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Posts Tagged ‘Development’

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 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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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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Visualize, if you can, a bus system that operates like a subway in a smaller city such as Boston or Washington. Baltimore does not currently have the resources to construct such a subway but innovative cities make the best of what they have.

Baltimore should think outside the box of conventional mass transit much the way that Bogota, Colombia did. In Bogota, on several of the city’s larger avenues, medians have been converted into rapid transit bus lanes with stations and platforms much like those on a subway allowing people to prepay rather than wait in line and pay individually. The system, known as the TransMilenio, not only removes buses from the traffic pattern but also moves people around the city quickly and efficiently, as buses run on their own right of way. The advantages of such a system include many of the efficiencies of a mass transit line without much of the expensive infrastructure.

Commuters entering and exiting TransMilenio buses - More photos including the one shown here can be found in the New York Times' Slide Show: Bogota's New Transit System

There are, of course, criticisms of Rapid Bus Transit; for example, without linking a new line to a larger, more cohesive system, it may not make sense for Baltimore’s commuters to leave their cars at home. In fact, Baltimore’s population may not even be dense enough to support such a system. Of course the paradox is that, in order to make such density a possibility, infrastructure must be built to support it.

A map of Bogota's TransMilenio System. The TransMilenio's many connecting and far-reaching lines resemble those of a subway system and increase the system's overall effectiveness.

If Baltimore intends to increase its population and make increased density a part of that plan, perhaps rapid bus lines are the cheapest way to go about that. The City could plan routes in order to target certain areas for redevelopment and strengthen the efforts of some struggling neighborhoods to stay competitive with the rest of the City. Of course, the longer term advantages are that if the routes are successful, the rights of way used for bus transit can be converted into light rail or streetcar routes or the buses can be electrified in order to remove emissions from the equation.

The question becomes, if this is something Baltimore should consider where should these routes go? Baltimore is an old city with narrow streets few of which can accommodate the traffic they currently carry let alone a bus only lane. However, one possibility is a route that parallels the future Red Line. This option would allow Baltimore and the State of Maryland to get a sense of daily ridership potential and work out some of the kinks prior to initiating a large-scale construction project. And, if funding falls through for the Red Line, at least Baltimore would be left with an east-west transit option. If all goes well, maybe we could see more rapid bus lines put in place along other important corridors.

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An article in this Sunday’s Baltimore Sun titled Baltimore’s port marks record year for vehicles in 2011 discussed the inherent advantages of the Port of Baltimore’s geographic location: Baltimore’s cozy harbor on the Patapsco River is farther inland than any other port in the Northeast. Historically, this made Baltimore’s harbor safe from storms but more recently it has given Baltimore’s port an indisputable advantage when it comes to shipping cargo to and receiving Cargo from the Midwest. But as a Rex Sherman, a research director for the American Association of Port Authorities, points out in the article: “‘Those terminals weren’t built overnight.’”

Indeed, there has been significant investment in Baltimore’s port infrastructure: cranes, dredging and expanded storage and processing facilities. This investment has paid off; the automotive import and export industry alone provides over 1,000 jobs. And, according to the State of Maryland, that’s only a small part of the over 50,000 total jobs and more than $3 Billion of annual revenue created by the Port.

For once, however, the jobs and the money are not the only focus of the article. In fact, it has undertones of an “if you build it, the will come” approach to investment. Baltimore needs a bit more of this attitude to build its infrastructure and, eventually, create the jobs that will keep the City growing.

The Port has shown private investors, the Federal Government and the State of Maryland that investment in Baltimore can be rewarded. In fact, a public private partnership is responsible for the construction of new berths and for millions of dollars in tax revenue. Perhaps the Port of Baltimore is one of the only infrastructure projects in which some are willing to invest in what many see as a lost and troubled Baltimore City. If that is the case, then let the money continue to roll in and create several thousand more jobs. However, repairing and adding capacity to one piece of infrastructure alone can’t fix Baltimore. The City needs to rebuild and, in some cases, rethink its infrastructural priorities in order to reverse decades of population decline; and it needs some help from investors to do it.

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