Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Freeway Revolts: A Brief History of an Important Baltimore Grassroots Movement

by guest blogger Greg Freidman

There once was a plan to build a major east-west expressway through the middle of Baltimore City. The idea for such an expressway had been around since at least 1917, but things really got going when Robert Moses came up with a plan in the 40's. With the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s  and the overwhelming support of the business and political establishment the highway became a near certainty. Had the expressway been built as planned , thousands of people would have been displaced, Leakin Park would have an expressway running through it, and neighborhoods such as Fells Point, Highlandtown, Canton, and Federal Hill would have been permanently disfigured.

But as part of a nationwide movement that came to be known as the freeway revolts regular people got together and fought back. In Baltimore the main organization driving the effort against the expressway was known as MAD or the Movement Against Destruction. The organization, essentially a coalition of neighborhood groups and individuals, was most active in the late 60s and early 70s. and transcended barriers of geography, race, and class. It was also for the most part (but not completely) successful. Among those active in the freeway revolts was a certain social worker turned City Councilwoman by the name of Barbara Mikulski.

Recently I had a chance to sit down with Art Cohen one of the movers and shakers behind MAD to hear about how this amazing grassroots movement got started and achieved its goals. For more information about MAD you can visit its online archive which is hosted by the University of Baltimore Langsdale Libary right here.

For a detailed explanation of the route the East-West Expressway was to traverse you can check out Scott Kozel's Roads to the Future website. And while I strongly disagree with some of its conclusions another excellent article on the Expressway can be found here (note that this is a PDF).

On  how the idea of the East-West Expressway came about:
... Robert Moses came to town in the early 1940s. There had actually been talk about having an expressway in Baltimore since 1917. But it didn’t really get steam going until Moses came and he suggested an east west highway straight through the middle of town. Of course it would have been totally unacceptable on the east side of town because it would have gone straight through Hopkins Hospital!... It sort of lay dormant for a number of years and then in the 50's it came in again because under President Eisenhower, the interstate system came into being...

On the founding and naming of MAD:
I came to Baltimore as a legal aid lawyer in September 1967. I came from Washington DC. I was assigned to East Baltimore where I lived as well as worked....So I was assigned to legal Aid East and that's where I worked for [the next 16 months up through early 1969].In August of 1968 I was approached by two people. One was Stu Wexler who had worked with CORE locally and had been involved in a lot of local things and Jimmy Rouse (who's the son of James Rouse). They said there was a new coalition being formed to oppose the plans for the East-West Expressway and because I had come here as lawyer, they said they need a lawyer who would be willing to serve as their attorney. It was volunteer. Everything in the group was volunteer. And I was interested in the issue and I said sure. The fact that they'd asked meant something too. I had respect for both of them...

The group as I remember it did not have a name for the first couple of months...This one person came from West Baltimore he happened to be a psychiatrist living and working there. He came for two meetings that's all, but what he did was he gave us a great gift. He said “I've got a name for you. You need a name. Here's what I'm suggesting, the Movement Against Destruction (M.A.D).”... It was a great name it described how people felt about the expressway coming through their neighborhoods.

On the uniqueness of MAD and what contributed to its success:

The unique thing about M.A.D. It was the first time in Baltimore that there was a coalition made up of neighborhood groups from across the city of diverse income groupings, of diverse race (African -American and White)... But just the fact that you could reach across between the white and black communities was just sensational. It was very effective and people worked together very well. And you could be a member of this group as a neighborhood association or as a mini coalition of neighborhood associations. There was one called S.C.A.R. (also see here) (the Southeast Council Against the Road). And there were some other ones across the city that were organized sub-regionally. You could also be a member as an individual if you wanted to.

