Friday, March 25, 2016

Why Does Mass Transit Get a Bad Rap?

This is something that is unique to Baltimore, instead of embracing the expansion of Rail Transit, they fear it. Instead of getting excited that their commute may be shorter and they're going to save a fortune on gas and perhaps even sell their car because they don't need it, they say "there goes the Neighborhood." This is something that has confused and angered me since I first became aware of this problem. So I set out to see why Mass Transit gets a bad rap and how that can be remedied.
Before such a large portion of the Greater Baltimore population lived in suburbs, City Residents relied on streetcars. The flight to the suburbs and the mass production of the personal automobile became the death of streetcars and therefore rail transit in the City and surrounding suburbs. Pretty early on, it was painfully obvious that roads new and old weren't prepared for the vehicular traffic a City without rail transit would bring. Planners set out to change that.
In 1984 the MARC Lines opened using the right of way of existing train lines. They're much more focused on DC Commuters but they have benefited Baltimore's commuters who work elsewhere. The Camden line runs from Camden Station to DC's Union Station with a few stops in between. Same is true with the Penn Line running from Union Station to Perryville via Baltimore's Penn Station. These lines are not like the old streetcars that ran through every Neighborhood in the City. Their goal is to get to and from their regional destinations quickly without a multitude of stops. And they do just that.
Later in the 1980s, Planners got the idea that Baltimore needed localized transit not unlike the streetcars that were killed all those years ago. With that the Metro Subway (Green Line) opened running from Owings Mills to Charles Center with an extension to Hopkins following some years later. In the early '90s, the Light Rail (Blue Line) opened from Hunt Valley to Cromwell Station. The following years will see a spur to BWI and another spur to Penn Station. This was to be the beginning of a comprehensive Rail Transit for Baltimore and its surrounding suburbs but nothing more has been built.
So why hasn't progress continued on giving a Baltimore a truly comprehensive Rail Transit System? In order to answer that question lets look at what's already been built; People just don't like it. This is especially true in the suburbs that are served by the existing lines. I think I can trace that negative sentiment towards Rail Transit back to one incident. The Owings Mills Metro Stop which is actually the terminus of that line had no real connection between itself and the Owings Mills Mall. A Lady working at the Mall was walking on a dirt path that "connected" the Mall to the Metro late at night and was robbed and killed. This tragedy was blamed on Mass Transit entirely.
After that, whenever a crime occurred in areas near Rail Transit stations outside the City, it was because of the fact that the Rail Lines go through bad areas of the City and Residents of those bad areas would ride the Rails with the soul purpose of robbing County Residents and getting back on the trains before the Police can be notified. In fact, evolution of Retail has been more to blame for the death of both Owings Mills Mall and Hunt Valley Mall than the Rail Transit that serves them. Case in point, Hunt Valley Mall didn't start to lose tenants until new White Marsh Mall opened and when Towson Town Centre secured a Nordstrom. Owings Mills Mall also had anchor tenants that lasted for a short amount of time. This is because those stores were closing multiple stores in a down economy and the Owings Mills locations made that list. This was blamed on Mass Transit as well.
So that's what gives Mass Transit a bad rap; crime and Retail evolution. But how does that solve anything? Well the bad rap seems to come almost exclusively from the suburbs. Indeed, City dwellers are happy not to have to use their cars if point a and point b are easily accessible via Rail Transit. So what's the difference between urban and suburban? I've found that the urban stops tend to be much more developed and built out. Many of them don't have or need any type of parking facilities their ridership is almost exclusively on foot. The suburbs on the other hand are less likely to be so accessible. They tend to have sprawling surface lots and a lot less activity going on next to them. Mass transit stops were never meant to be in the middle of nowhere.
Since Mass Transit stops were never meant to be in the middle of nowhere, the concept of transit oriented development (TOD) came into existence. Well designed cities are essentially one gigantic TOD so that concept has a lot less to do with them as it does for suburbs. Owings Mills is just that suburb. Being that it's the terminus of the Subway, it draws City commuters into its station from points northwest. TOD known as the "Metro Centre at Owings Mills" is being constructed as we speak which when completed will contain hundreds of Apartments with Retail, Offices, A Library, and a Community College Branch. This created a mini city at the transit stop that puts more and more people in the area at any given time thereby reducing vulnerability and crime as a result.
