers of existing homes instead flocked to these new uncharacteristically wide town homes instead. Then the recession hit. Despite Camden Crossing's flaws it's still considered a success for the Neighborhood as a whole.
Today Pigtown is desperately seeking to rid itself of the negative stigma that surrounds it. They're looking to attract Residents who will buy, invest in, and maintain their homes long term, will support businesses along Washington Boulevard, and will be active in preventing crime. Although there are Residents doing just that, it needs to happen on a much grander scale. I would like to point out that unlike other Neighborhoods, Pigtown's housing stock is in good enough shape that demolition and redevelopment is not needed. Vacant houses are scattered throughout the Neighborhood and with a little elbow grease and sweat equity, they can be among the City's show case Row Houses.
So how does the new Horseshoe Casino play into this? Obviously, they're hiring a lot of full and part time employees and given its proximity to Pigtown, those not living in the area may seek to relocate. Neighborhoods closer to Downtown and the Harbor may be too expensive for workers. Pigtown's affordability and relative safety when compared to other Southwest Baltimore Neighborhoods may be the best for Casino Workers relocating to the area. I also think the City should try to entice new hires seeking to relocate do so in Pigtown. How you ask? Why not re-introduce the $1 row house program for casino workers? This will allow would be rent/mortgage payments to be freed up to allow these new workers/Residents to rehab the house they now own. 
What if you already live in Pigtown and you're seeking employment at the Casino? This is a very probable situation given Casino's proximity to Pigotwn and the need for additional employment opportunities in Pigtown? Existing homeowners in Pigtown could receive less interest loans to fix up their homes and existing renters could also take advantage of the opportunity to buy a $1 row house to rehab and become homeowners. This population growth will be beneficial to existing businesses on Washington Boulevard and encourage new ones to open up shop. A larger population deters crime. 
When the Horseshoe Casino opens later this year, it will be the opportunity for a rebirth for Pigtown. There is every reason for this to happen and City Leaders can help make it so. Will they do it? Or they will Pigtown continue to exist without a shot in the arm?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

North Avenue Baltimore's Spine for Reinvestment II: West Baltimore

In the second and last installment of my North Avenue series, I travel west of Station North into West Baltimore. Although I consider West Baltimore to be in worse shape in general than East Baltimore, along North Avenue, West Baltimore is showing more signs of reinvestment and redevelopment. Still, North Avenue in West Baltimore has a long way to go and similarly to East Baltimore, I have my ideas to spur further reinvestment and redevelopment.
Just across the I-83 bridge on North Avenue we come to Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill. Bolton Hill has made a terrific comeback thanks to longtime Residents fending off blight and the demolition of the blighted and vacant Eutaw Gardens Apartments and its successor, Spicer's Run Town Homes (pictured above.)
Reservoir Hill hasn't been as lucky as Bolton Hill. It seems to want to emerge as a major draw for new Residents especially given its location near Station North, MICA, and University of Baltimore. For every rehabbed house success story in Reservoir Hill, there are two to three stories of abandonment. One big drawback has been Madison Park North Apartments(pictured above), a run own section 8 complex nicknamed "Murder Mall" that is directly across North Avenue from Spicer's Run. 
The City has been threatening to revoke the housing license of Murder Mall's owners for close to four years now. Residents of Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill have been calling on the City to do just that and redevelop the struggling complex. Seeing how it's a gateway to Reservoir Hill I think Student Housing for UMB and MICA Students will help extend Station North into Reservoir Hill and begin attracting new Residents to start rehabbing the gorgeous and vacant homes in Reservoir Hill in droves.
Further down North Avenue west of Reservoir Hill lies Penn North. Although most of Penn North remains blighted, there are a couple of success stories. First there's Nehemiah Homes development built in the early 1990s that encompasses three blocks of the Neighborhood along Woodbrook Avenue, Ettings St, and Francis St. These homes remain in pristine condition thanks to Residents taking great pride in their homes. Next there's the recently completed Penn Square Apartments just above North Avenue on Pennsylvania Avenue. These low income Apartments have transformed the land they occupy and well as clean homes for its Residents, Penn Square also provides a Daycare Center, a much needed addition to the Community. 
Map from Google Earth
These islands of stability in Penn North show that if additional new housing were built, the Neighborhood could support it perhaps even broadening the income mix. To truly change the face of Penn North, the blighted and vacant industrial properties would have to be re-zoned to solely Residential uses with Neighborhood Retail only allowed on Pennsylvania and North Avenues. As part of the means to change the face of Penn North, the blight in between Penn Square and Nehemiah Homes must be eliminated and redeveloped. The three blocks above Nehemiah Homes will be Town Homes not unlike Nehemiah Homes sold to working class and middle class Families. Along Pennsylvania Avenue across and the block above Penn Square will be Apartments not unlike Penn Square which will include Neighborhood Services similar to the existing Daycare Center as well as light Retail. The eastern edge of Penn North will include more rehabs as the blocks there are healthier but there will also opportunities for new housing as well.
To the south of Penn North lies Druid Heights. Although this Neighborhood plays host to some of Baltimore's highest housing vacancies, there is a lot of hope and investment going on here. Around Bakers St. new Town Homes are being built and sold very quickly. The speed at which these town homes could be build and sold would be even quicker if it amassing all the lots and vacant houses on them were easier. The Druid Heights Community Development corporation will eventually provide a safe haven for working families looking to invest in a safe affordable Community for generations to come.
Druid Heights is located along Pennsylvania Avenue south of North Avenue and Penn North. Like the new housing in the area there has been an interest in Commercial reinvestment along this stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue. The recently opened "Avenue Bakery" has been a solid anchor to the Community that its Owners hope other Entrepreneurs use as a Business Model to breathe new life into Pennsylvania Avenue. Another Commercial victory for Pennsylvania Avenue will be the renovation of the Sphinx Club. Although the new Sphinx club won't be a Jazz Club, it will house a Museum dedicated to African American Athletes complete with a Cafe. Not only will the building that housed the Sphinx club be restored, a three story building to house the complex will be built on a vacant lot next to it. Hopefully this reinvestment/redevelopment energy will continue down Pennsylvania Avenue into Upton and further West along North Avenue as well.

Photo from Google Earth
Speaking of further west along North Avenue, Coppin State University is growing rapidly. Fortunately, the land and the dilapidated houses on said land are not expensive to acquire and not very many people will put a fight to save them. Still further down North Avenue in the Walbrook Junction Community, there is evidence of redevelopment with North Avenue frontage! The project, known as the North Avenue Gateway is in the 3000 block on the south side and will contain 64 affordable Apartments. Despite being in one of Baltimore's roughest areas, the Apartments were leased in no time at all. It just goes to show that regardless of your surroundings, clean safe affordable housing is always in demand. Indeed, the developer said he could 100 of these Apartment complexes and they will be leased in no time. The fact of the matter is, he's right.
Although I didn't mean for this North Avenue post to be cut in two (east and west of Station North) I'm glad I did so I could focus on each Neighborhood with a fined tooth comb. Some say that the only part of Baltimore worth talking about or living in near the Harbor, to them I say travel a couple miles to North Avenue and get to know the Neighborhood there. You will find some up & comers and some down & goners. Some down & goners are up & comers and they don't even realize it yet. That is truly why North Avenue is the Spine of Reinvestment in Baltimore.