The thing that made MAD unique was that it met every single week. [The archdiocese] gave us the use of the Catholic Center downtown at the southwest corner of Mulberry and Cathedral. And that was a great place. We'd meet there at 7 o'clock on every Monday. We also were blessed by having people in our group who had special skills. We had one person, Barbra King, who did research  andworked with the League of Women Voters... Whenever we had an issue that needed some digging she could do it for us and would. We had another person who was from the Church of the Brethren who was assigned to Baltimore as a sort of missionary placement. His name was Lin Butler and he had an incredible skill. He was our secretary for most of the time that I was there, he would be at every meeting. And within a day of the meeting a piece of paper would go to everybody that was on our list. On one side of the piece of paper were the minutes for the previous day's meeting and on the other side  would be the agenda for the next meeting. And it provided a high level of continuity from meeting to meeting. That really helped us....

Our way of operating at MAD was  by consensus. We didn't really need to vote. And the people there were seen representatives of their neighborhood groups. So if they were doing their jobs they did not arrogate to themselves any special power. They would take issues back to their group,  clear them with whomever they needed to clear it, and then come back to us. So there was an accountability that was very helpful.

On the damage that had been done from the condemnation lines:

By the time I got into this in August 1968 the condemnation lines had already been laid down. And in some ways a lot of the damage from the expressway planning had been done... These were people who lived their whole lives in Canton, Highlandtown, Fells Point, West Baltimore, South Baltimore too. This was very, very disturbing for a lot of people and there were stories of elderly people who  died of broken hearts from the idea of having to move from the neighborhoods that they had lived in all their lives and to which they were deeply committed. What I'm saying is there was some damage that was already done that could not be reversed even by MAD. What MAD was able to do with the help of others was prevent the building of the expressway.

 On a very interesting map:

One of our members, Jack Bond, who just died two years ago, worked for a local car rental agency and he came to every meeting. I think he lived in Roland Park. He came up with a wonderful suggestion once... Why don't we design an expressway ourselves that only took six houses? The mayor's (Thomas D'Alessandro III, the president of the City Council (William Donald Schaefer) and, Joe Axelrod  the highway engineer, who lived in Annapolis (the other three homes taken by the map were those of Greater Baltimore Committee head,William Boucher, Bernard Werner a consultant to the State Roads Commision, and Dr. F. Pierce Linaweaver the city public works director). So basically to make a long story short, we developed a sketch of this expressway, and it got picked up by a Sun reporter (scroll down to the fourth article). She went around and interviewed everybody. Mayor Schaefer and all these other people. It got a lot of attention. It was using ridicule to make a point, that these people didn't have to get out of their houses. They were planning for everybody else.

On flying a banner on a plane at the City Fair:

One time I worked on a banner...that was 220 ft wide. It was about as wide as the expressway would have been with all 12 lanes. It said “Stop The Mayor's Road”. We carried it into the city fair. This was the pride and joy of the city officials... to have this downtown fair. And we walked on there with this thing. And it took them 20 minutes to see what was going on and they threw us out. The next year what we did was we rented an airplane. We each kicked in  $25 and we had it fly over the city fair. And there was nothing they could do about that.

On the V.O.L.P.E. V. Volpe Lawsuit:

Richard Volpe was the head of the US Department of Transportation. He was the defendant. The plaintiffs in that case were the Volunteers Opposed to the Leakin Park Expressway (V.O.LP.E.) They came up with that name on purpose. And in fact their lawyer I believe was pro bono from Piper and Marbury at the time. He's now the city solicitor, George Nilson.

On an inspirational meeting at Edmondson High School and MAD's turning point:

One of the big turning points for us I believe was in 1969.  A public hearing was scheduled for early in the summer. It was one of the first public hearings on on the 3A plan and we got them to postpone it. This was because they were not following their own federal regulations, which required that public hearings be preceded by public informational meetings.   We insisted that they follow their own rules.  As a result, they first held this informational meeting  at which they described what the issues were.  It was held in Edmondson High School in  June of 1969.

