Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dissolving Border Vacuums, Part 1

At-Grade Border Vacuums: Parking Lots and Vacant Lots
The previous post on border vacuums discussed what borders were, why some borders create vacuums, and how these vacuums have affected Baltimore. This post will discuss solutions for at-grade border vacuums like parking lots and vacant lots, and over the coming months we'll discuss solutions for other kinds of border vacuums and see if they could apply to Baltimore.

New York's High Line Park
I invite readers to share solutions I may have overlooked so the discussion is as comprehensive as possible. (Also, I've omitted some conventional solutions – like Big Dig tunnels for highways – because they're usually expensive and unfeasible.)

Of course, no solution is a silver bullet. The fine print is context. For example, architect Witold Rybczynski, noting how many cities want to emulate New York's High Line Park (formerly an abandoned railroad viaduct that had devolved into a border vacuum), argued that the city's vibrant, dense, mixed-use Meatpacking and Chelsea districts made the High Line successful, and that the opposite strategy of “build it and they will come” – plop a High Line in an isolated area and hope that the vibrant urban fabric follows – would likely garner disappointment.

Finally, my intention is not to take a “fix it all now” position. These ideas are presented under the auspices of long-term incremental improvement – that of incorporating more thoughtful design when infrastructure and facilities are inevitably repaired, replaced, expanded, added, or removed. Perhaps this way border vacuums can be gradually dissolved rather than maintained by periodic reconstruction of the status quo.

Infilling parking lots and vacant lots
Parking lots and vacant lots are arguably some of the most corrosive border vacuums: they break the continuity of street walls by exposing party walls (“missing teeth”) and creating an atmosphere of dereliction. The effect is particularly destructive in rowhouse neighborhoods where the fabric relies on the appearance of continuity for stability.

Fortunately parking lots and vacant lots are also some of the easiest border vacuums to dissolve (if the demand for infill is there, of course) and their infilling has generally been greeted with enthusiasm in Baltimore. But what exactly constitutes good infill?

1111 Light Street in Federal Hill
Urban infill works best when it takes the form it has traditionally taken: Multistory, multiuse, and built out to the sidewalk. The infill should offer a porous facade to the sidewalk – it should interact with passersby via storefronts, stoops, porches, bays, balconies, discrete windows, and other features that reflect a human presence. Blank walls and vague “open spaces” or setbacks should be avoided.

By doing all this, good infill will form an engaging “street wall” that defines the street as a public room (see above). To avoid breaking this street wall, parking lots and garages should be stashed in back and accessed by alleys. Furthermore, good infill should be composed of small blocks punctuated by continuous street networks. These streets can be made quite intimate, further enriching the pedestrian experience.

Finally, good infill will feature a small increment of development: rather than being built by one developer in a short time, multiple blocks of good infill are composed by many people who have contributed different buildings over a long time. This results in an organic form that can accommodate Jane Jacobs' aged buildings: “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 (Chapter 10, The Death and Life of Great American Cities).”

Infill examples
The Merchant Point Townhomes in Fell's Point
Generally the smaller the increment of development has been in Baltimore (as with rowhouses or midrise buildings), the better the infill quality has been. Unfortunately, generally the larger the increment of development has gotten, the more likely it was to be marred by street-facing blank walls, parking garages, and service infrastructure.

The Merchant Point Townhomes at Aliceanna and Ann Streets in Fell's Point are an example of good lowrise (rowhouse) infill. Built atop the site of the historic St. Stanislaus Kostka complex, the rowhouses offer attractive steps, overhangs, discrete windows, and other friendly, human-scale details to the sidewalk, just like traditional rowhouses. The garages were placed in the back (accessed by an alley) to avoid sacrificing the Aliceanna Street facades to blank garage doors.

However, I think these rowhouses could have done a better job “turning the corner” at Ann Street. Right now the corner rowhouse offers just one first-floor window to Ann. If the garage in that corner rowhouse had been sacrificed for a wraparound storefront, these rowhouses would have done a better job connecting to the buildings along Ann, improving pedestrian delight and block continuity in the process. In fact, the 19th century rowhouse on the northwest corner of the same intersection is a perfect example of just such a strategy.

I've noticed that this lost opportunity for “turning the corner” is surprisingly common among recent infill rowhouses. The porosity of the primary (front) facade is usually quite good, but that of any secondary (side) facades could be better. If too many infill projects treat their secondary facades as an afterthought, there is the risk of turning the streets along those facades into “B” streets that are less desirable for pedestrian exploration, potentially fraying the connections between different streets (and neighborhoods!) in the process. This is rather unfortunate because Baltimore has many old rowhouses that do a wonderful job “turning the corner,” and they could be useful examples for future infill rowhouses.

The Twelve09 Condominiums at Preston and Charles Streets in Midtown-Belvedere are an example of good midrise infill. Built atop a former parking lot, this mixed-use building avoids the blank wall effect along Charles Street by using a retail liner (built out to the sidewalk) to conceal the structured parking in the center of the block. The building's facade also employs numerous details, like bays and balconies, to maintain pedestrian interest.

The Twelve09 Condominiums in Midtown-Belvedere
But again, while the building's Charles Street facade is quite good, its Preston Street facade could be better. The retail liner along Charles “turns the corner” onto Preston, but then it abruptly gives way to a first-floor facade with nothing but ventilation grilles, services doors, and an entrance to the parking garage. This infrastructure could have been placed along the rear alley (Lovegrove Street) instead, which would have allowed additional storefronts to line Preston Street.

Perimeter blocks in Hamburg, Germany

Finally, I think the Hilton superblock next to Camden Yards is an example of “meh” highrise infill. Although it was built atop former parking lots, some of the complex's street-level facades offer little to the pedestrian. True, the eastern block offers several restaurants, but the western block's southern facade offers only blank walls, grilles, and garage doors – right across from Camden Yards! I think these shortcomings could have been avoided if the Hilton had been built in a perimeter block format (see right): one or two portals leading to a central “backstage” area would have eliminated the need for dispersed service doors, garage doors, and other infrastructure on the perimeter, leaving it free for pedestrian-friendly programming.

What if a parking lot or vacant lot can't be infilled?
It would be ideal to infill as many parking lots as possible, but for various reasons some parking lots can't be infilled, at least not right away. How can we mitigate their border vacuums in the meantime?

The conventional strategy for shielding pedestrians from parking lots is to enclose them with low walls. But these boring walls do nothing to enliven the street. It may be preferable to enclose parking lots with liner buildings. Even narrow liner buildings can accommodate mixed uses or rowhouses. It's also possible to redesign parking lots as multipurpose plazas. That is, the lots could be enclosed, paved, planted, and furnished in a manner such that they could be used as public rooms in which cars would be permitted to park when there is little activity. (For example, perhaps someday the Waverly Farmer's Market parking lot could be improved this way.)

It's not always possible to infill some vacant lots either. If the infill demand isn't there yet, how can we mitigate their border vacuums in the meantime?

Some vacant lots can be turned into community gardens, patios, side-porches, and parklets, and the “missing tooth” appearance can be remedied by extending the street wall across them (see pages 28-32). Nevertheless, these strategies have their limits. Turning too many vacant lots into parklets risks diluting recreational activity – and maintenance efforts – over too large an area; it's better to concentrate that activity in a handful of parklets.

The next installment will discuss solutions for more at-grade borders (like arterial roads). Subsequent posts will discuss solutions for sunken borders (like highway and railroad trenches), elevated borders (like highway viaducts and railroad embankments), congregational borders (like arenas, sports facilities, and convention centers), superblock borders (like hotel, office, and parking complexes), Radiant City/Garden City borders (like tower-in-the-park housing projects, garden apartment housing projects, office parks, strip malls, and big-box facilities), campus borders (like hospital and university complexes), recreational borders (like parks and cemeteries), and various other borders (like prisons), so stay tuned!

- Marc Szarkowski

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Baltimore's Border Vacuums

Many of Jane Jacobs' ideas – particularly the need for cities to have mixed-use districts and “eyes on the street” – are well known by now. But the sheer density of ideas (no pun intended) in The Death and Life of Great American Cities is such that many of her poignant concepts are still overlooked. One such concept that I think deserves more attention, particularly in Baltimore, is the danger of creating what Jacobs called “border vacuums.”

The Highway to Nowhere is Baltimore's most notorious border vacuum.
What is a border? 

In Chapter 14 (“The Curse of Border Vacuums”) Jacobs defined a border as the perimeter of a large single-use territory or corridor (often a transportation corridor). Some common transportation borders are railroads, highways, and arterial roads. Some common territorial (institutional) borders are university and hospital campuses, office parks, housing projects, superblocks, strip malls, and sports and convention facilities.

