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Those familiar with Baltimore know it’s a vibrant city; there’s always more going on than meets the eye. Dive bars, little-known hotspots and a very clustered, main-street, neighborhood feel can make sections of Baltimore seem emptier than they really are. A recent series of murals looks to change that perception by bringing some of the color that every Baltimorean is familiar with to the surface. The Open Walls Project, a collaboration of artists from around the world, is aimed at using murals as a means to enliven and revitalize communities. Below is a map showing the relatively large section of central Baltimore that the Open Walls Project has chosen to cover including the neighborhoods of Station North and Greenmount West.

A map showing the locations of all of the murals

Station North, the area just north of Penn Station, from which is draws its name, and Greenmount West are two neighborhoods that are physically very close to one another with Greenmount West lying just to the east of Station North. Despite their proximity, they find themselves at slightly different points in the revitalization process. Though both have seen a turnaround recently, Station North, due to its central location and proximity to Penn Station, has seen more investment than its eastern neighbor. But art, it would seem, is undeterred by the vacant homes and lack of investment east of Guilford Avenue. In fact, many of the murals are in Greenmount West. Some are even on the sides of homes that stand in the middle of what used to be a proud block. Due to disinvestment and blight, some properties have been demolished leaving windowless walls facing vacant lots and street corners. This problem plagues many of Baltimores neighborhoods but, hopefully, the addition of art to the Greenmount West’s corners can help fill the void left by vacant houses and empty storefronts.

Below are some of the murals:

A mural on the wall of the City Arts apartment building at the corner of Greenmount Ave and Oliver St. – City Arts has been nationally recognized for providing affordable housing to artists and other Baltimore residents.

A mural at the corner of Latrobe and Lanvale Streets

At the corner of McCallister and Barclay

On Maryland Avenue just North of North Avenue

Facing Charles Street just north of North Ave.

A portrait of a neighborhood resident

Across the street from the historic Charles Theatre

More murals can be seen in an article in the Huffington Post on the Open Walls Baltimore project.

Good news for anyone who lives or works in South Baltimore: this coming Monday, June 4th, there will be two changes that will expand circulator service:

1.) The existing Purple Route will be extended about one quarter mile farther south to Fort Avenue. This long overdue connection will serve many of the smaller, local businesses that operate on and around Fort Avenue.

2.) The Banner Route begins service and, despite the contested path the Banner Route will take, there will only be about half a mile between the two routes that serve Fort avenue. Basically, no business on Fort Avenue will be more than one quarter of a mile from a Charm City Circulator Stop.

With the addition of the Banner Route and the extension of the purple route, the Circulator will actually begin to resemble its own small transit network.

The new Banner Route and the addition to the existing Purple Route figure to attract even more riders to Baltimore’s fledgling transit system. Even without any changes, ridership climbed again between March and April. In fact, as of April 18th, the Circulator celebrated its five millionth rider. The system notched its four millionth rider in mid-January. So, over the past three months, the Circulator has transported 1 million riders. Not too bad for a system paid for by a parking tax and some grant money.

I would like to apologize for my absence over the last few weeks- I’ve found myself struggling to come up with new and interesting ideas that I can also get excited about. There are plenty of interesting things happening in Baltimore all the time, if you think of something you’d like to know more about, please just leave a comment below and let me know.

The Charm City Circulator‘s ridership numbers have been increasing steadily for over a year. This should come as no surprise to those who live or work near its routes. What may come as a surprise is that Baltimore City is actually responsible for a successful transit program. As of March 2012, the Circulator transported about 350,000 per month. This may not seem like a huge number of riders but consider that in March of 2011, the Circulator transported only 188,000 riders per month. Transit use is increasing rapidly across the U.S., but very few municipalities can boast an 83% ridership increase over the course of one year*.

Total Monthly Ridership on the Charm City Circulator

There are many causes of this downtown Baltimore transit renaissance. First, the bus service is free, eliminating almost every disincentive to ride. Second, the service is local, not regional, making it highly functional for people making short trips within the Circulators target area. Third, two of the three routes serve the 401, the City’s central business district, currently the fastest growing in terms of residential population. Perhaps most importantly, the Circulator serves people going to and from jobs, stores, businesses, homes and apartments, not parking lots in the suburbs. Every Circulator stop serves a neighborhood, not a park and ride. And, the Circulator is expanding, serving even more neighborhoods and job centers, including Fells Point and Hopkins Hospital. As a result, one can expect ridership to increase even more. In fact, since the Green Route, the newest Circulator route, first began operating in November of 2011, overall circulator ridership has been increasing even more rapidly.

