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National links: Houston, we have a... well, you know

The right hurricane could devastate Houston, and along with it some major sources of energy for the US, Baltimore's Black Lives Matter candidate is for real, and a California city is considering building a park overtop a freeway. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr.

For Houston, not if, but when: Houston is the energy capital of the United States, with major chemical, oil, and gas facilities sitting on its ship channel. The city would also be a sitting duck if the right hurricane came along. This interactive story shows what happens when flooding inundates Texas' coast. (Texas Tribune)

Mayor of Baltimore: Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson is running for Mayor of Baltimore on a platform that's heavy on city planning. He wants to revitalize neighborhoods by making it easier for low-income residents to get home loans, along with restart the Red Line subway project that was cancelled last year. (Curbed)

Tip of the cap: Glendale, just north of downtown Los Angeles, could build a park overtop Highway 134, reconnecting downtown with the northern part of the city. City council members are visiting Dallas' Klyde Warren freeway cap, and will take a vote after that. (Time Out Los Angeles)

Circling Atlanta: Ryan Gravel wrote his master's thesis about the idea to turn a a network of old freight rail lines into what is now knows as the Beltline, a green ring of transit and trails around the city. Now, he's head of the "Atlanta City Design Project", a new effort to re-imagine Atlanta as a sustainable and inclusive city. (Atlanta Magazine)

Pilot light out: America's contract air carriers that do a lot of the regional work for major airlines have been suffering from a lack of pilots. Republic Airways just filed for bankruptcy, and some argue that this is a long term deficit that will hamper the industry for some time to come. (The Economist)

The coffee shop it is a changin':The coffee house has gone through four major stages, from a place to simply get a drink to a third space for the community to boutique coffee shops to, finally, the coffee bars popping up today. The general trend: less WiFi and invitations to sit and work for hours, more face time and conversation with baristas. (Core 77)

Quote of the Week

"These new standards are an urban design revolution, they overturn the destructive Chinese model of superblocks, gated communities, and giant streets that has been too long eroding the livability their cities. [The authorities] have been testing these ideas for years, but now they are moving them to a scale that is unprecedented."

- Architect Peter Calthorpe speaking to City Metric about changes a Chinese policy group has made to their urban design standards.

History


This 1912 plan would have made Baltimore much bigger

In 1912 Baltimore's city leaders hoped to annex this large chunk of Baltimore County. Had that happened, the city limits would have extended from near downtown Towson to just shy of Ellicott City.


Image from the State of Maryland.

Baltimore annexed big chunks of land in three successive waves: One in 1817 that took the city as far as North Avenue, a second in 1888 up to about 40th Street, and a third in the early years of the 20th Century.

Like other US cities, Baltimore was expanding rapidly in the early 20th Century amidst a wave of streetcar-induced sprawl. Suburban areas lacked city services like sewers, parks, and police, so central cities often annexed surrounding land.

By about 1910, Baltimore was ready for another round of annexation. Exactly how much land the city should annex became a major hot-button issue of the day, with proposals ranging from no expansion to the aggressive, far-ranging one pictured above.

In 1918 a compromise plan eventually won out, settling Baltimore's boundaries at their current extents.

By the time America's post-World War II suburbanization boom happened, the national mood had shifted against central cities. A 1948 amendment to Maryland's state constitution outlawed any further expansion of Baltimore City, and thus the borders haven't changed since.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


Metro begins scrapping its oldest railcars

Say goodbye to Metro railcar number 1013. Along with other 1973-vintage 1000-series railcars, it's headed to the scrapyard. More aren't far behind.


Metro railcar 1013 at a scrap yard in Baltimore. Photo by MJofLakeland1 on Flickr.

As new 7000-series railcars enter Metro service, WMATA is now beginning to retire its oldest railcars. So far the agency has scrapped four cars, with more scheduled to head out the door beginning this March.

In the past if WMATA had to permanently take a railcar out of service, they'd either keep it for parts or backup, or it would end up in any number of weird places. That happened rarely for most of WMATA's first four decades.

