Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dissolving Border Vacuums, Part 6

SUPERBLOCK BORDER VACUUMS
Last time we looked at the border vacuums around congregational facilities, so this time let's examine those around “big footprint” developments, parking garages, and other facilities that come in superblock form.

Downtown Baltimore's superblocks.
WHAT'S A SUPERBLOCK?
In the simplest sense a superblock is either an abnormally-large block imposed in a top-down manner or a traditional block that has had its cross streets, alleys, and milieu of smaller buildings removed over the years. As seen in the diagram on the right, downtown Baltimore has several kinds of superblocks.

The first kind of superblock – the abnormally-large block – was often the product of urban renewal schemes in which smaller blocks were razed and merged into large “blank slates” to accommodate “big footprint” projects. The “big footprint” aspect was both literal and figurative: not only did these projects intend to serve as high-profile evidence of urban progress, but they also intended to turn stagnant urban economies around in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, while they were well-meaning, they were ineffective at best and sometimes only made things worse.

Charles Center (Charles Plaza+Center Plaza+Hopkins Plaza) is a relic of the “big footprint” approach. Other notorious examples include the Empire State Plaza in Albany, the Government Center in Boston, and the Renaissance Center in Detroit.

The second kind of superblock – the formerly fine-grained block that gradually gave way to a single megastructure – was not so much a product of urban renewal as it was a result of zoning, parking, taxation, and economic redevelopment inertia. For example, many blocks in downtown Baltimore once contained a milieu of mixed-use buildings punctuated by narrow streets and alleys. Over time many of these streets and alleys were removed, and blocks that once contained scores of buildings gave way to new blocks that contained just one or two megastructures. That is, blocks that had once been porous, fine-grained, and human-scaled were essentially reduced to large impervious boxes. Today nearly every block along the Inner Harbor has morphed into a superblock.

WHAT'S WRONG WITH SUPERBLOCKS AND WHY DO CITIES NEED SMALL BLOCKS?
In Chapter 9 of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs argued that large blocks create numerous problems for cities:
  • As is self-evident, their geometry (their long unrelieved stretches and limited opportunities for turning the corner) undermines street life by restricting pedestrians' ability to casually traverse the street grid. Thus, unlike small blocks, they make it difficult for liveliness to spread from block to block (269).
  • The crimping of street life proceeds to undermine the economic vitality of residents and businesses in and around the superblocks, effectively isolating them: “People are kept too much apart to form pools of cross-use. [Large blocks] sort people into paths that meet too infrequently so that different uses near each other geographically are [still] blocked off from one another. Large blocks thwart the potential advantages cities offer to incubation, experimentation, and small enterprises (181-183).”
  • Even if superblocks have pedestrian walkways, they still often fail to support fine-grained interaction: “Even when they are laced with promenades and malls, and thus in theory possess 'streets' at reasonable intervals, these streets are meaningless because there is seldom any reason for people to use them (186).” Center Plaza, for example, has a walkway along its northern rim (where Lexington Street once ran), and a couple other walkways branch down to connect to Fayette Street, but these walkways are no substitutes for traditional streets containing a finer-grained mixture of uses and sights. While Charles Center thoughtfully integrated several existing buildings into its superblocks (unlike many “big footprint” developments in other cities), it still is no Charles Street (see below).
I'd rather be on Charles Street than in Charles Center!
Jacobs went on to argue that, instead of closing streets and alleys, cities should encourage their formation wherever possible: “Frequent streets and short blocks permit intricate cross-use. In successful districts streets are never made to disappear; wherever possible they multiply. Thus in Philadelphia, what were once alleys down the centers of blocks have become streets with buildings fronting on them. They often include commerce: the supply of feasible spots for commerce increases considerably, [as does] the distribution and convenience of their placement, [when streets are added] (180-186).”

Note the difference in porosity between traditional blocks and superblocks.
Take, for example, the stark difference between two adjacent blocks in downtown Baltimore (see right). The block bounded by Redwood, Calvert, Lombard, and Light Streets contains five alleys (some of them quite charming) and twenty buildings of various size containing hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, offices, and apartments. This rich mix of uses suggests that one justification for superblocks – that modern enterprises can't fit in smaller blocks and buildings – is debatable.