A map showing all three Charm City Circulator Routes

The Circulator is also a small operation. The Circulator is able to run efficiently because its routes are short and the Baltimore City Department of Transportation isn’t trying to do too much. Fewer routes in this case means higher performing routes and, in this case, consistent growth in ridership numbers. It also means that the Baltimore City Department of Transportation can spend time finding funding sources to add new routes to the Circulator. The Banner Route, for example, was made possible, in part, by a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Meanwhile, even if the MTA were able to get such a grant from the Federal Government, $1.6 million would probably not be enough money to fund a new route.

Courtesy of Baltimore City, a map showing the new Banner Route in blue.

The Circulator isn’t just one new bus route though: it has grown from one route carrying about 1,200 passengers a day into a three-route system carrying over 11,000 in under two and a half years. With the opening of the Banner route this June, expect ridership to continue to grow rapidly as residents, commuters and tourists gain access to Locust Point and Fort McHenry.

Even though the Circulator doesn’t cover nearly the area that the MTA does, its ability to make the most of very little is impressive and begs the question: isn’t it time Baltimore had its own centralized transit authority? Baltimore is currently the largest city in the U.S to have a state-run transit agency. The effects of the bureaucracy and thinly spread resources can be seen in the piece-meal way that Baltimore’s transit system was built, in the lack of comprehensive planning and in the lack of regional cohesion around a transit-oriented vision.

A map of the MARC Train system: The State of Maryland currently operates MARC Service in 12 counties within Maryland and 2 separate jurisdictions including the District of Columbia and West Virginia. MARC, similar to NJ Transit, is a perfect example of the sort of regional transportation resource a state should provide. The Light Rail, however, which operates much more locally within Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties and Baltimore City serves a different purpose entirely, one more consistent with the goals of a regional transit authority.

*If anyone is interested in taking a look at the data set or the data sources, as always, feel free to comment below and I’ll put it up.

Red Fields to Green Fields

When the real estate bubble burst, it left millions of homes and businesses underwater. Baltimore is no stranger to this phenomenon: over 20,000 homes have been foreclosed upon in the last five years.

A map showing all of the foreclosures that occurred in Baltimore in 2011 - this map only displays 10% of the properties foreclosed upon in the last 5 years

With communities across the country still feeling the effects of the foreclosures and lost jobs, a new study is showing how we can make the best of a bad situation. The Red Fields to Green Fields research effort is attempting to document the effects of taking “red fields”, properties with zero or negative property value, and turning them into “green fields”, public or quasi-public green spaces.

So far the study has taken a look at six cities: Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Miami, Denver and Wilmington, DE. Each city has its own unique issues but each sees red field to green field conversion as an opportunity and each has something in common with Baltimore.

Atlanta has one of the lowest parkland acreage to population ratios of any large city in the U.S. and hopes to change that by converting 2,850 acres of vacant land inside I-285 into parks. Meanwhile, in suburban Atlanta, 13,000 acres of available land will be removed from the market to create green space, strengthening the real estate market and communities.

A map showing all of the vacant lots within Atlanta's I-285

Cleveland is focusing some of its efforts on improving water quality. Cleveland’s red field plans involve taking some formerly occupied land and using it to implement neighborhood-scale solutions such as a small wetland or park. Proposals also recommend increasing the amount of vegetation along stream corridors draining into Lake Erie.

Using vacant space, Cleveland plans to create small wetland parks that aim to increase the area's ability to absorb and filter stormwater

Denver and Miami are putting a lot of effort and money into creating parks near proposed and existing rail stations. It seems that governments have realized that, in order for Transit Oriented Development (TOD) to be successful, new development must have access to parkland as well as transit.

A map of park expansion and how it would reinforce Transit Oriented Development in Denver

Miami, on the other hand, sees Transit Oriented Parks as potential centers for new neighborhoods and as a way to increase transit ridership by making the area around the station more livable.

A before and after rendering of a Transit Oriented Park in Miami

Philadelphia is taking a look at the inequity in available green space. Some neighborhoods have access to wonderful  parks while others are entirely without access. Many of the areas without access to parks are also areas with an excess of vacant land.

