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Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

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.

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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.

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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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Camden Yards Was Worth It

A view from the upper deck on the third base side at Camden Yards

My response to an article that appeared recently in the Baltimore Sun that called into question whether Camden Yards was was a good investment for Maryland. The response that appears in the Sun is a shortened version. The full text can be found here.

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We live in a competitive country, states compete with their neighbors for business and cities compete with their suburbs for residents. The stakes are particularly high for cities, like Baltimore, that are trying to regain some of their lost population. The latest proposal by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seeks to make Baltimore City , a jurisdiction that is far from a true competitor, more competitive in the region; Baltimore’s property tax rate is currently more than twice that of the counties surrounding it. The cut, which would be implemented in stages over the course of several years, could provide a tax break from a rate of 2.2% to 2.0% by 2020. This cut would save a homeowner whose house is appraised at $200,000, $400: not small change. Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s proposal is modest compared to the proposals of some, which would slash the property tax by even more. The fact is, the City cannot afford to foot the bill for extreme tax cuts but, according to some, including the City’s largest developer, they are necessary to keep the City competitive.

The hope is that a lower property tax rate will encourage people to move into the City, bolstering the Mayor’s efforts to add 10,000 new families to the City. But do the ends justify the means? The loss in revenue due to the tax cut would have to be made up using funds drawn from the operation of a new slots parlor in Baltimore. Though Baltimore desperately needs new sources of revenue, this may not be the right source. Gambling has many opponents: family groups, religious groups and those of the opinion that gambling contributes to an increase in crime.

A rendering of the proposed casino which would be built on Russell Street near M&T Bank Stadium

The Mayor’s proposal does, however, include some wonderful provisions which will exempt vacant properties from any tax reductions and give preference to owner-occupied properties over rental properties. This is the right move; vacant properties cost the City money, stress its neighborhoods and inflate its crime rate.

Vacant Houses on North Avenue

Each of Baltimore’s 16,000 vacant buildings is estimated to cost the City $1500 a year making the total spent on vacant buildings about $24 million a year – and that figure does not include vacant buildings’ effects on quality of life. As a disincentive, the Mayor’s proposal has the owners of vacant properties continuing to pay the same tax rate in addition to the costs of vacant property ownership which can include fees of up to $900 per year. Ideally, the fees, taxes and lower property tax rate for homeowners will result in fewer vacant buildings and more residents in Baltimore City.

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There has been a common theme in the news recently: invest now, save later. There are two huge issues before Maryland’s legislature. One involves raising the gas tax; the other involves raising billions of dollars for school improvements and construction in Baltimore City. The common thread is the need now and the payoff later.

The Gas Tax:

There is a lot of opposition to the gas tax but there is also a demonstrated need for it: just last year, Maryland passed New York as the state with the highest average commute time– almost 32 minutes. The gas tax would pay for much needed improvements to roads, bridges and mass transit. These projects would help to lower commute time and repair the State’s ailing infrastructure in other areas. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reported that Maryland’s water systems (both drinking and wastewater) need $9.4 Billion in investment over the next 20 years. Water quality improvements are not just for the benefit of the Chesapeake Bay, they will ensure Marylanders’ access to safe drinking water.

The ASCE also reported that in Maryland:

  • 29% of bridges are structurally deficient
  • 44% of Major Roads are in mediocre or poor condition and
  • 55% of Major Urban Highways are congested

Traffic on I-83 - lane closures caused by high water - a sign of things to come without investment in stormwater management and transportation infrastructure

Rebuilding Maryland’s infrastructure should be a high priority even for those who will pay more at the pump. Those same Marylanders who are opposed to a gas tax hike are likely the ones will suffer most from increased commute times as a result of inaction. The Baltimore Sun recently exposed the dangers of  allowing the State’s infrastructure to fall apart and the threat of such degradation on an already fragile economy.

Education:

A bill before the Maryland General Assembly would help Baltimore City reach its goal of raising $2.8 billion to put toward improving the City’s schools, many of which lack basics such as heating and cooling systems. Many in Maryland are not in favor of the bill including the Executive Director of the Public School Construction Program, David Lever. Mr. Lever’s criticism is that, if passed, this bill would grant the City a larger amount of money than other jurisdictions which he insists is not “fair”. However, a quick look at the map below will show that Baltimore’s request isn’t about fairness, it’s about need.

A map showing the conditions of various Baltimore City Schools

The allocation of money to Baltimore City over other jurisdictions may not be “fair” from a statewide perspective but it is smart: if the State does not act now, the $2.8 billion will likely grow to 3, 4 or even 5 billion dollars.In other words, the State’s unwillingness to act now will cost taxpayers later. In fact, a recent op-ed in the Baltimore Sun suggests “that for every $1 invested in early childhood education, society saves as much as $16, offsetting the cost of remedial education, teen pregnancies, juvenile delinquency and incarceration.” That kind of return is one most investors can only dream of and hardly one the State can afford to pass up.

Though investment in our schools may be fiscally responsible, it isn’t about the money. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, understands that and has proposed a $300 million bond to the Baltimore City Council which would be paid for by an increased bottle tax. Baltimore’s kids can’t wait; according to a report issued by Baltimore City Public Schools, students are being taught in schools built an average of 40 years ago, the highest average age of school buildings in the State. Meanwhile, the $32 million made available by the State to the City for school construction in 2012 is barely enough to make the repairs necessary to keep old schools operational. Baltimore’s public schools need a big investment now in order to turn them into great places to learn.

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How could late night and weekend MARC service benefit Baltimore?

The MARC train at Penn Station in Baltimore

Baltimore is home to a growing population of commuters who enjoy city life but either can’t afford or don’t care for Washington, DC. MARC train users deal with cramped cars, infrequent off-peak service and frequent delays. The lack of late night and weekend service adds to the list of frustrations and people quickly rule out Baltimore as somewhere with easy access to Washington. Expanded MARC train service could change that perception. In fact, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and with local leaders are proposing expanded service for that reason. If a 40-60 minute train ride could connect Baltimore and its suburbs to the nation’s capital at almost any time, perhaps Baltimore could more easily market itself and maybe Transit Oriented Development would be able to compete more easily with traditional development.

A rendering of one of the buildings at Odenton Town Square, a Transit Oriented Development project consisting of over 1,500 residential units, 60,000 square feet of retail space and thousands of parking spaces all designed to make transit more accessible.

(Quick note: I am not in favor of making Baltimore a bedroom community for Washington, DC.)

It’s time for the MARC system to better serve Maryland’s cities and towns, especially Baltimore, and not simply cater to the Washington job market. Under the current system, Maryland’s taxpayers are footing the bill for a system designed to meet the needs of another jurisdiction.

A map of the MARC system

Does that mean MARC trains should not connect to Washington? Absolutely not; it simply means that MARC trains should provide as much, if not more, access to destinations in Maryland as they do to Washington. Providing night and weekend MARC service would be a step in the right direction.

Expanded service would also change Washington’s relationship with Baltimore and much of central Maryland drastically. If Baltimore were accessible on nights and weekends it would become more of a destination, a place to visit, go out to eat, check out a museum and, ideally, live. The best part about expanding MARC service: it could be done without additional infrastructure making it a relatively inexpensive way to make the Baltimore region more transit accessible.

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