Compare this block to the block immediately to the south: it's occupied by a single megastructure that, save for the important Pratt Street frontage, is mostly ringed with parking garages, blank walls, and service infrastructure. The previous fine-grained block avoided this outcome by placing its “backstage” infrastructure along its alleys.

This is how Hopkins Plaza's Fallon Building greets Lombard Street!
The second block's perimeter shows us that, in addition to the problems Jacobs cited, many superblocks fragment the city by their sheer insularity (see left).

This phenomenon particularly irked William Whyte, and in Chapter 9 of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces he argued strenuously against superblocks: “The ultimate development in the flight from the street is the urban fortress. [These] megastructures' enclosing walls are blank. [They are] going to date very badly, and they are a wretched model for the future of the city (85-89).”

In the film that accompanied the book, Whyte went even further in highlighting their absurdity: “Look at the wall the [Bonaventure complex] turns to [Los Angeles]. Have you ever seen a more brutal and unnecessary rejection of the street? Ironically, twenty miles away at Disneyland, people pay good money to enjoy a replica of a regular street with shops, windows, and doors! (00:25:25-00:27:40).” 

Although Charles Center wasn't deliberately standoffish like the “big footprint” fortresses in Atlanta, Detroit, LA, and elsewhere, it nevertheless gradually succumbed to insularity: not only were its street frontages dismal, but it pulled its plazas, shops, and walkways inward. For example, I would hardly bother venturing into Hopkins Plaza to linger on a windswept plaza ringed by cold office towers unless I was an office worker stepping outside for lunch.

Baltimore doesn't need more open space; it needs to use existing space better.
This gets to another problem: I think “open space” is overrated. Not only does Charles Center already contain vague setbacks and nebulous paved areas, but many of Baltimore's emergent superblocks – like the Transamerica Tower – are surrounded by open spaces of an even more ambiguous nature (see right). I'm quite sympathetic to the argument that downtown Baltimore frustratingly lacks the delightful squares popping up in other cities, but a cursory glance at an aerial view of downtown – particularly the rim of superblocks along Pratt Street – reveals that it's already saturated with rather useless scraps of open space.

Perhaps it'd be far more productive to maintain a limited number of squares enclosed by traditional streets and fine-grained blocks (like Armiger Square) than it would be to continue airlifting “object in the round” megastructures into ambiguous “green spaces” and “open spaces”? Central Florence thrives with just a few marvelous piazzas, yet downtown Baltimore has much more open space, most of which fails to attract a critical mass of people. In short, the downtown doesn't need more open space, rather it needs to concentrate activity in just a few intimate, well-defined plazas with “permeable membranes.”

Finally, superblocks fragment the urban fabric by reducing the number of streets between/through them, thereby concentrating traffic on a handful of arterials. This traffic would otherwise be distributed and diluted over a finer grain of streets.

DEAD IN THEORY, BUT STILL ALIVE IN PRACTICE?
At this point some people might insist that the superblock theory is long dead. But is it really? The aforementioned zoning, parking, taxation, and economic redevelopment inertia in Baltimore and elsewhere continue to induce megastructures. The dubious financing scheme that induced the partially blank-walled Hilton superblock next to Camden Yards is but one poignant example.

WHY ARE SUPERBLOCKS STILL INDUCED?
In Suburban Nation Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck argued that zoning codes are partially responsible: “FAR (floor-area ratio), if combined with setback requirements, privileges large-lot development: two 5,000-square-foot lots are inferior to a single 10,000-square-foot lot in terms of their resulting FAR capacity, which discourages the involvement of small-scale developers downtown. This scenario leads cities to become dependent on a few large developers rather than on a diversity of local property owners (176-177).”

Parking mandates pose a substantial problem as well. It's difficult to provide off-street parking for new (or renovated/converted) smaller buildings: where will it fit? It thus makes sense to raze smaller buildings and merge their lots into blocks large enough to accommodate off-street parking: “Most cities require new and renovated buildings to provide their own parking. This prevents the renovation of old buildings since there is inadequate room on their sites for parking, it encourages the construction of anti-pedestrian buildings [that] sit behind or hover above parking garages, and it eliminates street life since everyone parks immediately adjacent to their destination and has no reason to walk, [thus preventing] a downtown from achieving critical mass. Cities should eliminate this ordinance immediately (Ibid., 163).”