A map of Philadelphia showing access to parkland

Wilmington has perhaps the most interesting and relevant proposals. The city is faced with neighborhoods facing shortages of green space and large scale abandonment and vacancy problems. Each of these issues contributes to a cycle of disinvestment and a continued decrease in property values (sound familiar, Baltimoreans?). Wilmington intends to remove blighted and vacant properties from the real estate market and, more importantly, the neighborhood. By converting these properties into “pocket parks”, the neighborhoods would, ideally, begin to stabilize themselves.

A formerly abandoned row house in Wilmington has been converted to a small green space

Perhaps what’s most intriguing about Wilmington’s plan is its small scale and neighborhood-level impact. Wilmington’s approach is only estimated to cost about $22 million; the other proposals, however, are estimated to cost over $1 billion and some will cost much more than that. Baltimore is not a city rolling in cash and, therefore, the small solutions may work best here. That said, there’s something Baltimore can learn from each of the proposals above.

1.) From Atlanta – a row house does not need to remain a row house. Analysis of the supply and demand in a neighborhood would likely show the need for more demolition and open space conversion.

2.) From Cleveland – converting small parcels into natural areas can make a difference in water quality. Baltimore’s Inner Harbor suffers from terrible water quality while the City has an overabundance of vacant properties, there’s a solution in the making here.

3.) From Denver – transit isn’t everything to TOD. Developments planned around Baltimore’s proposed Red Line must have access to parks as well as transit.

4.) From Miami – surrounding transit centers with parkland can be a great way of reinforcing a neighborhood’s center and increasing transit ridership. Creating nodes where transit and parkland intersect could create vibrant neighborhoods.

5.) From Philadelphia – equal access to green space is more important than having more or larger parks. Greenways and small open spaces are great ways to ensure that everyone has access to a park.

6.) From Wilmington – low cost, neighborhood level solutions can be an effective revitalization technique. Sometimes the large-scale solutions intimidate Baltimore. Well, sometimes a small park in the right place can change a whole block. Put it on a corner, and it could change two blocks. Baltimore should make the most of its vacant properties and use them as instruments for neighborhood revitalization.

A recent post on The Atlantic Cities website tallies up the economic benefits of urban trees. Each tree in Tennessee’s cities was found to have $2.25 in “measurable economic benefit” each year. The City of Baltimore holds between 2.6 and 2.8 million trees, depending on the source you consult. If the economic benefits hold consistent between Tennessee and Maryland, Baltimore saves between $5.85 and $6.3 million each year. The City of Baltimore’s Department of Recreation and Parks measures the benefits of its trees differently, calculating the following economic benefits:

  • $3.3 million a year in energy savings by shading buildings from the summer sun and blocking winter winds.
  • $10.7 million a year by storing 527 tons of carbon
  • $3.8 million a year by removing 700 metric tons of air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide
  • $1.6 million a year by removing 244 metric tons of ozone, the main ingredient in smog and a leading factor contributing to asthma

According to the Baltimore Tree Trust, Baltimore’s tree canopy has declined by one third and only covers about 25% of Baltimore’s land area. The goal of the Tree Trust is to increase the City’s tree canopy to 40% of its surface area by 2040. This seems like a pretty modest goal, but in order to achieve this goal, Baltimore City and its residents must plant a total of 750,000 trees over the next 28 years or about 26,000 trees per year. Baltimore City cannot do this by itself (the City doesn’t even plant 10,000 trees per year) but that’s only about 1.2 trees per person. So, as with so many other lofty goals, the key to reforesting Baltimore is public involvement.

A map of Baltimore’s tree canopy

In order to encourage people to plant trees in their neighborhood or on their property, it might be helpful to share some facts. For example, all property owners should know that both heating and cooling costs are reduced by 10% due to the tempered winds and shade provided by trees. Businesses might like to know that shoppers prefer shopping on tree-lined streets. In fact, shoppers tend to spend more time on shadier streets and are willing to pay %11 more for goods and services sold on such streets. Home values also tend to rise in areas with lots of trees. Finally, every taxpayer in Baltimore should know that neighborhoods with more street trees often have lower rates of violent and property crime.

Every city could benefit from more trees but Baltimore, in particular, has some issues that trees could help to address. With summer fast approaching, most Baltimoreans are not looking forward to the prospect of being outside in June, July, August and even September. A small amount of shade can make a huge difference in terms of reducing the Urban Heat Island Effect.