People from the community were invited to come and learn about what the highway engineers planned to do. And Rosemont was a very controversial area. [The highway] was coming down from Leakin Park. It would have come down from Rosemont to join up with Franklin Mulberry. Rosemont was a stable middle-class African-American neighborhood.  Joe Wyles (a prominent African-American activist) was from there and a number of other MAD people were too. They just felt it was going to destroy their community and there were some alternative routes for Rosemont, several different ones. And one of them involved going through a cemetery south of Edmondson Highway which had generally white people [buried in it].

Anyway Rosemont, was a middle class area. People had come to this  explanatory meeting and the engineers were in the front [with] the planners... And you had these two groups and they're sitting on opposite sides of the Edmondson High School auditorium. One is white, generally younger and the other's black of all ages but somewhat older. They were sitting on opposite ends of the auditorium and this young white guy who was  the spokesman for the white  group gets up and says “we do not want this highway to go through the cemetery and even though there are rules about disenterring people and reenterring them we don't want these graves disturbed. They mean a lot to us our kinfolk are there” and so and so. When he was through, this elderly African-American man from Rosemont, he says “I've moved 3 times in the last thirteen years because of changes in these condemnation lines. "Hey, sait a minute," he says, I'm alive now, you're talking about dead people. I'm alive right now and I'm threatened by this road. And our neighborhood is threatened by this road.” It was very eloquent. Anyway they each made their point and then all of a sudden the young white guy gets up. He didn't want to be played off against the African-American. He says “we're against the road because it's going to mess up our cemetery with our dead loved ones. You're against the road because you're living in this area. Let's get together and fight it together. and you saw this group of people move together in that auditorium. I imagine there were whites who had never sat in an auditorium with blacks before and that was emblematic of the kinds of things that happened, people pulling together.

Anyways 2 months later in August. they had the public hearing, and it was big.   It went on for three days. 600 people attended. Most people testified against the road plans. Everybody except for two groups: the Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Baltimore Committee. And they did not speak in favor of the road.  Instead, they just put in written testimony.  The hearing got well covered in the press.


From my interview with Art Cohen and my own research about MAD, several things stand out to me. The first is that MAD was an organization made up of regular people and not just elites. It was also a truly multiracial coalition where blacks from West Baltimore worked together with whites from south and east sides. A remarkable feat given the large scale white flight that was taking place at the time. Another characteristic of MAD is that it was not dominated by any one person. Of course it had leaders but it was clearly a group effort with no one person taking all the credit for the work that was done. The third and final observation I’d like to note, is that for all its successes MAD failed to stop construction of the “Highway to Nowhere”. (Those interested in learning more about the “Highway to Nowhere” and MAD’s fight to stop it should read Andrew Giguere’s Masters Thesis on the subject). As painful as it may be it is always important to learn from them so that they will not happen again.

I’m a big believer that one cannot plan for the future unless they understand the past. Through understanding both the successes and the challenges faced by MAD it is my hope that those who wish to speak truth to power on transportation or any other issue will be able to draw inspiration and guidance.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Dissolving Border Vacuums, Part 7

Last time we examined the border vacuums around superblocks, so this time let's look at a specific subset of particularly problematic superblocks: tower-in-the-park projects, garden apartment projects, office parks, strip malls, big-box stores, and other facilities that come in the Garden City and Radiant City formats.

Ebenezer Howard's Garden City concept.
In the late 19th century the British planner Ebenezer Howard promoted a planning strategy that emphasized the formation of satellite towns around large cities (see right). These towns were intended to have their own agricultural belts and commercial districts, but the few that were built – Greenbelt, Maryland, for example – more or less took the form of conventional bedroom communities.

Howard's pastoral Garden City proposition was an understandable reaction to the horrors of hypertrophic industrialization, but, as Jacobs noted in her introduction to Death and Life, the concept was unrealistic, as all utopias are:

“His aim was the creation of small towns; very nice towns if you were docile, had no plans of your own, and didn't mind spending your life among others with no plans of their own. [Howard] conceived of planning as a series of static acts; in each case the plan must anticipate all that is needed and be protected against any subsequent changes. He conceived of planning as essentially paternalistic, if not authoritarian. (17-19).”

