Wednesday, October 29, 2014

McCulloh Homes: A New Short Term Lease On Life

Development and redevelopment activity is back in full swing around Downtown and most surrounding areas. H&S Bakery will soon be vacating its sprawling factory in the middle of Inner Harbor East to so that new construction can continue, construction on the Central Avenue bridge into Harbor Point is on track which will allow Harbor Point construction to commence in just a few short years, there are numerous Apartment projects coming down the pipeline for Otterbein, Sharp-Leadenhall, and South Baltimore, Canton Crossing is looking to add more Office Space, and Downtown proper has been seeing numerous re-purposing from Office Buildings to Apartments as the demand for Apartments Downtown has sky-rocketed. In short, new construction in Baltimore is all around us. Well almost.
One part of the Greater Downtown Area that hasn't received much attention is State Center. For those who aren't familiar with State Center it's currently an outdated Office Park that houses State Offices that's located on both the Light Rail Line, the Metro, and is just a few blocks from Penn Station. It is also surrounded by numerous hot areas such as Mount Vernon, Bolton Hill, Univeristy of Baltimore, MICA, and Station North. In other words, the location is among the best in the City.In addition to being located near several good areas of the City, it is also located near some not so good areas. Upton and McCulloh Homes are also at State Center's doorstep.    
In the early to mid 2000s, there was a plan to redevelop State Center as 1st class upscale mixed-use TOD haven complete with new State Offices, Apartments, Town Homes, and Retail as well as a Boutique Hotel. This would have been known as the "Eutaw District." Early versions of the plan included redeveloping the aging McCulloh Homes. The plan was re-drafted and scaled back not to include McCulloh Homes after Resident backlash. Although this was a labeled victory for McCulloh Homes Residents, no plan has come forth to address the decaying conditions at McColloh Homes since it was excluded from State Center. 
The plan for State Center with or without McCulloh Homes was met with controversy. With the State act as a Developer, it would have to splash out a serious amount of cash $1 Billion + and that didn't set well for people who thought the State was too cash strapped. Had the State been in better financial shape, there would still be naysayers thinking that a project like this would be a waste of money. Supporters asked us to look at the big picture. Taxes and fees generated once this project had been completed would make the investment more than worth it. In other words, the State would have to spend money to make money. I was and still am of the mindset that State Center needs to be redeveloped. My views on how to accomplish that have changed drastically over the years however.
First I was on board with the State investing the money to pay for redeveloping State Center knowing that the area needs that shot in the arm as well as the return on its initial investment. As the economy tanked I was still a champion of the redevelopment effort but I preferred waiting until the economy stabilized. As time wore on it became clear that this project wouldn't happen anytime soon if at all. I still supported it. This project not being funded mean the need for the State to get new Offices was being unmet. 
It was at this time that Downtown's Office Vacancy Rate was hitting 20% even though projects rich in Office Space like Harbor Point and Inner Harbor East. With this news, my support of State Center's redevelopment remained in place however, I wanted the State to remove itself from the project and sell off the land to a private developer that they would "bank" until the Market was ready to absorb it. The State Offices would lease space Downtown in an effort to reduce the vacancy rate. I wrote a post on this matter called "Taking the State out of Center."
After the State Center Buildings were vacated I left their short term fate in the hands of the Developer who now owned them. They could demolish them and bank the land until the climate is right for redevelopment, or they could simply mothball them. I came up with a different plan for the short term. Remember earlier in the post when I said nothing was being done to help McColloh Homes? I was hoping you did because it's a pivotal part of this plan. I know think the best option for the State Center Buildings in the short term would be to house McCulloh Homes Residents. After being converted into Apartments, the City would lease the Buildings from the Developer after selling the land McCulloh Homes sits on. The Developer would then demolish McCulloh Homes to make them part of the eventual State Center redevelopment. 
Once development in and around Downtown reaches build out and the demand for development returns (once new projects are fully leased and/or purchased) The State Center Buildings now housing McCulloh Homes would be demolished and the entire site (McCulloh Homes and State Center) would be redeveloped as an upscale mixed-use TOD haven that the Planners envisioned all those years ago.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Old West Baltimore: Your Cries Are Being Heard...........Slowly

