Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Camden Yards Was Worth It

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.

Advertisements

Really interesting piece on the different design and fundraising approaches that New York and Chicago take.

City Parks Blog

New York and Chicago are often pitted as rivals with regards to parkland acreage (38,060 acres vs. 11,959 acres, equating to 4.5 and 4.2 acres per 1,000 residents, respectively), and this month was no different.  Last week both cities released designs to the community for the next latest and greatest thing in the park world — elevated rail trails — and the designs couldn’t be more different.

New York’s High Line has been generating buzz since before its 2009 opening, and the overwhelming success of its first two phases (there were 3,000,000 visitors in 2011) have kept the public anxiously awaiting the last and final phase.  Held up by land ownership issues and fundraising nightmares in a struggling economy, Friends of the High Line scored an amazing win last fall with a record-setting $20 million donation from the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, the single largest donation ever made to a New…

View original post 656 more words

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.

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.

Baltimore cyclists can breathe a little easier as both State and Federal governments have expressed interest in supporting them. The U.S. Senate is set to vote on a bill which will include funds earmarked for bicycle trails, scenic pull-offs and street beautification projects. At the state level, Governor O’Malley has announced several projects in the Baltimore area that will be receiving funding:

  1. The design of a 1.4-mile extension of the BWI Trail to the Nursery Road Light Rail Station

    A map of the BWI trail which will be extended north to the Nursery Road Light Rail Station.

  2. High-density covered bike racks at Penn and Camden stations

    Camden Station in Downtown Baltimore

  3. An on-road bike route linking the Gwynns Falls Trail to Catonsville

    A map of the Gywnns Falls Trail which will be extended west to Catonsville

  4. An on-road bike route linking the Mt. Washington light rail to Belvedere Square
  5. A signed route and bike racks from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to the Halethorpe MARC station

Many of the projects receiving funding aim to make transit more bike-accessible and, in effect, would make the City’s often disconnected neighborhoods more accessible to one another. The fact that Maryland is investing money in Bicycle infrastructure is great news, especially in Baltimore, where a number of well-designed bikeways could make a huge difference. In fact, evidence suggests that bike-able cities can experience drops in crime. Lower crime numbers and a more bike-able, transit accessible city could be in Baltimore’s future.

Expanded MARC Service?

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.

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.

%d bloggers like this: