Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Building Asia Town

There is one part of the old Charles North Master Plan that has intrigued me but I've never had an angle on which to write about it. In fact, I still don't know whether or not I have one but I'm going for it anyway. That part is the proposed "Asia Town" I can see why planners want to do it, but I don't know how they can do it. How do you force only certain types of Businesses to build there? Better yet, how do you force only people of Asian decent to live there? The answer to both those questions is, you can't. But I'm going to explore building Asia Town Anyway.
Baltimore has many ethnic enclaves within its borders so with a burgeoning Asian (mostly of Chinese and Korean ancestry) population, it makes sense that a planner would want to centralize it with Residences and Businesses from that population. So why Charles North? More specifically, why the four blocks surrounding Charles St. and 20th St.? The answer is, that's in close proximity to much of the City's current and expanding Asian population. The biggest concentrations are in Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon and Charles Village housing Students and Faculty of nearby Johns Hopkins University and MICA.
The blocks surrounding Charles St. and 20th St. have lots of vacant land and many of the existing buildings are vacant as well. There appears to be land banking going on here and the status of it is unknown. Could this be for Asia Town? Could it be smaller projects on a building by building lot by lot scale? Do the Land Bankers have a plan at all? Is it the same company owning this land? These are questions nobody seems to know the answer to. In fact, that very question is being asked on a billboard located not far from the Asia Town Site.
As far as what to do with the blocks of Asia Town Site, I prefer actually building it as Asia Town. Why? Because it has the potential to be unique to the City. As I look at new and proposed development around the City, I see that much of it is the same high rise glass Apartments and four story garage town homes. When building Asia Town, developers and architects alike can be encouraged to think outside and use influences in both modern and ancient Asian architecture.
As I had asked earlier in the post, how do force people of Asian decent to move to and open businesses in this area. As I had said earlier, you simply can't. But there is a way to authenticate the development by selecting local development, architectural, and real estate firms owned by people of Asian Decent. That may help bring additional Asian run businesses and services to the area as well as Residents. Although Asia Town can never be a "sure thing" on paper, without Building Asia Town, there's no point in trying.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Upper Howard St. The Next Development Magnet

First off, I want to make clear the exact area I'm referring to when I say "Upper Howard St." I'm referring to the blocks between North Avenue and 26th St. The upper blocks of the area won't be discussed since that's the old Anderson Automotive Site which had been slated to be an Upper Big Box Center known as 25th St. Station complete with a Wal-Mart. Since that project is dead and the future of the sight is in limbo and its use is unknown, I won't discuss it in this post.
The area surrounding Upper Howard St. is in the midst of a development boom. It's located in between Mount Vernon, Reservoir Hill, Bolton Hill, MICA, Remington, Station North, Charles North, and Charles Village. Also nearby are John's Hopkins University, Hampden, and Woodberry. This area is among the most up & coming in only behind Downtown, the Inner Harbor, and the Southeast. Given the proximity Upper Howard St. has to all these areas, you'd think it would have the hottest pieces of Real Estate in the City right?
Wrong! It appears that this area is still in the olden times where cities tried to emulate the suburbs by widening roads and building nothing but auto oriented businesses. It makes sense as Howard St. was a major thoroughfare through Downtown into northern neighborhoods and into the suburbs. It also provides easy access to and from the JFX especially northbound considering the de-centralization of Downtown to the south in the latter half of the 20th Century.   
So today Upper Howard St. is a hodgepodge of auto-oriented uses and a suburban style shopping center. The road itself is a rather wide boulevard thoroughfare which encourages high speeds that can cause lots of accidents. In the area surrounding Upper Howard St., especially west of it, there are shuttered industrial remains and even further to the west are some tidy row homes that were most likely meant for the workers of these industries.
It seems that these few blocks of Howard St. have been surpassed by developers and need a master plan to jump start redevelopment efforts. I would like this area to be more Neighborhood oriented rather than a mere thoroughfare as it appears to be now. First, I would lower the speed limit, add bike lanes, new mast arm traffic signals, repave and re-stripe the road, and re-cement the sidewalks. Then, I would rezone the area from Commercial/Industrial to a more attractive Residential with Neighborhood Retail type of zoning. I would move the current auto oriented businesses on Howard St. and move them to E. 25th St.
Once the old businesses have been cleared away, I would redevelop Howard St. with town homes featuring basement Retail. Behind Howard St. along 23rd and 24th St. I would build three Apartment Buildings similar to the new Stadium Square Development under construction in South Baltimore. This development, although similar in appearance to Stadium Square would be primarily Residential. The existing industrial buildings sprinkled throughout this area would be rehabbed as lofts. I would also redevelop the decidedly suburban Midtown Market Place and the surface lot behind it with a mixed use development similar to Locust Point's McHenry Row.
Although Upper Howard St. is located in the middle of a development boom in between Bolton Hill, Reservoir Hill, MICA, UMB, Johns Hopkins University, Remington, Charles Village, Station North, and Charles North, it hasn't seen the level of investment that its Neighbors has. By re-zoning it to a use more conducive to its surroundings, I believe Upper Howard St. will be the next development magnet. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Amazon Headquarters: Come On In!

Some of today's biggest news around major cities and municipalities along the east coast has been Amazon's search for a site for its new east coast headquarters. It seems that everybody wants to be where Amazon chooses. And why not? The City Amazon chooses will gain tens of thousands of jobs, residents, and an expanded tax base. This will be especially beneficial to "rust belt" cities that have suffered population losses, have high unemployment rates, and struggle to maintain a tax base. This criteria fits Baltimore to a tee. So lets say Amazon decides that Baltimore is the home for its new headquarters, where the City find 8 million square feet of office space required?
Despite Baltimore making headlines for its stubbornly high murder rate and civil unrest, the City is in the midst of a building boom. Old vacant buildings are being returned to productive use and the once industrial waterfront continues to be redeveloped as high end mixed use. As I had mentioned before, Amazon will be requiring approximately 8 million square feet of office space for its new headquarters. This will equal a large chunk of Downtown. Given the aged infrastructure Downtown which is a whole other can of worms all together, I wouldn't use Downtown for Amazon. I would bet that they would want to build their headquarters from the ground up.
Fortunately for all parties involved, there are some vacant sites that if put together and rezoned slightly, could be amassed together for Amazon. These sites are Port Covington and Westport. Port Covington has been named the next frontier for redevelopment in Baltimore with Under Armour using it to expand from its Locust Point headquarters which are bursting at the seams. Under Armour owner Kevin Plank and its real estate arm Sagamor Development have envisioned Port Covington as a mixed use haven with millions of square feet of office, retail, residences, hotel rooms, and green space.
I would argue that with the all of the new residential development going on Downtown and around the Inner Harbor, I would think building even more residences at Port Covington might be a bit of overkill. In addition, a lot of existing Downtown office space has been converted to Apartments. Although I do like this idea, I believe that Downtown should continue to be the Central Business District and should continue to attract office space as well as residences. This is why I propose dedicating all of the proposed office space in Port Covington not aligned with Under Armour, be dedicated to Amazon. In addition, I propose using the proposed residential space in Port Covington also be dedicated to Amazon. With Amazon taking up so much space in Port Covington, the demand for residential and office space in other parts of the City will go up. The proposed Hotel Rooms will remain in place since Amazon will generate lots of Business Travel.
As large as Port Covington is, it simply won't be large enough to contain the Amazon headquarters on its own. That is why I'm proposing nearby Westport as the second part of the Amazon headquarters site. Westport had been a promising redevelopment site in the mid 2000s as developer Patrick Turner dubbed the site "Inner Harbor West" but as the economy crashed, so too did the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) that the City had promised to get the development going. Also since development had slowed to a grinding halt nation wide, Patrick Turner had to sit on his Westport land. He couldn't afford to do that and the entire Westport site went into foreclosure.
As a result, the Westport site has remained vacant and has had little to no interest from developers. Kevin Plank has expressed some interest in passing once Port Covington is complete. Of course given the phased roll out of Port Covington that could take decades. So that leaves Westport as a blank canvas. One thing Patrick Turner had managed to do was get the zoning in Westport changed from industrial to mixed use. Patrick Turner's plan for Westport was not unlike Kevin Plank's plan for Port Covington in that it would be waterfront mixed use. Obviously with Amazon needing as much land as it can get, I would give them as much of the Westport site as they desire. I would also leave lots of space available for Hotels since as I had said before, there will be lots of Business Travelers going to and from the Amazon Headquarters.
Now, the fact that Baltimore has the available land for the Amazon Headquarters, that doesn't mean that they will just move on in. One way they will weigh their options is by how much Cities and States can do for them. This would mean (TIF) for infrastructure, other tax breaks, housing for employees, traffic improvements to make the influx of employees and residents easier. One thing that had interested Amazon in Baltimore was a proposed high speed rail line to DC that Under Armour was planning.
If I were Amazon, I would ask the State to provide funds for planning that line and demand they invest billions more over 20 years into building local rail transit lines including reviving the Red Line, expanding the Subway, localizing MARC Stops, building the Yellow Line, and a Light Rail Spur to Port Covington. Under Armour has wanted the additional Port Covington Light Rail Stop(s) but with pressure for Amazon, it justify more funding and quicker. Since Amazon is a 21st Century company, it would be more impressed with building rail lines instead of building more roads.
Amazon has sparked much discussion with its proposed east coast headquarters and every city and state wants in. The fact that they're considering Baltimore is a great honor and although it might be a tough sell and many improvements to the City will be needed, I will still like to invite Amazon to Come On In!