As construction on Metro Centre continues, time will tell whether it will be successful in increasing ridership and increasing the sense of safety and security a critical mass like that creates. If successful more TOD developments in suburban rail station areas thereby severely the imagined crime element of mass transit and they can finally lose their bad rap.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Re-Branding an Entire Neighborhood

Did you know that a nickname for Baltimore is "Smalltimore?" It makes sense because the City is not all that large. Everything's near everything else. One reason the City appears larger than it actually is is because its Neighborhoods have their own identity about them. It will feel like you have traveled far and wide when in fact you've only traveled a few blocks. This is something that comes in handy to help struggling Neighborhoods that are close to successful Neighborhoods. The key is to try to re-brand the struggling Neighborhood as a part of the successful Neighborhood and watch the struggling Neighborhood begin to grow in population and foot traffic. In this post, the successful Neighborhood is Mount Vernon. The struggling Neighborhood is Johnston Square.
One would like you to believe that these two Neighborhoods are worlds apart. Actually they're just one JFX apart and eventually that JFX will be gone and the barrier in between the two will then be null and void. With a revelation like that, some may think that the hardships facing Johnston Square would spill into Mount Vernon. I'm proposing the opposite; the successes of Mount Vernon spilling into Johnston Square. The only way to do that? Re-brand Johnston Square as an extension of Mount Vernon. 
Highways like the JFX were strategically routed in order to separate Neighborhoods from one another. If you look at the demographics on one side of the highway versus the other, you can tell that it's no coincidence. The segregation era had everyone up in arms that integration would spill into their Neighborhood. Highways acted as a natural buffer to keep the status-quo intact. The JFX running in between Mount Vernon and the JFX is a prime example of this planning method. And it worked, Mount Vernon remained a rich sought after Neighborhood while Johnston Square continued to go downhill and lose population while gaining drugs and blight. 
My solution would be for Mount Vernon to absorb Johnston Square and re-brand it as an extension of itself. Johnston Square would effectively be branded as "Mount Vernon East." This will eventually happen once the JFX is dismantled but I'd like to get the ball rolling now. Seeing as how Johnston Square is east of Mount Vernon, the synergy of Mount Vernon would have to continue itself in an easterly direction. The first thing to do is to make the bridges over the JFX on Chase St., Biddle St. and Preston St. more accessible for bikers and pedestrians alike. I would have liked to do this on Eager St. too, but it stops and starts up on either side of the JFX further enhancing the intended separation of the two Neighborhoods.  
Once east of the JFX in Johnston Square, many of the lots directly adjacent to the highway are vacant. This is good as it will allow for new development right off the bat. The new development will have architecture similar to Mount Vernon in the west to create a welcoming environment and invite further development. One thing about Mount Vernon that has happened over the generations is the conversion of large row homes into Apartments. The demand to live in Mount Vernon has made this a necessity. However, in Mount Vernon East, I would it to be branded as an opportunity to live in a Row House while still living in Mount Vernon. This is something that there's a market for. I would equip each new house with rooftop decks so Residents may take advantage of the breath taking views of the City offered to them. In order to attract these new Residents, Johnston Square will have to have streetscape enhancements and litter removal to keep up the same clean well kept appearance that Mount Vernon has.   
Heading further east into Johnston Square, there are opportunities for infill housing and rehabbing existing vacants. I would place higher density housing such as Apartments and Condos with ground floor Retail along Greenmount Avenue which I would brand as a Main St. for the Community. By making Greenmount a Main St. a synergy in between Mount Vernon East and the quickly gentrifying Greenmount West to the north. Bridging these two Neighborhoods would have to be a long term project. The train tracks would have to be capped and east west streets like Hoffman St., Federal St., and Oliver St. would have to be extended westbound towards Penn Station to tie all of these Neighborhoods together. A project this big would have to be done in conjunction with the dismantling of the JFX.
So there you have it, in order to see large scale redevelopment and reinvestment in Johnston Square, the first step is to re-brand the Neighborhood as an eastern extension of Mount Vernon. Doing so will bring in an unprecedented amount of new developments before the dismantling of the JFX. The division of Neighborhoods brought by highways can be put to rest if the stigma of the divide goes away.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Little Italy: On the Cusp of Change

Big things are happening in Little Italy. The first is the redevelopment of the former Della Notte restaurant into high rise mixed use building. This move will help extend the high density of Inner Harbor East northward toward Downtown via President St. This could help make President St. more pedestrian oriented and make it a more attractive destination in and of itself rather than the vehicular nightmare it is currently.