That's now changing. With the impending mass retirement of 400 decades-old 1000-and-4000-series cars, WMATA needed a process to handle getting rid of so many cars at once.

Since signing a scrapping contract late last year they now have that process, and railcars can begin to head to the scrapyard.

When that happens, workers truck the old railcar to United Iron & Metal in Southwest Baltimore, where they strip it of valuable materials.

It's an inglorious end for these old workhorses, but I'm not too sorry to see them go; those new car replacements are nice.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Development


Baltimore's problem is sprawl, not a bad economy

The city of Baltimore has over 20,000 vacant row houses and 300,000 fewer residents than at its peak. Governor Larry Hogan recently announced funding to demolish whole blocks of them. A common narrative outside Baltimore is that the city is in collapse thanks to manufacturing jobs leaving, as in many Rust Belt cities. But that's not the biggest problem. Suburbanization is.


Vacant houses in West Baltimore. Photo by charmcity123 on Flickr.

Pundits often paint a picture of a place in economic decline that has never recovered from the loss of thousands of manufacturing and steel-making jobs. "Since at least the 1970s," E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote in the Washington Post in May, "the economy's invisible hand has ... been diligently stripping tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs from what was once a bustling workshop where steel, cars and planes were made."

Like Rust Belt cities, Baltimore used to rely on manufacturing and steel-making, but it has changed. The Baltimore metropolitan region's GDP is higher than Portland (Oregon), Columbus (Ohio), Orlando, Austin, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Nashville, and San Antonio. It ranks fourth in percentage with a graduate or professional degree and fourth in median household income among the 25 largest metro areas. (Washington DC is number one in both categories).

Here's the rub. While Baltimore City's population has dropped by 300,000 people since its peak census count in 1950, Baltimore County has added 550,000. Anne Arundel County over 400,000. Howard County almost 300,000. Harford County 200,000. Carroll County has added over 100,000 people.


Suburbanization into green fields in Owings Mills. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

State spending in the suburbs sapped Baltimore

Baltimore City's surplus of vacant houses is not there because of a poor regional economy or because the Baltimore region's population is shrinking. It exists because the region has built lots of new roads and highways, new schools, new utilities, and new homes outside the city, without equivalent investments inside the core city.

People and businesses have flowed to the geographic shift of new investments in surrounding counties. As this was happening, physical and social decay escalated in many of Baltimore's older row house communities, especially African-American neighborhoods.

Some of this early exodus was the result of directly racist practices such as redlining. However, shifting public investments outward, often based on theoretically race-neutral growth formulas, certainly was anti-urban and had the greatest impact on urban communities of African-Americans.

Regardless, people with choices of all races have made rational decisions to leave behind thousands of houses in poor school districts with old school buildings, high crime, pothole-ridden streets, inadequate transit, and leaky pipes.

A renaissance is around the corner for more neighborhoods

There are new positive trends that portend a brighter future for some of Baltimore's challenged row house neighborhoods. First, Baltimore City has stopped hemorrhaging net population. New city-based industries are thriving in health sciences and technology.

The Under Armour corporation is a major growth magnet with over three billion in annual revenue, and growing, every year. Lots of people are still moving out of the city, but there is a new crop of newcomers, often well-educated millennials and some immigrants.

However, they are not spreading across the city evenly. They are bypassing the most challenging row house neighborhoods.


Baltimore's booming Brewers Hill neighborhood is mixed with new apartments, offices, and fixed up rowhouses. Photo by Elliott Plack on Flickr.

Thousands of new upscale apartments and professional offices are being added downtown and in a ring of neighborhoods around the harbor, often on former industrial brownfield sites. The harbor adjacent row house neighborhoods have been fixed up and growing for two decades. It shows, that when there are amenities in the neighborhood, there is demand for row house living.


Vibrant rowhouses in Hampden west of Johns Hopkins University. Photo by Cat on Flickr.

