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Archive for February, 2012

A Brief Update:

Constellation Energy, Baltimore’s only remaining Fortune 500 Company is going to merge with Exelon, a Chicago-based energy company. The merger will likely eliminate around 600 jobs, most of them in Baltimore. Shortly after the  merger was made pubic, Exelon announced that it would be seeking new office space, abandoning its current home at 750 East Pratt Street.

Constellation Energy's current headquarters at 750 E Pratt Street

In this same statement, Exelon also affirmed its commitment to keep what was left of its Baltimore employee base in Baltimore. Several sites and proposals were considered but ultimately the soon-to-be energy giant chose Harbor Point, a 27 acre parcel just southeast of Downtown Baltimore.

Exelon’s decision to develop Harbor Point ruffled some feathers in the business community. Those upset contend that the construction of a new building will saturate a downtown office space market where vacancy rates are already high, surpassing 16% as of October, 2011.

A map showing the location of Harbor Point in relation to the Inner Harbor and Downtown Baltimore. Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun

A Question of Perspective:

Others worried that moving hundreds of employees farther from the traditional downtown core, centered at Pratt and Light Streets, would further destabilize and decentralize the business district. The trend of development toward Baltimore’s eastern waterfront has been happening for quite some time now. Exelon’s decision should have come as no surprise. Over the past five years, Harbor East has made itself into a destination in its own right, attracting high-end shops and restaurants and a clientele to match. The question is: why are downtown business leaders more upset by the location of a new office building than they are by the jobs that will be lost as a result of the merger? Why can’t what’s good for Harbor East be good for Baltimore’s downtown too? If we just moved the imaginary line between “Downtown” and Harbor East from President Street to Caroline Street, there might be less animosity and more cooperation in the business community.

A map of Downtown Baltimore with the Downtown Partnership's coverage area outlined in green and Harbor East shown in light blue at the bottom right

Changing with the Times:

As cities grow, so must their cores, either out or up. It’s a fact of urban development. The cities, districts and buildings that grow most are able to adapt to changing market conditions and make themselves more desirable to people and businesses. An excellent example can be found right here in Baltimore. In 2009, when Legg Mason left their headquarters at 100 Light Street, the owners of the building took the opportunity to redesign the plaza surrounding the building and renovate the interior. That investment helped attract Transamerica which now leases about 140,00 square feet, or 10 floors, and has its name on the tower at 100 Light Street.

The redesigned plaza in front of 100 Light Street

Baltimore’s traditional downtown hasn’t had many buildings follow the example set by 100 Light Street. The results of this lack of investment can be seen in the eastward trend of development in the past several years. Below is a series of aerial photos which illustrates this trend.

An aerial view of Harbor East in 1994

An aerial view of Harbor East in 2002

An aerial view of Harbor East in 2009, with all of the buildings either under construction or completed.

Show me the Money:

Harbor Point is in a Maryland Enterprise Zone. State approved enterprise zones are designed to bring development to areas that otherwise would not attract it. As a result, the benefits associated with building in an enterprise zone are pretty generous: the business owner is entitled to an eighty percent tax break for the first five years with the rate diminishing by ten percent in each successive year for five more years. The result is an estimated $64.5 Million in savings for Exelon due to the state enterprise zone. Tack that onto the $155 Million in Tax Increment Financing (TIF)  the City has to spend to get Harbor Point ready for development, build open space and add roads to the site. That’s quite a bill. Indeed, the amount of money being spent to develop a parcel that should sell itself has many Baltimoreans up in arms, and rightfully so. It’s hard to believe that no one saw this coming. When development trends showed that Harbor East and Harbor Point were becoming desirable locations for development, why didn’t anyone remove these areas from the list of state approved enterprise zones? This particular lapse in oversight is a costly one.

Raise Your Hand if You’re Surprised:

Given what development trends in Baltimore have looked like over the past ten years and the amount Exelon stands to save on taxes, it really shouldn’t come as any surprise that Exelon selected Harbor Point. Even without the development trends and the tax-related savings, Harbor Point is still an amazing site. It’s surrounded on three sides by water and it sits between Fells Point and Harbor Point two of Baltimore’s most desirable locations. The site is also a whopping 27 acres, allowing Exelon’s imagination to run wild. Some criticize how Exelon selected its site, charging they sought features one would expect in a suburban location including ample parking spaces and open space. These criticisms shouldn’t hold much water as they are features every good developer wants.

The fact of the matter is, Exelon got a great deal on a great site. City and State government reacted too slowly to real estate trends to take advantage of Harbor Point as a source of tax revenue. The real question is, has our government learned from this mistake? The State and especially the City cannot afford to make such huge concessions to developers.