How do borders create vacuums?
As Jacobs goes on to discuss, despite the usefulness of the transportation corridors and institutions in question, their peripheries pose some very real problems:

·         Transportation corridors like railroads, highways, and arterial roads tend to form “Chinese walls” because there are limited opportunities for crossing them to get from one district to another. Even if there are passages underneath elevated sections or bridges over sunken sections, the crossings are often so unpleasant (or perceived to be dangerous) that they discourage casual crossing. Many corridors thus tend to disrupt the continuity of the urban fabric, and the resulting fragmented/isolated neighborhoods can lose their economic and social connections with the rest of the city.

·         Large single-use institutional areas also tend to dampen our desire to cross them to get to another urban district: “Housing projects are examples of this. Project people cross [the border] back and forth [but] the adjoining people stay strictly over on their side of the border and treat the line as a dead end (261).”

·         Some borders eventually behave like gangrene, gradually deadening the streets and blocks around them: “The root trouble with borders is that they are apt to form dead ends for most users of city streets. Consequently, the streets that [go to] a border are bound to be deadened places. They fail to get a by-the-way circulation of people going beyond them in the direction of the border because few are going to that Beyond. A kind of running-down process is set in motion (259).”

·         A city may be able to overcome a few scattered borders (a parking lot, a vacant lot, a vacant building, a blank-walled building, or a 9-to-5 office tower here and there), but even these, if they aggregate into larger groups, can become formidable border vacuums: “Wherever a significant “dead place” appears on a downtown street, it causes a drop in the intensity of foot circulation there. Sometimes the drop is so serious economically that business declines to one side or the other of the dead place. The role of the dead place as a geographic obstacle has overcome its role as a contributor of users (263).”

The Inner Harbor narrowly avoided becoming another border vacuum.
However, some borders can become very desirable. The Inner Harbor had devolved into a border vacuum by the early 1970s, but by “activating the edge” with recreational attractions, the city turned the waterfront into a vibrant area. But it was actually the adjacent context of urban fabric that made this possible: Baltimore ultimately left the waterfront's adjoining commercial and residential districts intact rather than separating them with highways.

Had the highways been built – as was the case in so many other cities now trying to revive their isolated waterfront scraps – the waterfront border vacuum would likely have become worse because the city would not have been able to activate the edge with the fabrics of Federal Hill, Otterbein, Downtown, Fell's Point, and Canton.

I should point out – and Jacobs does this herself – that this is not an issue of “borders = bad and unnecessary.” That would be an extremely simplistic argument. After all, if institutional and transportation borders didn't fulfill a purpose, they wouldn't be there in the first place: “Many of them are most important to cities. A big city needs universities and large medical centers. A city needs railroads and expressways. The point is hardly to disdain such facilities or to minimize their value. Rather, the point is to recognize that they are mixed blessings. If we can counter their destructive effects, these facilities will themselves be better served (265).”

Likewise, when I discuss specific Baltimore transportation and institutional border vacuums below, my intention is not to criticize the institutions or transportation amenities themselves, but merely to acknowledge their (often unintentional) vacuum side effects and to explore strategies for fixing them.

How have border vacuums affected Baltimore?
I created the map on the right to highlight central Baltimore's most commonly perceived border vacuums. Several are worth discussing in detail:

It's hard to extend the fabric of promising neighborhoods if they're hemmed in by so many border vacuums. For example, it's currently impossible for revitalization to spread north from Jonestown and Pleasant View Gardens across the combination of parking lots, the Post Office complex, the Oldtown Mall (whose tiny Stirling Street hamlet can't expand either), the prison complex, and the surrounding housing projects.

Revitalization can't spread east from Midtown across the JFX barrier to Johnston Square either, and even with five bridge connections across the JFX and the Northeast Corridor, the revitalization in Station North has been agonizingly sluggish and uneven (Station North also has the additional barriers of North Avenue and Greenmount Cemetery).

Also note how MLK Boulevard and its associated institutional vacuums (State Center and the McCulloh Homes in particular) prevent a stronger connection between Bolton Hill/Upton and Seton Hill/Mt. Vernon/Midtown. The MLK border vacuum continues south across the Highway to Nowhere (itself an infamous border vacuum) to separate Poppleton from downtown. There's been disappointingly little revitalization in West Baltimore despite the generous outpouring of funds over the years, and there probably will be no meaningful revitalization until the MLK border vacuum and its connecting/associated border vacuums are dissolved.

North Avenue was once a vibrant “seam.”
One particularly interesting border vacuum is the section of North Avenue between the JFX and Eutaw Place. In 1950 this stretch of North Avenue was narrower, it had more intersections with cross streets (and thus smaller blocks more appealing to pedestrians), and it was enclosed with mixed-use buildings. Although it was an important avenue and landmark, the North Avenue of 1950 was not a barrier. It was what Jacobs, citing Kevin Lynch, called a “seam”: “An edge may be more than a barrier if some motion penetration is allowed through it – if it is structured to some depth with the regions on either side. It then becomes a seam rather than a barrier, a line of exchange along which two areas are sewn together (267).”