Since it was hopelessly static, Howard's Garden City was completely irrelevant to the social and economic underpinnings of real cities. But unfortunately, as Jacobs went on to argue, the Garden City exerted a powerful influence on 20th century architects and planners, and I think it continues to do so today: there seems to remain a subconscious meme that the city is an environmental evil, and that we should import artifices of “nature” into the city to ruralize it. I'd argue that this meme drove Ian McHarg's Design with Nature philosophy, that it drives today's Landscape “Urbanism” (more on this in an upcoming post on the border vacuums around “green spaces”), and that it even leads places like Washington DC to consider open space mandates a la suburbia!

Le Corbusier's Radiant City concept.
After WWI the architect Le Corbusier refined the Garden City concept by extruding Howard's diagram into the sky: “The Garden City is a will-o'-the-wisp. Nature melts under the invasion of roads and houses and the promised seclusion becomes a crowded settlement. The solution will be found in the vertical Garden City (22).”

Le Corbusier called this concept the Radiant City and aggressively promoted it, as in his scheme for razing half of Paris and replacing it with towers set in vacuous “green spaces” (see above). Baltimore's notorious postwar tower-in-the-park housing projects were direct descendants of the Radiant City ideology.

Again, Le Corbusier's concept was an understandable reaction to the horrors of hypertrophic industrialization, but, as with the Garden City, the Radiant City was hopelessly static. As Jacobs said, it was “irrelevant to the workings of cities (25).” Le Corbusier was notoriously averse to street life (“death of the street!” was his refrain), and in the antiurban Radiant City daily life seemed to be little more than mechanistically undertaking a series of solitary, sanitized, segregated tasks. The concept is so inhuman that some wonder if Le Corbusier was oblivious to the necessity and felicity of human interaction.

Like the Garden City, the Radiant City exerted a tremendous influence on 20th century architects and planners. Although its most infamous products were the anarchic housing projects in Europe and the Americas, the tactic wasn't just confined to public (or “social”) housing. Middle and high-income housing developments followed the tower-in-the-park model, as did office developments and shopping centers.

As mentioned earlier, the Radiant City's dysfunction was made highly visible in the fiasco that was public housing. Although there is currently an attempt to revive the concept by essentially asserting it would work just fine if enough money was thrown at the facilities (apparently you can never throw too much money at a problem!), the reality is these projects required an unwieldy, statist scale of operation that isn't feasible in a contemporary urban context characterized by the prioritized distribution of limited public resources. Even today's “model” housing authorities can't keep their units habitable, and public housing has arguably only perpetuated an endless “affordable housing crisis.”

Jacobs describes precisely how tower-in-the-park housing projects unnecessarily induce social and financial burdens: while there are elaborate and costly (and sometimes still ineffective!) workarounds for the blind-eyed hallways, stairwells, and elevators in housing projects, like open-gallery hallways, security cameras, and regular policing in stairwells, the traditional street-and-block fabric obviates the need for these workarounds. You don't need police-patrolled stairwells and hallways if the public circulation occurs where there are “eyes on the street”: “Buildings must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs on it and leave it blind (35).”

While upper-class towers can afford enough private security and gadgetry to make their blind-eyed hallways and stairwells safe, project towers must instead sap limited public resources that could be better deployed elsewhere – like foot patrols on regular streets. So the project tower is unnecessarily vulnerable to security problems that the traditional city street addresses automatically and casually due to its form – Jacobs called this “do-it-yourself surveillance.”

This surveillance allows self-appointed “public characters” to maintain the street's social structure, further reinforcing the street's safety and cohesion in a positive feedback loop (68-71). Many Baltimore neighborhoods – even struggling ones – have these public characters, and people quickly learn who the unofficial “mayor” of their street/block/district is. Contrarily, vacuous project hallways rarely produce such mayors.