Something to Look Forward to:

A large part of Baltimore’s transformation has been taking industrial sites and making them into developable land for retail and office space. Until 1985, Harbor Point was the site of Allied Chemical’s chromium factory.

A view of Harbor Point when Allied Chemical still had a factory on the site.

In 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency completed a cleanup of the site which resulted in a “cap” being placed over the top of the site, preventing rain water from leaching chromium into the harbor.

What Harbor Point looks like today, as seen from the top of the Legg Mason building in Harbor East

When completed, the site is expected to include about 1 Million square feet of office space, 150,00 sq. ft. of retail, 600 residences, 250 hotel rooms and 3,000 parking spaces. Exelon’s building is expected to earn a LEED Platinum rating, the highest available award for green building. The site will also include 11 acres of open space.

An artist's rendering of the proposed development at Harbor Point, courtesy of Harbor Point Development

The site plan for Harbor Point, including the waterfront promenade and a lacrosse field

Despite the lost tax revenue, in the long run this project should be good for the City. As Harbor Point is the last developable waterfront property, investment should shift back North and West toward the City’s core, which will strengthen as a result. Short term benefits include thousands more people coming “downtown” every day to work, eat and, hopefully, live.

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An Entirely New Route:

Great News! The Charm City Circulator is expanding its service. In addition to the three existing routes, there will now be an additional route serving Locust Point. The new route, the Banner Route, will provide free access to attractions such as The Inner Harbor, Federal Hill, The American Visionary Art Museum, The Baltimore Museum of Industry and Fort McHenry.

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

The new route will celebrate the bicentennial of the successful defense of Baltimore’s Harbor from the British during the War of 1812. Apart from providing access to tourist attractions, the route will also link the downtown job market and shops along Fort Avenue to several thousand neighborhood residents. The route could, however, take greater advantage of the urban fabric: it currently follows the waterfront rather than serving the busy Fort Avenue corridor. The route also misses the opportunity to connect with the circulator’s free water taxi route connecting Fells Point and Canton.

A map showing the location of Tide Point and the water taxi connections available

Unfortunately, the Under Armour Headquarters at Tide Point, home to around 1,200 employees, will not be directly served by the circulator’s new route.

A view of Tide Point, the former factory for Tide and current headquarters of Under Armour, courtesy of the Baltimore Sun

Despite the lack of direct connectivity and apparent missed opportunities, the new route will still make many businesses walkable. As the primary purpose the Banner Route is to provide access to Fort McHenry, the route follows the quickest route to its end point. However, there is always the possibility that if the route can get more funding, it will be adjusted to include larger sections of Fort Avenue or to connect with Tide Point.

An Expanded Purple Route:

In the State of the City address, delivered on February 13th 2012, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made an exciting proposal to expand upon the existing Purple Route. She proposed extending service up to Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood Campus at 33rd Street.

The Purple Route currently connects Penn Station, Mt. Vernon, Downtown Baltimore and Federal Hill

This proposal fits in perfectly with one of Bmore Urban’s core goals for the City: make its academic institutions, particularly Colleges and Universities, more accessible to restaurants, shopping and nightlife. It would be a great way to get the students currently living in the City to take greater advantage of the City’s resources, provide a boost to local businesses and, hopefully, get people new to Baltimore out to experience all the City has to offer. Johns Hopkins already has a shuttle running between its Homewood Campus, Peabody Conservatory and East Baltimore Campuses. However, the circulator would offer additional connections south of Centre Street, where the Johns Hopskins Shuttle turns east, and expand the options available to students leaving campus for extracurricular reasons.

A map of route that the Johns Hopkins' Shuttle takes: at the point where the shuttle's route turns East, the Purple Route would continue south

Expanded service would also make the incredible art collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art more accesible to tourists and City residents alike.

The BMA boasts 90,000 works of art including the "largest holding of works by Henri Matisse in the world, as well as masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and Vincent van Gogh". The museum is also free to visitors.

Access to the fresh food available year round at the Waverly Farmers Market is also especially important due to the large number City residents without it. The Farmers Market takes place on Saturday mornings and would be only a few blocks away from the Purple Route.

Fresh food being sold at the Waverly Farmers Market

Charles Village, the neighborhood east and south of Hopkins’ Homewood Campus, is also home a to a sizable population unaffiliated with Hopkins. Providing access to this fairly densely populated corridor could help bring even more people and jobs downtown.

Looking North from the corner of St. Paul Street and 31st Street: St. Paul Street is the main commercial street in Charles Village and southbound thoroughfare connecting the area to Downtown Baltimore.

The Circulator already does a great job moving people around. As of January 2012, the three existing lines of the Circulator carried almost 10,000 people a day, removing thousands of automotive trips from local roads. With expanded service, that number will likely rise by several thousand riders a day.

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What is the Jones Falls, an expressway or a stream?

Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun, a photo of traffic on the JFX

Courtesy of Urbanite Magazine, a photo of the Jones Falls

The answer probably depends on who you ask. Sadly, the Jones Falls has been branded as an expressway. We hear it every day on TV and radio traffic reports and it doesn’t help that over 100,000 vehicles and over 35,000 transit riders use the corridor it forms to get to work every day. In reality, the Jones Falls is not a thoroughfare, it’s a stream that runs from north to south through Baltimore meeting up with the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River or Inner Harbor at its mouth. The Jones Falls Watershed comprises 58 square miles of urban and suburban Baltimore.

The pink area on the map represents the Jones Falls watershed. The yellow area represents the Direct Harbor watershed and the blue section is the Gwynns Falls watershed.

A Little History

The ravine-like valley formed by the Jones Falls used to be a hub for mill activity. Industrial uses along the Jones Falls began disappearing when waterpower became a thing of the past.

A bird's eye view of Penn Station and the Jones Falls prior to the construction of I-83 - the bridge in the foreground is the St. Paul Street bridge.

It has since become a transit right of way that carries commuters into Baltimore via the Light Rail, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and the eponymous expressway. The Jones Falls Expressway, or JFX, was completed in the early 1960’s up to Guilford Avenue. The expressway follows the path of the Jones Falls for almost about 7 miles toward its southern end.

A view of the Jones Falls corridor from the St. Paul Street bridge after the construction of the JFX

The Human and Environmental Costs

The Jones Falls Trail, like the JFX, follows the stream and provides important recreational access for Baltimoreans living in the northern half of the city.

A map of the Jones Falls Trail with the portion yet to be built in purple

However, starting just south of Penn Station, there is almost no public access to and no visibility of the stream itself. This is perhaps one of the largest issues that results from having a highway that follows and, in some cases, covers the stream. A visit to a park or other area where one can connect with the environment and see the importance of the stream ought to be more of a possibility. Unfortunately, the Jones Falls ends unceremoniously as a spillway, essentially eliminating public access to the stream as it becomes a concrete trough, designed to carry water efficiently to its outlet at the Inner Harbor. Despite comprising a relatively small portion of its total watershed, these final miles are perhaps the most important.

Over the course of these two miles:

1.)  The Jones Falls runs either underneath highways and roads or out of sight and out of mind. Exposing the Jones Falls to the public in Downtown Baltimore could go a long way toward creating a greater respect for Baltimore’s waterways.

2.)  The population density increases fairly dramatically meaning a greater number of people have less access to the stream and may not be aware of the impact that littering and other forms of pollution have on the Inner Harbor, the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay.

3.)  The amount of pervious land such as parks, lawns and fields (anything not covered in concrete or asphalt) decreases which amplifies the effect that pollutants have as they cannot be absorbed by or filtered through the soil and go directly into Baltimore’s Waterways.

There are obviously more factors contributing to the overall pollution of the Inner Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay but a campaign to reconnect the Jones Falls to the downtown neighborhoods through which it runs could help turn this forgotten waterway into a cleaner one.

What’s Next?

The Jones Falls Expressway needs to be reinforced, rethought or torn down in the next ten years. The Infrastructurist, an infrastructure and urban design blog, ranked it as one of the most important highways to tear down. If the highway is to be removed, a new urban boulevard could solve a lot of problems that the elevated portion of the JFX has created.

What an urban boulevard might look like

There is a tremendous opportunity to reincorporate the Jones Falls itself into Baltimore’s urban fabric, connect formerly divided neighborhoods and add options for parkland and transit. An excellent design option that is truly ambitious and goes far above and beyond many other proposals can be found here.

A rendering of the proposed Jones Falls Boulevard including a riverfront promenade, tram line, bike lane and infill buildings

The entire proposal can be found on Envision Baltimore’s Blog. The proposal, by Marc Szarkowski, would promote access to the Jones Falls, provide for a bike-able corridor and a transit friendly one, presenting alternatives to automotive use. Though definitely far from a reality, this proposal would make central Baltimore into a much more beautiful urban environment.

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There are so many transit projects worthy of funding; not just in Baltimore, but around the country, municipalities are struggling to balance their budgets while some of the more basic needs such as access to reliable public transportation remain unmet. Below is a wish list of the top 5 transit and infrastructure projects Baltimore should work towards. This is not a comprehensive list, just a few suggestions.

1.)  A simple connection between the southbound Light Rail and Penn Station. It makes no sense that Penn Station wasn’t included on the original Light Rail line and why, when they added a Penn Station connection, they only added it for trains heading south out of the station. It’s past time this situation was rectified and travelers could connect directly to Penn Station from the North.