In order to combat this effect and increase its own canopy, Baltimore County, which suffers less from this effect than does Baltimore City, sells trees native to Maryland at a reduced rate. A similar program in Baltimore City could have a significant impact. Of course the residents are the ones who will make the biggest difference. Unfortunately, many Baltimoreans don’t have access to a car and can’t get to a nursery let alone bring a tree home. In order to reach its goal of a 40% land-cover tree canopy, strong partnerships must be forged between neighborhood associations, residents, the City and non-profits like Baltimore Green Works and The Baltimore Tree Trust. There is also no shortage of innovative programs across the country that aim to reduce the Heat Island Effect, any number of these programs could work well in Baltimore and help to address the other factors that contribute to the Heat Island Effect.

Below is the full text of an article I wrote to the Baltimore Sun about Oriole Park at Camden Yards. For some context, I recommend taking a look at the original article that this post counters.

Blaming Camden Yards for unfulfilled promises of economic development is roughly equivalent to blaming a building when the architect is at fault. The Orioles didn’t make promises to turn the City around; they simply agreed to play 81 games a year in Baltimore. In that sense, Camden Yards has done everything it was supposed to do and more. For those who take issue with promises made 20 years ago and not kept, perhaps writing a letter to Mr. Schmoke would be a more appropriate outlet for your frustrations.

As for the comparison between Baltimore and Boston, why not just compare a banana and an apple? Yes, they are cities of comparable size, but the structural and institutional differences are what really spoil the comparison. The Boston area, unlike Baltimore, has several built in job creators. For one, it’s a state capital and might as well be the capital of New England. It’s also home to several of the U.S.’ most prestigious and well-funded universities which are economic development engines in their own right. If the Baltimore area were home to 3 or 4 Hopkins Universities and had 4 subway lines bringing workers downtown, perhaps it would be a more apt comparison. As it stands, however, Baltimore probably has more in common with Pittsburgh or Cleveland than it does with Boston. It’s pretty safe to assume that no city or state wants to publicly finance a Major League Baseball stadium but cities that have been losing population often see having a professional sports team as a sure-fire way to keep people coming downtown. And, for the most part, it works.

Take Camden Yards as an example. Since 1992, its inaugural year, the stadium has brought over 55 million people into downtown Baltimore. By the numbers, if you assume that each of those fans spent just $25 while in Baltimore, which is probably a huge underestimate, the state has earned almost $84 million in sales tax revenue and that figure does not include additional parking and alcohol taxes. The stadium only cost $110 million to build, about $2 for each visitor.

As any Orioles fan can tell you, many in attendance at Camden Yards come from out of state. Despite being annoying at the game, those tourists bring money into Maryland. When you consider the hotels out-of-towners stay at, the gas they buy, the flights they take to get here and the parking they pay for, I would imagine that the taxpayers just about break even or they will pretty soon. And it’s only been 20 years.

Eutaw Street - the main concourse at Camden Yards

The great thing about a classic stadium like Camden Yards is that it rarely needs renovation. The Baltimore Convention Center, however, completed its last renovation in 1997, more recently than Camden Yards was built, and it’s already considered uncompetitive. Compare the two facilities and you’ll see that, in 2010, only 389,000 people attended conventions at the Baltimore Convention Center. That same year, Camden Yards drew a total crowd of 1.7 million. Meanwhile, the Convention Center’s total cost was about $202 million and that doesn’t include the incredibly attractive Hilton across the street that taxpayer money paid for. If you tack on the $300 million in bonds for the hotel, you have a facility that draws 1.3 million fewer visitors to Baltimore each year and cost 5 times as much to build.

The Hilton Convention Center Hotel

With all this talk of economic value and money, it’s easy to lose sight of the intangible benefits a ballpark like Camden Yards gives to a city like Baltimore. Camden Yards has been a source of civic pride for 20 years now and will continue to be for years to come. So consider it a long-term investment in Baltimore because great stadiums don’t need to be replaced: Wrigley Field and Fenway Park have been in operation since 1916 and 1912, respectively. Both stadiums are great places to watch the game and destinations for fans across the country. Camden Yards, though it’s only 20 years old, is already a classic. There are a lot of things that could be better in Baltimore but it’s hard to imagine a better ballpark.

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