The second big thing in Little Italy is that entire block of the Neighborhood is on the market for redevelopment. What block is it? I don't know, and neither does anyone who isn't directly effected by the proposed real estate transaction. Proponents of the sale of the mystery block say that Little Italy is stuck in the past and that high density mixed use is the only way to keep the Neighborhood competitive with the ever evolving Inner Harbor Neighborhoods. 
Not only do I disagree with this assessment of Little Italy but I also disagree that it has to become an extension of Downtown and Inner Harbor East. Articles that promote this block of redevelopment claim that Little Italy is closed off from its surroundings and that's why there's low foot traffic. Although there are Restaurants here, Little Italy is still a Residential Neighborhood and the layout of the streets and Row Homes confirm that. Many of the interior blocks are not through streets so that vehicular traffic does not pollute the Community.
The closed off feeling that comes from Little Italy is no accident. In order to defend itself from the urban decay of it surroundings from Flag House Courts to the north, Perkins Homes to the east, and a decaying Harbor that was no longer a source of employment for tens of thousands. To keep Little Italy a viable and safe Neighborhood, it had no choice but to close itself off.
Today however, Flag House Courts has been redeveloped and replaced with the mixed income Albemarle Square, the Harbor is now glitzy mixed high rises, and all though Perkins Homes are still standing at the moment, the City has confirmed that redevelopment will occur there in the coming years. So from a safety standpoint, closing off the Neighborhood to deter urban decay is no longer necessary. However, that doesn't mean that Residents wish to change the general layout or architecture of their community. I find the style of Row Homes that dominate the Neighborhood are beautiful and knocking down a healthy block of them in favor of a high rise doesn't sit well with me. 
Don't get me wrong, I'm actually in favor of both proposed mixed use high rises in Little Italy. The Della Notte is at the corner of President St. and Eastern Avenue which is not only an entrance to Harbor East, but southeast Baltimore as a whole. With the unknown block of Little Italy that's on the market however, I'm nervous that the block in question will destroy the fabric of the existing Little Italy Community. There are however a couple of blocks on the outskirts of Little Italy that border upon Harbor East that I believe will benefit from a high rise mixed use building. 
The fist location is directly north of the Della Notte site on President St. This contains mostly a surface level parking lot with a few Row Homes and Businesses facing Fawn St. and Albemarle St. but the outer more traveled thoroughfares of President St. and Eastern Avenue are nothing but the surface lot. I mentioned the benefit of increased pedestrian traffic on President St. from redeveloping the Della Notte site and I think it can developing this site as a mixed use high rise will only help the walkability of President St. and not have that area between Downtown and Harbor East be such a dead zone. I hope this is the mystery block.
There's another part of Little Italy that I think could use some redevelopment. This time the parcel is located at the southwestern corner of Eastern Avenue and Bank St. Currently there sits a short parking garage. Central Avenue is poised for a turn around after streetscape enhancements and the announcement of extending it into Harbor Point. As H&S Bakery moves to Hollander Ridge, the Inner Harbor East portion of Central Avenue will continue to see redevelopment. In Little Italy, recent rehabs include the Canal Street Malthouse and the Heavy Seas Alehouse. Both of these have begun to increase pedestrian traffic on Central Avenue and demolishing the desolate parking garage at Central Avenue and Bank St. in favor of a mixed use high rise can only help. Although I like this location as the mystery block, I much prefer the President St. site just above Della Notte.
As the mystery block is revealed, and plans are made public, much more can be speculated accurately about the future of Little Italy and whether or not the entire Neighborhood of tidy Row Homes will be demolished in favor of an Inner Harbor East Expansion. I hope that's not the case but we can all say with confidence that Little Italy is on the cusp of change.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Pratt St.: On the Right Track

It all started here on Pratt St. Any type of gentrification, redevelopment, or population influx in Baltimore's Downtown, Inner Harbor, Southern, and Southeastern regions it all comes back to Pratt St. From roughly Calvert St. to President St., Pratt the southern most street running west to east before the Inner Harbor.