Unlike housing project grounds, many traditional streets are self-policed.
In Chapter 4 Jacobs goes on to argue that self-policing allows traditional streets to casually assimilate children: “I have seen a striking difference on two sides of the same street in East Harlem. On the old city side, which was full of sidewalk loitering, the children were being kept well in hand. On the project side of the street, the children, who had a fire hydrant, were behaving destructively, drenching [passersby with water]. Nobody dared stop them. What if you scolded them? Who would back you up in their blind-eyed turf?... On lively diversified sidewalks, people supervise the incidental play of children. Only from the ordinary adults of city sidewalks do children learn [that] people must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other. The project children who squirt water on passersby go unrebuked because they are anonymous children in anonymous grounds (56-82).”

The anonymous, ambiguous nature of project grounds (or “green spaces” in today's lingo) is precisely why they form such formidable border vacuums. The grounds remain ownerless because there are no eyes on the street and no way to discern what needs to be casually policed: “There must be a clear demarcation between public space and private space; they cannot ooze into each other as they typically do in projects... Far from being attracted by indefinite leftovers of land oozing around buildings, people are repelled by them. People don't seek settings for buildings; they seek settings for themselves (35-106).”

Of course, in many Radiant City projects even the simple inanities of “green space” give way to pavement: “[Le Corbusier] embroidered freeways onto his Radiant City scheme in quantities that bore no relationship whatsoever to the hugely greater quantities of automobiles, amounts of roadway, and extent of parking actually necessary for his repetitive vertical concentrations of people separated by vacuity. His vision of skyscrapers in the park degenerates in real life into skyscrapers in parking lots. (342-343).”

As their grounds devolve into border vacuums, housing projects set into motion the running-down process discussed in the very first post: “Sometimes visible evidence of the running-down process is as graphic as a diagram. At the borders of the dark and empty grounds of [the Lower East Side] housing projects, the streets are dark and empty of people too. Stores have gone out of business, and many quarters stand unused and empty. Street by street, as you move away from the project's borders, a little more life is found. But each year the vacuum seems to eat a little farther in (260).”

It's remarkable how common this running-down phenomenon is: although the severity of moribundity varies from city to city, I've seen the process affect cities as small as Albany and Troy, NY, and even though Baltimore's highrise projects are gone, a depressing moribundity continues to emanate from lowrise projects like the Perkins Homes, much to the frustration of Fell's Point residents! This moribundity is partly a product of infantilization: as Jacobs discusses in Chapter 15, traditional neighborhoods can “unslum” and improve themselves over time (Fell's Point is no longer seedy and overcrowded!), but housing projects are frozen in perpetual stasis.

Finally, as Jacobs discusses in Chapter 14, housing projects form “dead end” border vacuums for non-project residents due to their monolithic sorting-out of a single use (affordable housing). Like any other use, affordable housing needs to be integrated among other uses in modest increments: “There is nothing unhealthier for a city than a monoculture of poverty (Duany, 37).”

As in the previous post on superblocks, at this point some might insist that the Garden City and Radiant City theories are long dead. But while Baltimore and many other cities have gotten rid of their tower-in-the-park projects, the tactic is still used for other kinds of developments. After all, the architecture profession's academic wing never really got over the Radiant City: slabs or ambiguous blobs in the park are still proposed for school projects, for competitions and exhibitions, for infill projects and new cities, for university campuses, and so on. For example, much of the development in Asia currently comes in the vertical dormitory format.

Furthermore, a kind of “fashionable dystopia” continues to preoccupy some academics and starchitects – that is, the notion that a city is just so much “chaos,” “uncertainty,” and “disorder.” As Jacobs discusses in her introduction and conclusion, this notion of the city as “chaos” was common among Garden City and Radiant City utopians, and it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of cities: “[To Mumford] New York's midtown was 'solidified chaos.' [To Stein] the shape and appearance of cities was nothing but a 'chaotic accident', to Le Corbusier Stockholm was 'frightening chaos'... But [cities] are not problems in disorganized complexity, they are problems in organized complexity (21-433).”