Parking mandates may be one reason why many of the upper floors in downtown Baltimore's older, smaller buildings sit vacant. (Inflexible building codes are another, as seen with the decay and challenging subsequent renovation of the Brexton Hotel.) These empty floors are just begging to be converted into cheap lofts for the young people flooding into Baltimore, but if their conversion triggers off-street parking mandates, then cost-effective adaptive reuse can be impractical. I therefore think Baltimore's zoning code overhaul should rescind all downtown parking minimums (thus obviating the need for case-by-case variances). This might accelerate the adaptive reuse/conversion of existing small buildings and encourage the construction of smaller infill buildings.

The parking issue is intertwined with yet another issue: the quality of public transit. In cases where they're not induced by parking mandates, the parking garages that accompany superblocks are probably provided under the assumption that the alternative (public transit) simply isn't good enough. That is, developers may feel their units won't sell if they lack parking.

Unfortunately there's no easy solution to this predicament. Parking garages can incorporate retail liners (Baltimore already has a few examples), but the downtown is already saturated with parking garages, so the only effective solution is a long-term one: the public transit system must be incrementally improved. A reliance on quick-fix parking garage liners might result in an absurd scenario in which there'd be too few people nearby to support the proliferation of retail liners. Downtown retail demand is already rather weak – it makes little sense to add retail-lined parking garages when so many existing shopfronts already sit empty.

These vacant buildings have been waiting for the Superblock for years...
Unwieldy taxation can also induce superblocks by restricting the ability of smaller property owners to participate in finer-grained redevelopment, thus forcing cities to rely on a handful of the aforementioned large developers. Since these developers operate on large “economies of scale,” they're compelled to combine small buildings/lots into large parcels dependent on complex-but-brittle financing schemes. The end result is that development proceeds at a glacial pace: “Only one project may get built every five years, with that project absorbing all the demand of the next five years. Half the city [thus] sits empty while huge projects land in isolated locations like spaceships (Ibid., 173-174).” The perpetually-stalled Superblock project (note the nickname!) reflects this predicament.

The land slated for future superblocks is often held in speculative cold storage for years or even decades. This land usually comes in the form of mothballed vacant buildings, vacant lots, and/or “temporary” parking lots, and these form border vacuums long before a superblock even arrives! This is precisely the case with the Superblock: some of the site's existing buildings are slated for “facadism” into a megastructure with an uncertain future, so they languish in dereliction and vacancy (see above).

So zoning, parking, taxation, and economic development reforms could encourage finer-grained redevelopment, but is there any way to fix existing superblocks?

REINTRODUCING CROSS STREETS
Perhaps one of the easiest strategies for dissolving “open space” superblocks is to simply reintroduce their missing cross streets and alleys. For example, the BCPSS superblock currently clips Guilford Avenue for one block; extending Guilford Avenue across the parking lot seems like a no-brainer.

RECONFIGURING THE GROUND FLOOR
Superblock complexes require periodic renovation like any other building, so when that time comes it may be possible to thoughtfully reconfigure their ground floors:

It's possible to retrofit storefronts into a superblock's blank walls and parking garages, and to the city's credit, there already is a proposal to add retail frontages to several superblocks along Pratt Street. The strategy has its limits, of course: there is the risk of saturating the downtown with too much retail space (as discussed earlier, downtown retail demand is already weak). It may be preferable to retrofit just one superblock and, if it succeeds, to incrementally retrofit additional superblocks on a block-by-block basis (assuming the city continues infilling downtown parking lots and converting vacant office buildings into apartments).

The St. James Hotel offered a line of shops to Centre Street.
Some superblocks, like hotels, can simply move their internally-oriented semipublic programming – restaurants, gift shops, etc. – into new retail liners. Not only does this enliven the street, but it boosts the hotel's profile as well. This strategy was once quite common in Baltimore and elsewhere (see right), but, save for a few exceptions, it's rather rare now.

It's also possible to run arcades through superblocks. This allows pedestrians to cut through them rather than having to walk around their perimeter. As is perhaps self-evident, these arcades need to be lined with shops and other attractions, otherwise they'd be no better than the desolate walkways/skywalks in “big footprint” projects. Brown's Arcade is a useful precedent in this regard, as is Lexington Market.