One sign of what may be to come: the resurging row house neighborhoods west and south of Johns Hopkins University, several miles north of the harbor. Where there is a neighborhood anchor institution, good retail, and reasonable transit, some old Baltimore row house neighborhoods may reverse their fortunes in the next decade. Inclusivity will be important.

However, as in decades before, state and regional decisions on school, infrastructure, and transportation investments will play their part on whether some Baltimore city neighborhoods can come back. These decisions are particularly important for the most vulnerable.

Preservation


Baltimore will tear down whole blocks of row houses to fight blight. Is that wise?

In DC, housing is so scarce that prices are skyrocketing, especially for charming, historic row houses. Just up in Baltimore, however, they can't give many dilapidated row houses away, and Larry Hogan recently announced a plan to tear many of them down. Is that a good idea?


Image from @MayorSRB.

Baltimore officials think so; its mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano think this is something the city needs. Some advocates aren't as sanguine.

In the short run, parks will replace the tear-downs, but Hogan also announced a loan program to encourage developers to build new housing in the same neighborhoods.

What's the point of knocking down housing just to build other housing? Our contributors discussed this issue.

Canaan Merchant articulated the concern:

There is a sense that these neighborhoods will just never recover (at least in our lifetimes) and until then the abandoned houses just make things more dangerous.

But if the "plan" (vague as it is) is to build parks and affordable housing then I have a hard time separating that logic from what we said about so many neighborhoods (like Southwest Waterfront).

Meanwhile, one of Baltimore's best resources are these old row houses and tearing them down is a big opportunity cost that can never be replaced. That's why we have historic districts and why historic districts are valued today.


Photo by urbanfeel on Flickr.

Payton Chung explained the economics:

There is such a thing as property with a negative value. Think about if a smelly, flea-ridden old couch materialized in your living room—you'd pay to get rid of it, right? That's negative value.

Given the high housing prices in DC, we can sometimes forget that the capital cost of rehabilitating (or even maintaining) buildings can be so high that those buildings have negative value. Gut-rehabbing an old rowhouse just to meet code can easily cost over $100,000.

Given that move-in condition rowhouses in West Baltimore can cost $50,000, there's little economic incentive to rehab the houses unless you're comfortable throwing lots of money away. Nor can you just rehab a few of them: vacant properties really drag down the value of entire blocks, and selective demolition isn't an option since rowhouses depend on their neighbors for structural support.

What's more, even good houses at low prices won't be enough to stimulate demand for new housing. It's easy to think "oh, housing prices are cheap, therefore it's a bargain." As new arrivals to Detroit can attest, though, that's not always the case.

Not all rowhouses are created equal. The houses that are being targeted are quite different from DC rowhouses: whereas ours are typically 16-18' wide, Baltimore's rowhouses are just 12-16' wide in most cases. (It's not just a matter of platting—rowhouses have beams across their entire width, and the price of solid-wood beams doesn't scale linearly.) Those extra few feet make a huge difference in livability, especially in the ability to have hallways next to habitably-sized rooms.

Richard Layman, a historic preservation supporter, posted some thoughts on an email list and gave permission to print them.
There is a difference in what people can do in weak markets as opposed to strong markets. In a city like DC, there is demand for property, whereas in Baltimore, my sense in talking with planners over the years is that they are beaten down by the sheer volume of the problem, that they have so many vacant properties and lots, that they see demolition as a reasonable step.

The weak market problem there is stoked by too much capacity for development in Howard, Baltimore, Harford, and Anne Arundel Counties. There isn't enough demand for all those places to be successful, and the success of the counties comes at Baltimore City's expense.

But the reality in a place like Baltimore is that a demolished empty building becomes a vacant lot, no easier to revitalize, and merely a different form of blight, an exchange of one blight for another.


Photo by John Perivolaris on Flickr.