Jacobs goes on to discuss how midcentury utopians, seeing nothing but urban “chaos,” strove to replace it with statistical models: “The conception of the city as a collection of separate file drawers was suited very well by the Radiant City vision of Le Corbusier. His scheme assumed the statistical reordering of a system of disorganized complexity (436).”

Today, of course, the impulse to replace urban “chaos” with simple statistical models has given way to an incurious, even nihilistic, celebration of said “chaos.” To me this suggests that urbanity continues to mystify some cutting-edgers: there seems to be little conception of the city being anything more than a kind of Radiant City sculpture garden. But as Jacobs argued, “To approach a city as if it were an architectural problem capable of being given order by converting it into a work of art is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life (373).”

The continued preoccupation with nonexistent “chaos” and with cities-as-art raises some troubling issues for cities like Baltimore: unless they constantly and carefully scrutinize the quality of their urban infill, there is the danger of slipping into a second round of Radiant City experimentation under the persistent misguided notion that the cure to a city's ills will be found in its ruralization: “The failure of urbanism has been so comprehensive for the last fifty years that we have no faith in our ability to do it anymore. So now the default setting is 'nature.' The automatic response should be, 'Let's repair the mutilation in the urban fabric.' But instead you get this knee-jerk reaction, 'Replace [the city] with nature.' (Kunstler, 23:00-23:35).” So it'd be a shame if cities were saddled with a second crop of 'blob-in-nature' experiments, because recovering from the first crop was difficult enough!

But assuming Baltimore and other cities manage to keep new Radiant City border vacuums at bay, how can they go about fixing their existing Radiant City border vacuums?

The former Lafayette Courts housing project.
Baltimore has been quite successful in removing tower-in-the-park projects and replacing them with traditional rowhouse blocks under the CNU-influenced Hope VI program. Nowhere else is this impressive feat described better than in the Baltimore Rowhouse:

“On a winter's morning in 1955, a bulldozer started up and plowed into a group of brick rowhouses at the corner of Lexington and Aisquith Streets. When it was through, every rowhouse in the area was gone. It its place came a highrise housing project called Lafayette Courts. Forty years later, on a summer's morning in 1995, an electronic signal ignited 995 pounds of dynamite and the six towers of Lafayette Courts came crashing down. In its place came 228 rowhouses. The rowhouse has come full circle (1).”

Broadway Overlook replaced the Broadway Homes.
The rowhouse neighborhood that replaced Lafayette Courts, Pleasant View Gardens, was only one of several new rowhouse neighborhoods designed to replace dysfunctional housing projects: Broadway Overlook replaced the Broadway Homes, Heritage Crossing replaced the Murphy Homes, the Townes at the Terraces replaced Lexington Terrace, and Albemarle Square replaced Flag House Courts.

As with other Hope VI developments across the country, I sympathize with some criticisms over their residual Garden City features: the excessively-wide roads, the excessive parking (at the expense of larger backyards), the rather useless setbacks (again at the expense of larger backyards), and the lack of shops, live-work units, and other commerce. These shortcomings are perhaps most visible in Heritage Crossing.

Albemarle Square is seamlessly integrated into surrounding neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, the developments generally did a good job breaking up the old superblocks by reintroducing a continuous street grid and orienting their rowhouses to the streets. This is perhaps most visible in Albemarle Square, which feels like a seamless extension of Little Italy (see left). And, unlike the old projects, the new rowhouses offer myriad homeownership opportunities for both low and middle income residents.

Interestingly enough, in Chapter 20 (“Salvaging Projects”) Jacobs never called for the demolition of tower-in-the-park projects, perhaps because they represented such enormous sunk costs. Rather, Jacobs argued, they should be integrated back into the urban fabric by infilling their ambiguous grounds with small blocks composed of mixed-use buildings fronting onto continuous streets – in other words, by extending the traditional urban pattern right up to the towers. Of course, Jacobs wrote Death and Life when the projects were still relatively new, and their physical condition has since deteriorated to the point where demolition becomes far more attractive.