That last phrase - “a line of exchange” - perfectly described this section of North Avenue in 1950. Although the neighborhoods to the north and south of this seam had their own distinct identities, the commercial thread that wove them together (stores with apartments above, movie theaters, and the streetcar line) made interaction easy and pleasant.

The same section of North Avenue has since devolved into a border vacuum.
What's this section of North Avenue like today? It has devolved into a border vacuum so harsh that it wouldn't be all that hyperbolic to describe it as the boundary between two different countries. Almost everything in the above photo is gone: the avenue was widened, the unifying central transit seam was pushed to the sides, the mixed-use “street wall” urban fabric was obliterated, several intersections and cross streets were removed, the resulting superblocks were filled with parking lots and Radiant City complexes (such as Madison Park North, the “Murder Mall”), and the periphery of the avenue was enclosed with fences, berms, and shrubbery buffers. It is now a literal wall between Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill.

For some time now, people have wished that Reservoir Hill would match or even exceed Bolton Hill in splendor. It has grander rowhouses, after all, and it enjoys a proximity to splendid Druid Hill Park (interestingly enough, that connection was also frayed after WWII when Druid Park Lake Drive was built). Although there has been some faint revitalization in pockets of Reservoir Hill (and note: mostly along streets that still connect to Bolton Hill!), it too will probably not enjoy a comeback until the North Avenue border vacuum is dissolved.

Unfortunately, recent infill projects along the northern edge of Bolton Hill, rather than reconnecting to Reservoir Hill, have turned their backs on it instead. The MICA Gateway dormitory offers a blank wall to North Avenue, and the Spicer's Run development, while it did a good job reconnecting to Eutaw Place, made no effort to reconnect to North Avenue either. While the fear over connecting to a crime-ridden corridor is understandable (more on this below), I'd argue that the crime in the corridor won't be overcome unless there are reconnection attempts on both sides. Paradoxically, fences and buffers only exacerbate the problem. 

Many border vacuums around Baltimore's stabler neighborhoods have been reinforced over the very understandable fear of crime. Some of these border reinforcement strategies are descendants of Oscar Newman's Defensible Space theory, and unfortunately some of his ideas conflict with the effort to create continuous urban fabrics. While I strongly support Newman's argument that “ownerless” public spaces, such as the grounds of Radiant City projects, can induce crime and disorder due to their inability to support natural surveillance (in this respect Newman's argument is identical to Jacobs'), I think some of his solutions (urban cul-de-sacs and self-contained mini-neighborhoods) may not be appropriate long-term strategies. A city of gated neighborhoods eventually stops functioning as a city, and the gate strategy doesn't really address the underlying roots of crime.

Look what happens when there are no border vacuums...
Contrast the neighborhoods we discussed above with the neighborhoods of south/southeast Baltimore: the lack of border vacuums has allowed revitalization to flow freely from Otterbein to Federal Hill and further south to Riverside and South Baltimore. Over the years revitalization has also swept freely from Fell's Point to Upper Fell's Point to Butcher's Hill, and it is now creeping into Washington Hill (perhaps revitalization would have crept in even earlier if it hadn't been forced to sidestep the Perkins Homes border vacuum) and Patterson Place. Revitalization has also flowed east to Canton and Brewer's Hill, and it's now pushing into Highlandtown, with stirrings of revitalization beginning to appear in Linwood. It eventually will spread to McElderry Park and Ellwood Park if the (comparatively minor) Pulaski Highway border vacuum is dissolved.

Revitalization has been able to spread freely across these neighborhoods – tying them together in the process – because there are no border vacuums on the scale of those that divide and surround the neighborhoods discussed earlier. If there had been the equivalent of a North Avenue or a MLK Boulevard dividing, say, Canton from Highlandtown, would revitalization have been able to spread as easily, or would it have halted in Canton? Encouraging continuity of the urban fabric is critically important if Baltimore wants to have a unified and vibrant center city district. Because this strategy has not always been acknowledged, the city has often (and unsurprisingly) resorted to the strategy of airlifting money into isolated areas, with very little to show for it.

In the next installment on border vacuums we'll look at strategies for dissolving them (from the cheap and simple to the complex and pricey), and we'll see if/how these strategies could apply to specific Baltimore border vacuums.