The views offered by Pratt St. are truly breathtaking and have only improved since the influential Harbor Place Shopping Mall and the Harbor Promenade opened in 1980. Many new developments, redevelopments, and Neighborhoods have built been as a result of Pratt St. and have begun to take the shine off of Pratt St. and to keep it as the City's true showcase, Pratt St. must be looked at comprehensively to fix what doesn't work and emulate what does. Luckily, Pratt St. seems to be on the right track.
This begs the questions; What is the right track? What is the wrong track? In what way is Pratt St. on the right track? In what way is Pratt St. on the wrong track? And most importantly, how does what's on the wrong track get moved to the right track? The answer to these questions boils down to simply one word: Retail. Retail will put Pratt St. on the right track.
When the Inner Harbor was in its infancy, Retail was contained to Harbor Place. At the time, this was sufficient because this island of gentrification was too small and many of the now glitzy Residential Neighborhoods were decades away from rebirths. Other than Harbor Place, Pratt St. was contained to housing Office Buildings, Hotels, and the Convention Center. Pratt St's Office Buildings however were a breath of fresh air due to their relative accessibility as compared to Charles Center whose buildings enclose in on each other.
As higher density development continued around the Harbor, the buildings became more and more mixed use. Whether it was Offices, Residences, or Hotel Rooms in the upper floors, one thing remains constant; Ground Floor Retail. When creating a higher density urban core which is what these developments are doing (including Pratt St.) it is crucial to get large volumes of foot traffic day and night. Retail plays the biggest part in creating that synergy.   
Parts of Pratt St. are on the right track while others are on the wrong track. In layman's terms that means that some buildings have mastered the art of ground floor Retail while others haven't quite gotten the hang of it. Much of this depends greatly on the age of the building and/or whether or not it has gone through major renovations.
Now lets take a look at some buildings. Here are the Pandora and Bank of America Buildings. Both buildings provide a great view of the water and are offered lots of foot traffic from Tourists and Residents alike just inches away from such attractions as Harbor Place, The Convention Center, The National Aquarium, and Camden Yards to name a few. Both of these Buildings do have a Retail component in them however how it's laid out leaves much to the imagination. To access said Retail, you have to inside the Building. 
There are no exterior entrances to the Retail. Worse yet, the very wide setback of the buildings decreases road visibility. This makes for Retail that doesn't draw in outsiders and restricts their customer base to Office Tenants. On the weekend this proves even more daunting as no other purpose draws masses into these buildings as most of the Offices are closed. As you could imagine, there are vacancies in the Retail spaces.
The PNC Building across the street however, got it right. Although this is an older building in the timeline of Pratt St.'s, the Retail spaces have their own separate entrances so nobody has to go in the Office Building. There are four Retail bays on the ground floor of this building including Sullivan's Stake House, Kona Grill, and of course a PNC Bank Branch while the 4th space is available for lease. 
The R2Integrated Building, formerly the City Paper Building, was a lot less Retail oriented until they built an addition that now houses some of Pratt St's hottest Retail attractions including Shake Shack. The owners of this owner building knew that newer is better when it comes to attracting Retailers and the success story can be transferred to building like the Bank of America Building and Pandora Building.   
Newer Buildings on Pratt St. are easier to pick out due to the fact that they don't have the very wide sidewalks in front of them and have greater road visibility. They also have modern Ground Floor Retail built into them lake Lockwood Place and the adjacent Lockwood Plaza.
Lockwood Plaza's very unique in that it features traditionally big box stores in a compact urban concept. It has however had its shares of ups and downs. It had once hosted a Fielene's Basement and a Best Buy in the second and third floors respectively, but both have since closed. Marshall's took over the second floor while the third floor remains vacant. I would love to see a tenant like Nordstrom Rack take over the third floor.
The last building we're profiling is the Constellation Energy Building. This is another newer Pratt St. Building whose entire ground floor Retail space is taken up by the hugely successful Ms. Shirley's Cafe. One reason I'd like to mention the success of Ms Shirley's is because the main tenant of its Office Building will be vacating it soon. Exelon, the parent company of Constellation Energy is currently building a brand new headquarters in Harbor Point. 
Ms. Shirley's has a large enough draw that it will remain successful until their office building is refilled. If the Bank of America Building were to lose a large tenant like that, the interior food court style Retail spaces would be doomed. That shows how crucial it is to update for outdoor access Retail spaces while increasing roadside visibility. Then and only then, can Pratt St. be completely on the right track.