Jeff La Noue lives in Baltimore and gave a perspective from up there:

As a Baltimorean, I appreciate our rowhouse architectural character. However, there have been so many public policy decisions, including poor transit as well as the preponderance of crime and poor schools, that make many row house neighborhoods lose their favorability/marketability. As a result, many shells can't be given away and there is no market to spend any money to redevelop.

We all dream of a time when the conditions change for many desolate row house neighborhoods. However, while we wait, the rot continues. In addition, Baltimore remains relatively affordable and we continue to build lots of new housing in the booming southeast part of the city and suburbs. The oldest and least desirable housing then goes vacant as people move up to better housing and "better" neighborhoods whether they be in the city limits or not.

I certainly would love to see a nuanced demolition plan that does not knock down the most charming and viable. However, I think we need to cull of the weakest of the rowhouse herd. It is hard to leave 20 to 30,000 vacant houses just sit for another decade or more. There is not enough demand for traditional row house living right now, especially with poor transit and little neighborhood retail, to make a massive rowhouse renovation plan financially viable anytime soon.


View from the West Baltimore MARC station. Photo by Adam Moss on Flickr.

Could Baltimore be DC's next bedroom community?

So, there's negative demand for housing in Baltimore, and overflowing demand in DC. If Baltimore were adjacent to DC, we'd be talking about how it's the next hot area, but it's about 40 miles away. Could faster, better transit whisk Baltimoreans down to jobs in DC?

(Maybe that's what Hogan has in mind with his $10 billion maglev, except he doesn't want to pay for it, it wouldn't go to the distressed neighborhoods, and Hogan just cut a transit line that would have.)

What if Maryland improved MARC speeds and frequencies to make the trains Metro-like. Would Washington-area housing demand flow into Baltimore? Richard Layman doesn't think so.

If it were that simple, it would already have happened. I reverse commuted to Baltimore for a time, and yes, Baltimore markets itself as a cheaper alternative for people working in DC, but it really stinks to spend a couple hours each way each day commuting, especially if one does it by sustainable means (bike/walk/transit).

As I wrote previously, Baltimore is undercut by massive overcapacity of development opportunity in the suburban counties, and great poverty and financial needs within the city, which outstrip its financial capacity. It lacks a transit network which would recenter demand on the center city, for both commercial and residential location.

Plus, while it has cool neighborhoods, the city is large and isn't so walkable between neighborhoods as much as it is within neighborhoods. EYA has a trademark, "Life within walking distance." Baltimore isn't set up that way.

Other contributors said that there might be a few spots where this could work, but they're nowhere near where Baltimore is tearing down blocks. Jeff La Noue:
From a Washington perspective, there are tons of super cheap and good looking row houses within walking distance of the West Baltimore MARC Station. That is a place that could seemingly develop market viability, but it needs some initial investment to get it going.

Photo by Ian Freimuth on Flickr.

Payton Chung:

Yes, the property surrounding the West Baltimore MARC station is surprisingly undervalued. However, Sandtown-Winchester won't be improved by transit anytime soon, since it opens a peculiar can of worms: Winchester Street runs atop the Penn Line's B&P tunnel, halfway between Baltimore Penn and West Baltimore, and which is the subject of multibillion-dollar replacement proposals.

Commuting from Baltimore to DC would be much easier if the last-mile transit connections were better. The transit connections and densities surrounding Baltimore Penn and Camden stations leave much to be desired, and Washington Union Station isn't convenient to most workplaces in DC.

Through-routing MARC trains down to L'Enfant Plaza and Crystal City would help, as will the streetcar and [potential] future Metro Loop. So will new office developments within walking distance to Union Station, in areas like NoMa and Capitol Crossing.

It seems Baltimore faces such a mountain of problems that these demolitions may be necessary. One can't help wonder if things would have been different if Baltimore had gotten a full subway system like the Metro, which was proposed around the same time.


The originally-proposed Baltimore Metro network.

And while the presence of the federal government kept Washington in better shape than Baltimore during the worst of times, the Metro elevated the value of downtown DC. Had it never been built, perhaps Washington would still be a "donut" of attractive suburbs around a continually decaying core with rising crime and insurmountable vacancy rates.