Still, a combination of incremental demolition and infill might work for some projects, like the McCulloh Homes. If the project's two towers aren't demolished, their (rather modest) skirt of “open space” could be infilled with mixed-use walkups. The project's superblock could be broken up by reintroducing and extending Hoffman, Etting, Division, and Brunt Streets across the site. The lowrise apartments could be incrementally converted into or replaced with traditional street-fronting shops and rowhouses, and the parking lots and walkways could be converted into intimate alley streets capable of commanding pride of ownership.

Of course, the McCulloh Homes are only one small part of a massive border vacuum composed of multiple Radiant City failures all the way from State Center down to the Social Security complex. Any strategy for dissolving the McCulloh Homes border vacuum would need to be coordinated with strategies for fixing State Center (more on this below), the dismal Social Security complex, several insular garden apartment complexes, MLK Boulevard, and the Highway to Nowhere.

Having demolished its highrise projects, Baltimore has turned its attention to removing its increasingly dysfunctional lowrise projects. For example, Spicer's Run recently replaced Eutaw Gardens (as discussed previously, it could have done a better job reconnecting to North Avenue), and there are plans to further improve Eutaw Place by replacing Pedestal Gardens with traditional infill. Madison Park North, the “Murder Mall” that cleaves Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill, also faces inevitable replacement. I think the Poe Homes and Perkins Homes should eventually be replaced with traditional infill as well.

Like tower-in-the-park projects, many of these lowrise garden apartment complexes have nebulous, ownerless, blind-eyed grounds, so they too are unnecessarily vulnerable to crime. As with the aforementioned incremental conversion of McCulloh Homes into a traditional mixed-use neighborhood, I think many lowrise projects could be incrementally repaired by breaking up their superblocks (i.e. extending clipped streets through linear parking lots), converting their walkways into streets, and converting or incrementally replacing apartments with rowhouses and commercial establishments that fronted onto the new streets.

Baltimore's State Center as originally envisioned.
As discussed earlier, the tower-in-the-park format wasn't just used for housing projects; it was also used for office projects with equally dismal results. Perhaps the most notorious example in Baltimore is the State Center, a poorly-aging complex of state government offices between Midtown and Bolton Hill. Originally conceived as a glittering tower-in-the-park sculpture (see right), State Center actually devolved into an even-drearier tower in the parking lot, exactly as Jacobs had predicted.

There already is an ambitious proposal to break up State Center by extending clipped streets across its superblock and infilling it with mixed-use midrise buildings. I think the proposal sounds fine in the abstract, but its implementation raises several concerns:

Firstly, there is the risk of injecting too much new office space into an office market already suffering from high vacancies; as with Harbor East, the development might only undermine the downtown via “intracity sprawl.”

Secondly, the proposal intends to incorporate an absurdly high amount of parking, far too much for such a transit-friendly location! (Both the Metro and Light Rail have stations there.) If this happened, the proposal could end up as another in a long line of TOD-in-name-only developments dwarfed by massive parking garages.

Thirdly, there are numerous downsides to introducing too much new construction all at once. As Jacobs discusses in Chapter 10 (“The Need for Aged Buildings”), districts that are built up in a relatively short period often fail to accommodate a sufficiently-broad range of activities: “A district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition [to] incubate diversity. If a city has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction. Mingling of new and old buildings, with consequent mingling in living costs and tastes, is essential to get diversity and stability in residential populations [and] enterprises (187-194).”

The urban fabric wiped out by State Center could still be rebuilt...
I therefore think a long-term strategy of incremental, finer-grained infill would be more appropriate for redeveloping State Center: the existing office buildings could be remodeled/converted and their grounds and parking lots gradually infilled with streets and mixed-use buildings in the manner described earlier. Or, if the buildings are unsalvageable, you could kill two birds with one stone by moving the state offices into one or more downtown buildings (thus alleviating the office vacancy rate and injecting more patrons into downtown restaurants and shops), subdividing the vacated State Center site into rowhouse-sized lots fronting onto newly-extended streets, and selling those lots off to multiple individuals rather than awarding the entire parcel to a single “economy of scale” developer (larger developers could, of course, still participate by buying multiple lots).