One of my very first posts on this blog was entitled "Old West Baltimore: Crying For Intervention." It was true then and it remains true now. However, there are some signs of hope in Old West Baltimore that if the City and Developers were to take advantage of, Old West Baltimore would improve greatly. Please keep in mind that as you read this post, I'm not looking to gentrify Old West Baltimore. I'm simply trying to provide safe, well built affordable housing and services for working Families and Seniors.
It's no secret that Old West Baltimore has been struggling long before World War II. During the Great Migration, tens of thousands of Black Southerners made Baltimore their home. What didn't change were the boundaries of Baltimore's Black Neighborhoods. What resulted was over-crowding, and decaying and substandard living conditions. As the Black Neighborhood Boundaries went west of Fulton Avenue, those who could afford it headed west to "second hand Suburbs" like Edmondson Village where Whites were fleeing to the newly built suburbs. Those who were forced to stay in Old West Baltimore were still left in slums albeit less crowded but slums non the less. 
The great solution to the slum like conditions was not great at all. It was barely a solution. Said solution was to build new public housing high rises that were charged with ridding the City of its slums. The new high rises, funded largely by the Federal Government soon became a haven for crime and drug dealing. Residents were scared to leave their homes and soon the surrounding Neighborhoods saw the same crime that the high rises had. Even worse, the Feds who providing funding to build these high rises, didn't fund their maintenance, which the City could not afford. Before long, the same slum conditions that the high rises were meant to eliminate had come back.
Needless to say, this crime and subsequent decay left Residents fleeing for homes for safety. This caused some of Baltimore's most concentrated population loss. In Old West Baltimore, it's not uncommon to see block after block of vacant row houses without a single Human residing in them. I say Humans because there are Rodents and Roaches residing in them. Once the Murphy Homes high rises were torn down and replaced with the lower density town home development of Heritage Crossing, it was thought that Old West Baltimore would be on the upswing again.
Heritage Crossing and similar projects have been great. Sadly they haven't been able to spread their greatness to neighboring blocks. Although Heritage Crossing is the most well known successful redevelopment project in Old West Baltimore, there are others that made some improvements in their immediate area.
First off, in the early 1990s, Penn North and Sandtown had modular Town Homes built for affordable Home ownership. They sold like hot cakes. It seemed that in the 1990s there was a pent up demand for affordable new construction housing for purchase in old West Baltimore. As part of the redevelopment in Sandtown, some existing row homes were preserved if they were in good enough condition. 
Throughout the remainder of the 1990s and 2000s, very little development occurred in Old West Baltimore. That pent up demand for affordable new construction in Old West Baltimore was a fluke. Sure Heritage Crossing sold well but wasn't that mostly Residents who had lived in Murphy Homes? Nope, most of the homes in Heritage Crossing are owner occupied but developers had set their attention on the Harbor and had no intention of diverting their attention.
Meanwhile in Druid Heights, Residents and Community Activists were sick of waiting for narrow minded Developers to turn their attention to Old West Baltimore. With a plethora of vacant row homes and lots, they formed the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation and and have slowly but surely been buying up vacant row homes and lots and building new affordable town homes for working Families. Examples of these new homes can be seen along the west side of Pennsylvania Avenue and Gold St. Newer homes are beginning to pop up along Baker St. as well. Since the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation isn't a large National Developer, the pace at which new homes can be constructed may seem slow but they're making great strides in giving Druid Heights a rebirth.
Now that we've established that Old West Baltimore has a pent up demand for affordable new construction for home ownership, I have but one burning question; Is there the same demand for Rentals? The answer is yes. Just take a look at the recently completed Penn Square Apartments in Penn North. They became fully leased in no time. The same developer who developed Penn Square built a similar project along North Avenue in Walbrook Junction which has a waiting list. When referencing that project he said that he could 100 similar projects in Baltimore and they would be fully leased in no time. So to answer that question, there is a pent up demand for affordable new construction rentals as well.
Now that we have discovered these islands of hope in Old West Baltimore, one might wonder what's next. Given the state of the housing in much of the area, redevelopment may be the only alternative. There may be the occasional row of homes that are in good enough shape to rehab and then rent and sell. Upton's Marble Hill District is one of these places. Madison Park which separates Upton and Bolton Hill is beginning to emerge as a great place to rehab a row home at a non inflated price. Reservoir Hill's row house mansions that were once used as multi-family dwellings are being restored to their single family grandeur.  
Most of Old West Baltimore however is not Upton's Marble Hill District and Madison Park. If that were the case, Old West Baltimore would be seeing a surge of reinvestment that rivals the Harbor. The sad truth is, as is evidenced by past successes, the only clear solution is redevelopment. Now we can't redevelop all of Old West Baltimore although it may ultimately come to that. I have come up with three areas of highly blighted land that would help give the area a much needed face lift and perhaps start a small building boom.      
First there's Penn North. As I had indicated before, there are two success stores here; first there are the Town Homes built in the 1990s and secondly there are the recently completed Penn Square Apartments. The redevelopment I'm proposing is the land that separates the two. That land is still very blighted filled with empty lots and boarded up row homes. The land that front Pennsylvania Avenue would be higher density similar to Penn Square while Residential blocks will contain Town Homes. Whether these new homes are rent or purchase their prices will affordable to Working Families.
Next there's Gilmor Homes. Gilmor Homes is a sprawling public housing complex that sits in the middle of Sandtown. Although the Southeastern portion of Sandtown has benefited quite nicely from reinvestment and redevelopment, the same can not be said about the rest of the Neighborhood. Gilmor Homes has been hot bed for crime and drug activity for decades now and if redeveloped, it will serve as a catalyst for further investment and development in Sandtown. The Gilmor Homes redevelopment are will not only include the complex itself but the surrounding blocks that are all but vacant. In its place will be a mixed income Community primarily of Town Homes with a few Apartments with a mixture of rentals and privately owned homes. There will also by a public housing Senior Building that will be no taller than five stories. There will also be amenities such as a Daycare Center, A Community Center, Urban Gardens, as well as a small Retail area close to the Senior Building.       
The last redevelopment area is in Upton. It creates a triangle bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue to east, Mosher St. to the north, Fremont Avenue to the west, and the Heritage Crossing Development to the south. This area features a very large concentration of vacant row homes and lots that can only be fixed by a massive redevelopment effort. Fortunately, this area is large enough to change the image of the Upton Community and may create a synergy to begin attracting more Residents outside the area. Similar to Penn North, buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue will be Apartments while the more residential blocks will consist of Town Homes. A public housing Senior Building will also be featured here not unlike the one I have purposed for the redeveloped Gilmor Homes. 
If these three initiatives were put forth, coupled with the existing synergy, Old West Baltimore's cries for intervention will be heard and the area successful. Still more work would have to be done, most specifically in Harlem Park and McColloh Homes and hopefully attracting better Retail to Pennsylvania Avenue. Perhaps one day Old West Baltimore will be a sought after address. That would a ways off but right at the very least the cries for intervention are slowly being heard. And that's more than I could have said seven years ago.