Transit


Is Baltimore's train station in the middle of nowhere? Is DC's?

Our contributors recently got to comparing and contrasting Baltimore's Penn Station with Union Station in DC. Some people say Penn Station is "in the middle of nowhere," but the truth is that it's closer to its respective downtown than Union Station. The difference is that Penn Station has fewer neighborhoods and tourist attractions nearby.


Penn Station in Baltimore. Photo by Forsaken Fotos on Flickr.

First, some details

Baltimore's Penn Stations serves Amtrak trains on the Northeast Corridor, MARC trains on the Penn Line, and MTA Light Rail. The station station lies in between the neighborhoods of Mount Vernon, south of the station, and Station North, which is designated as Baltimore's Arts and Entertainment District with venues such as The Charles Theatre nearby.

Union Station, Washington DC's rail transportation hub, also serves Amtrak trains as the terminus of the Northeast Corridor, along with serving MARC, VRE, and Metro. It's also a leisure destination with retail functions and eateries.

Is one of these stations "in the middle of nowhere?," In this context, what does "middle of nowhere" even mean?

"Far" is all about perception

Penn Station isn't in the middle of nowhere, says Matt Johnson. "It certainly isn't more in the middle of nowhere than Union Station. I think it's just a perception of how difficult is to get to 'somewhere' from Penn Station as compared to Union Station."

"Baltimore Penn Station is 1.24 miles from Charles Center, the center of downtown Baltimore," Matt adds. "Union Station, on the other hand, is 1.78 miles from Farragut Square, generally considered to be the centroid of downtown DC."

But what people immediately see often shapes what they think. "From my perspective," says Claire Jaffe, Penn Station seems to be in the middle of nowhere because it is almost completely surrounded by large roads and highways and very few buildings. When you come out of the station and do not go directly into a car, it's hard to figure out where to go. Union Station, on the other hand, is much more bustling and is close to not only a tourist destination but lots of jobs."


Photo by catharine robertson on Flickr.

"Even when Penn Station was also called Union Station, both railroads that used it had more central stations to the south for terminal trains," says David Edmonson. "It's not a new perception. That said, I think the subway messes with the perception of distance. It's a very short ride through dark tunnels to Farragut, but a slow ride through the city to Charles Center. With the cityscape, it just feels longer."

Union Station is more woven in with its surroundings

Canaan Merchant says Union Station feels like it's better-located because "being next to the Capitol and Supreme Court helps. Though I kind of put those institutions and the Mall in general in kind of a separate category from Downtown where most workers are."


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

"Union Station may be farther from Farragut Square than Penn Station is from Charles Center," says Dan Malouff, "but downtown DC extends east all the way to Union Station. Functionally, Union Station is on the edge of downtown. Penn Station is not on the edge of downtown Baltimore. There is a neighborhood in between. Baltimore's situation is analogous to if Union Station were in Columbia Heights or at RFK. Not 'nowhere,' but definitely not the center of town."

"I think this has a lot to do with Capitol Hill," says Neil Flanagan. "Since the 80s, Union Station been a destination unto itself as a festival marketplace. So, there's a lot to be said about vibrancy creating the sense that one neighborhood is connected to another."

While Union Station is close to many of DC's tourist attractions, Tracey Johnstone notes that Penn Station station is three miles from Camden Yards, the Inner Harbor and Aquarium, and Fells Point, Baltimore's three primary tourist attractions that weekend travelers most often would like to visit:

"Penn Station is not nowhere, but its relatively hard to get downtown from there, or to the action and jobs in south and southeast Baltimore, or to the stadiums," Jeff La Noue says. "The Red Line would have had a speedy connection to all of these from the West Baltimore MARC Station two miles west from Downtown. The West Baltimore MARC is 5-10 minutes shorter time than Penn Station if coming from DC on the MARC. Without the Red Line, the west Baltimore MARC station is very isolated."

Do you have a question? We'll pose it to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

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