Although this approach would take longer to coalesce into a neighborhood, that neighborhood might very well be more organic: it'd accommodate a wider range of residents and businesses in buildings of different types and sizes, provided Baltimore's zoning code overhaul is flexible enough to allow the necessary variety. In short, there's no reason why the city couldn't adopt policies to encourage the reemergence of the original fine-grained neighborhood (see above) rather than continue relying on the “big footprint” approach.

It's still quite common for suburban commercial templates, like strip shopping centers, big-box stores, and shopping malls, to be carelessly airlifted into urban settings. Like any other city, Baltimore has its poorly-aging suburban transplants from the urban renewal era, but it continues to see new transplants, as at Port Covington and Canton Crossing.

The problem with airlifting suburban commercial templates into urban settings is that the urban context behaves very differently from the suburban context, and a context-insensitive transplant often causes problems. For example, a big-box supermarket can be comfortably accommodated in a suburban setting because there is sufficient space to buffer it from surrounding streets and houses via berms and shrubbery screens. Even if the big-box abuts a street, chances are that street (i.e. unpleasant arterial) will have no street life anyway.

But an urban context is very different: there is less land to sacrifice for berms and shrubbery buffers (even if there was, urban land is far too valuable to waste on such marginal band-aids), so the big-box usually ends up abutting streets and houses at an uncomfortably-close distance. The resulting blank-walled, blind-eyed streets are rendered unnecessarily vulnerable to crime, just like the aforementioned housing project grounds. This careless sundering of “eyes on the street” can be seen in Charles Village and Waverly.

Horizontally-oriented facades make a walk feel longer and more tiresome.
Not only are these blind-eyed streets unnecessarily vulnerable to crime, but the long, low blank walls undermine the sense of progress a pedestrian feels as he/she traverses the sidewalk, which gradually discourages pedestrian traffic, which ultimately makes the street even more dangerous in an accelerating feedback loop.

In Close Encounters With Buildings, Jan Gehl argues that porous vertically-oriented facades make a walk feel shorter and more pleasurable, whereas blank horizontally-oriented facades make a walk feel longer and more tiresome: “Walking along facades with vertical rhythms makes the walk much more interesting. We move from 'column to column,' which makes the walk seem shorter. Facades with horizontal articulation intensify the feeling of distance – a long, tiring perspective at eye level (35).”

Tachieva's Sprawl Repair Manual offers many ideas for fixing big-boxes.
Fortunately there are numerous options for integrating shopping centers and big-boxes into the urban fabric – I particularly like Galina Tachieva's suggestions for incrementally enclosing big-boxes with mixed-use liner buildings.

For big-boxes that directly abut the street (like the Waverly example), one could punch storefronts through their street-facing blank walls and simply move their interior shops (the pharmacies, bank branches, salons, video arcades, and other venues near the registers) into the storefronts. The shops could then be accessed from inside the big-boxes as well as from the sidewalks. For big-boxes with parking aprons (like the Charles Village example), one could incrementally extend existing buildings around the perimeters of the parking lots to create mixed-use liners. Of course, big-box retailers can be accommodated in midrise and highrise buildings too. Whatever the tactic, the goal remains the same: don't cripple streets with blank walls, parking lots, and ambiguous setbacks!

To that end, I hope Baltimore's new zoning code discourages the further importation of incompatible Radiant City transplants. Note that this wouldn't be a matter of discouraging any particular use (i.e. chain retail) but rather a matter of discouraging specific forms (i.e. blank-walled boxes set in parking lagoons).

Next time we'll examine solutions for the border vacuums around parks and "green spaces," so stay tuned!

- Marc Szarkowski
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