What about superblocks that are elevated above street level on podiums or plinths? The Monumental Life Building, for example, offers a blank wall to Biddle Street. It's possible to punch storefronts through these blank walls (and sacrifice some of the parking that may be lurking behind them). To its credit, One Charles Center does exactly this along Fayette Street.

The Charles Towers greet Charles Street with a retail complex.
INFILLING SETBACKS
If a superblock is of the “tower in the plaza” variety, it's possible to infill the plaza with mixed-use buildings. Charles Plaza, for example, once had all the charm of East Berlin, but it was partially infilled with a reconfigured retail complex. The strategy addressed an important issue: urban retail can struggle if it's set back too far from the street (as was the case with the older shopping complex on the plaza), so it should be made as prominent as possible (perhaps an early proposal for building the new complex right out to the sidewalk would have been even better). A similar strategy might work for Baltimore's many other superblock outparcels: the Transamerica Tower's plaza, for example, could be infilled with walkups or mixed-use buildings.

If permanent infill isn't feasible yet, it's possible to activate the ambiguous setbacks with tactical/popup urbanism. That is, the “open spaces” can be programmed with performances, festivals, markets, interactive installations, and other events. As in the discussion on elevated transportation corridors, however, this strategy assumes there's a large-enough pool of people nearby to support the programming. Furthermore, the more “open spaces” there are, the harder it is to inject enough programming to enliven them all.

BREAKING UP “BIG FOOTPRINT” PROJECTS
I think the best way to fix “big footprint” superblocks is to integrate them back into the street-and-block grid. For example, while the recent renovation of Center Plaza was certainly an improvement, I still think the fundamental problem with Charles Center – that it's essentially introverted – remains unaddressed. So how exactly do you dissolve a “big footprint” superblock back into the urban fabric?

In the case of Center Plaza, it may be possible to reopen Lexington Street as a narrow shared street and run two additional such streets down to Fayette Street (see right). For these streets (and the plaza in the center) to work properly, of course, the aforementioned “permeable membrane” would need to be introduced wherever it's missing. The Park Charles Apartments and One Charles Center already offer (partial) retail liners to the plaza (though they could be more porous), but liners could be inserted into the BGE complex's arcade as well.

It might even be possible to add modest walkup or loft-style units above and around these liners to create a narrow-street-style human presence – something that's difficult to do solely with highrises. (Vancouver, for example, has long worked walkups into and around highrises.)

A similar process might work for Hopkins Plaza (see right): Hanover Street could be reintroduced as a shared street and extended all the way down to Lombard Street; likewise Redwood Street could be extended all the way to Hopkins Place. These new shared streets would define the central plaza, and the entire ensemble could be enclosed with mixed-use buildings.

In short, the essential strategy required is this: don't define buildings with space; define space with buildings! If you define buildings with space, you just get a nebulous “open space” residue that isn't really good for anything. The best public spaces feel like intimate outdoor rooms.

INCORPORATING PERIMETER BLOCKS AND STEPPED HIGHRISES
There probably always will be some enterprises that require larger floorplates and buildings. But it's still possible to mitigate their border vacuums by employing more thoughtful building masses in conjunction with the previously-discussed solutions.

As discussed earlier, many superblocks place their primary programming in the center of the block and surround it with ancillary support functions, like parking, service, and delivery infrastructure. This, of course, results in superblocks presenting nothing but blank walls, service doors, loading docks/drives, exhaust grilles/vents, and parking garages to the street. Lombard Street, for example, has essentially devolved into a service drive for the Inner Harbor's superblocks.

Perimeter blocks in Hamburg, Germany.
The perimeter block solves this problem by simply inverting the programming sequence: it places the unpleasant (but necessary) service infrastructure in the center of the block, and the primary programming (the hotel rooms, offices, apartments, shops, etc.) on the edge of the block along the street. Mid-block portals provide access to the “backstage” infrastructure in the center. The Station North Townhomes are a good  example of the perimeter block strategy; Jefferson Square at Washington Hill is another (though I'd urge the developer to extend Fairmount Avenue across the site).