- Marc Szarkowski

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Transportation Funding in Maryland: Do or Die Time

            It's do or die time for the Purple and Red light rail lines. If the legislature is able to raise revenue for transportation during this legislative session, both lines will probably get the federal funding they need and will go forward. Should the legislature fail to raise revenue the federal funding that has currently been allocated will run out and the feds will not fund any more work on the rail lines.
             According to the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund was established in 1971 and is funded through a number of sources. These include corporate income taxes, vehicle titling taxes, transit fares, MVA fees, and of course the gas tax (which interestingly enough only makes up about 20% of trust fund revenue). According to MDOT, pooling all transportation revenue into a single fund gives the state a great deal of flexibility as to what it spends its transportation dollars on. The Maryland Transportation Trust Fund is viewed as a national model for how to fund transportation.
            In a sense, this flexibility is a good thing as there is an argument to be made that policymakers should be able to spend the money as they wish. But there is also a downside. Many transit agencies have their own dedicated source of money that they can draw from. But both the MTA and WMATA must go to the legislature each year for funding. Such a situation most likely creates uncertainty for both organizations and may make long term budget planning difficult. Furthermore, with such flexibility there is nothing to stop policymakers from completely gutting transit funding and spending the money on wasteful highway projects.
            This isn't just a theoretical situation. During the Ehrlich administration there was a plan to redesign the bus system. This was known as the Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative. While the need for a bus system redesign was (and still is) long overdue, the Initiative was more about cutting the MTA's funding than it was about creating a system that works for everyone. Eventually the Legislature had to step in and prevent further changes to the MTA's route structure.
            Having the Trust Fund serve as the end all be all for transportation financing may also make it difficult to raise revenue. Since the Trust Fund relies on revenue throughout the state it must fund projects throughout the state. This means that transportation projects have their futures intertwined with each other. Some of these projects have more support and are of greater use than others.
            There are three components that increased revenue from the Transportation Trust Fund will be spent on. The first component is the Purple Line. The Purple Line is a light rail line through the DC suburbs that is projected to carry about 69,000 people a day by 2030. The only organized opposition to this project comes from a country club in Chevy Chase worried about the effect it will have on their precious golf course. Elected officials in Montgomery and Prince George's County's are so determined to get the line built they have even considered instituting a regional gas tax should the legislature fail to shore up the Trust Fund.
            The second component consists of the Baltimore Red Line. Since the beginning of Red Line planning, ridership projections have fluctuated around a bit but the line is currently projected to have about 50,000 passengers a day by 2030. There has been considerable opposition to the Red Line. While much of this opposition has come from those more concerned about car lanes than anything else, many of those opposed to the Red Line are true transit advocates. The reasons pro-transit advocates oppose the Red Line are complex and are better discussed at another time. Unlike in the DC suburbs, Baltimore's political leaders do not have the same enthusiasm for the Red Line. The project is little more than a footnote when it come's to the city's agenda for this year's state General Assembly and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz does not even name the Red Line as a top transportation priority.
            The third component is made up of highway expansions. This component is just plain stupid. Due to the phenomenon of induced traffic, more highway lanes only lead to more traffic. For some reason policymakers have yet to understand this proven concept.
            All of the above projects will rise and fall together even though they have varying levels of merit and support. While the state should pay for a significant portion of all transit projects, having it be the only source of funding may be a mistake. If policymakers are serious about getting major transit projects it may be time to consider regional sources of funding. These may include things like regional payroll, income, sales, or property taxes.
            More regional funding could potentially mean more local control over the system. The MTA is currently a state agency with local officials having no say in how the system is run. Most other systems are independent authorities with their own board of directors (which are often in part appointed by local officials). Such an arrangement harms the ability of the MTA to do its mission. For example, the MTA must follow state procurement procedures. This means that when the MTA is making major investments they must first be approved by the MTA's own procurement office, then MDOT headquarters, then the state Department of Budget and Management, and finally the Board of Public Works. This is part of the reason why it has taken the MTA six or seven years (and counting) to put in a real-time arrival system.
            Changing the funding and governance structure transit in Baltimore will not be an easy task. It will require strong efforts from both grassroots activists and more establishment organizations like big business and large nonprofit organizations. However, I do believe the benefits of such an arrangement could be worthwhile.
- Gregory Friedman
NOTE: Shortly after I finished writing the draft for this blog post. Maryland Senate President Thomas V. “Mike Miller” proposed a funding plan similar to what I discuss below. These are potentially exciting times for transit in the Baltimore region.

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