An image showing the one way connection between the Light Rail and Penn Station

2.)  The Red Line. While I don’t fully agree with the route, an east-west transit connection is sorely needed. In addition, there are some great opportunities to connect MARC commuter rail to the Red Line at two points along its path: West Baltimore and Hopkins’ Bayview Campus. The West Baltimore MARC station is an existing station and, under the current proposal, would be part of a larger redevelopment effort aimed at making the area transit accessible.

Courtesy of the Baltimore Department of Planning, this is a map of the area surrounding the West Baltimore MARC station. A connection between the Red Line and MARC would be part of a larger revitalization effort.

The Bayview stop would be a new stop and should help provide a transit anchor in that area. The area is currently without too much in the way of public transit despite the fact that the MARC Penn Line runs very close to Bayview.

An aerial view of Hopkins' Bayview Campus shows the MARC Penn Line running through the northernmost section of the screen without a station stop.

3.)  A new downtown transit hub: several sites could be used but the one that makes the most sense is the current location of the 1st Mariner Arena. As is noted in an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun, the 1st Mariner site would sit at the intersection of the existing light rail line and the proposed Red Line. The site could play host to retail, apartments and offices. It could also serve regional bus operators such as Greyhound and potentially a MARC station if CSX should ever expand or sell its right of way to the Howard Street Tunnel. This project presents tremendous opportunity for an area that needs a little push through this recession. It should also be noted that the Lexington Market Metro and Charles Center Metro stops are only a few blocks away and an underground connection could be built to allow for transfer between all three transit lines. It should go without saying that this building should include a “fare only” area to allow for smooth transfers between MTA lines and prevent fare evasion. A connection between all transit lines would be a real boon to Baltimore.

A very rough sketch of the intersecting lines around 1st Mariner Arena

4.)  A pedestrian bridge connecting Rash Field and Federal Hill with Harbor East was proposed as part of the redevelopment of Rash Field, which has been planned for quite some time. The bridge would not only cut off a significant distance for pedestrians and cyclists trying to cross between sides of the harbor but could also be an iconic addition to the City’s skyline.

A rendering provided by the Greater Baltimore Committee of the proposal to add a pedestrian bridge connecting Federal Hill to Harbor East as part of the redevelopment of Rash Field

If Baltimore were a bit more ambitious and had a bit more vision, added width and carrying capacity could be included in the bridge design so that it would actually be able to hold MTA buses (and ONLY MTA buses) and potentially even a light rail (see item 5). Providing such a shortcut to mass transit users would allow the MTA to actually compete with and ideally beat out automotive use for short trips around Downtown Baltimore. There is one complication with such a bridge: it must be high enough to allow tall ships to pass through for infrequent albeit important visits to the Inner Harbor. As a  potential solution to this problem: the Greater Baltimore Committee has proposed a bridge that would swing open like a gate- if the bridge were to be used for buses or rail transit as well, this option would likely be infeasible making a traditional drawbridge the more likely option.

5.) A new transit line. There are a few options here, none of them even close to being a reality. After all, this is a wish list. A new transit line should essentially parallel the current Light Rail line, connecting Penn Station with City Hall. Connections with the Shot Tower Metro and, eventually, the Red Line at Harbor East are also options. Connections to existing the Metro and proposed Red Line were the key criteria for determining this route. After all, connections are what make a transit system effective. Cost and ease of construction were also taken into account.

The purple, light blue and yellow lines represent several potential options for new transit corridors serving Downtown Baltimore. The red and dark blue lines show the red and light rail lines, respectively.

The purple, yellow and light blue lines each offer different advantages and disadvantages. The purple option is perhaps the most reasonable so its path is the dominant one, meaning the other lines should be assumed to continue upon its route except where they diverge. Each route would use the the right of way created by the southernmost, elevated portion of Interstate 83 (trains would travel under the highway which is currently used as municipal parking). The lines diverge toward the end of 83 where the median of President Street, the Red Line tunnel through downtown, the median of Light Street and Holliday Street represent different possible alignments. The yellow route would take advantage if item number 4 (see above), a pedestrian and transit bridge, is built. These routes are far from a reality but could be a part of the larger regional plan. In fact, the Baltimore Rail Plan calls for the construction of a similar line connecting Towson, Towson University, Hopkins Undergraduate Campus and Penn Station to Charles Center and the Inner Harbor and converging with the existing light rail at Camden Yards. It may seem a bit far off but the downtown, elevated portion of I83 is to be redesigned, reinforced or destroyed in 2020. Whatever happens to that section of highway, a transit line should be included.

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