Finally, is there a way for cities to comfortably accommodate highrise superblocks? Many highrises of the “tower in the plaza” variety, like the Transamerica Tower or the towers in the Charles Center superblocks, were set back from the street and from each other so that their clustering wouldn't create a claustrophobic canyon effect. (For example, imagine the unpleasant outcome of having a downtown composed of tightly-packed wall-to-wall highrises in the manner of the B&O Building and the Lord Baltimore Hotel.) Unfortunately, while the setback strategy is understandable, the setbacks often devolve into ambiguous wastelands, as discussed earlier.

It may be preferable to adopt stepped or “wedding cake” highrises akin to those built in New York under that city's 1916 zoning resolution (Baltimore has its own 10 Light Street precedent). This way, rather than relying on banal street-level setbacks that interrupt the “street wall,” stepped highrises can be built right out to the sidewalk. The Empire State Building, for example, greets Fifth Avenue with a comfortably-scaled, retail-lined facade.

Next time we'll look at solutions for the border vacuums around radiant/garden city complexes (like housing projects, strip malls, and office/government parks), so stay tuned!

- Marc Szarkowski

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Dissolving Border Vacuums, Part 5

CONGREGATIONAL BORDER VACUUMS
In previous posts we examined the border vacuums around transportation corridors, so now let's look at the border vacuums around institutional facilities and districts. We'll look at problematic congregational facilities first (convention centers, arenas, and sports facilities), and over the coming months we'll look at many other institutional border vacuums, like those around superblocks (“big footprint” developments and their parking garages), “radiant/garden city” complexes (housing projects, strip malls, and office and government parks), campuses (universities and hospitals), and recreational areas (parks and cemeteries).

Even vital urban institutions can unintentionally deaden their surroundings.
THE PROBLEM WITH SPECIAL-USE DISTRICTS
Of course, the purpose of this analysis is not to criticize the institutions themselves (which are vital urban amenities), but to examine solutions for their (often unintentional) border vacuums. Actually, an “institutional” border vacuum can form around any programming that tends toward a single use over a large area: the history of postwar development shows us that even activities that were once seamlessly integrated into ordinary neighborhoods – like shopping districts – were unnecessarily turned into border vacuums.

Jane Jacobs argued that the sorting of urban activities into specialized districts prone to border vacuum formation (what we now know as single-use zoning) began with the City Beautiful concept of the civic center: “City after city built its civic center or its cultural center. The monuments [and civic institutions] were sorted out from the rest of the city and assembled in a separate and well-defined way. The idea of sorting out certain cultural or public functions and decontaminating their relationship with the workaday city dovetailed nicely with Garden City teachings. The conceptions have merged into a sort of Radiant Garden City Beautiful. The entire concoction is irrelevant to the workings of cities (24-25).”

Jacobs went on to reveal just how these civic centers created border vacuums: “The centers were not a success. For one thing, the ordinary city around them invariably ran down instead of being uplifted, and they always acquired an incongruous rim of ratty tattoo parlors and secondhand clothing stores, or else just nondescript, dispirited decay. For another, people stayed away from them to a remarkable degree (25).” This running-down phenomenon doesn't just afflict monumental civic centers, of course – it seems to be common along most institutional districts! Perhaps the most notorious example in Baltimore is the dead zone surrounding Johns Hopkins Hospital (see above).

Why ghettoize institutions in special-use districts...
The “Radiant Garden City Beautiful” disdain for the workaday city was a  reaction to hypertrophic industrialization and its degradation of the urban fabric, but unfortunately this reaction spawned our lingering fixation with sorting and separating various urban functions. Unlike many older cities abroad, where civic institutions are often sprinkled among and crammed into ordinary mixed-use neighborhoods, here in the US we tended to reinforce the notion of the “sacred” monumental city as something separate from the “profane” workaday city: on pages 172-174, Jacobs, quoting Elbert Peets, expressed frustration over the gradual but intentional transformation of Washington D.C.'s core into a single-use monumental/governmental district, a strategy quite contrary to L'Enfant's original vision.

Even today we still tend to unnecessarily form single-use districts and push specialized functions into them: why are museums and theaters still consigned to “arts districts,” bars and clubs sifted into “entertainment districts,” and labs and research centers relegated to “tech parks,” for example?

...when they could be useful neighborhood anchors and landmarks?
Although we've realized that imposing single-use zoning on cities was a mistake, I don't think we've fully realized that special-use districts need not be imposed on cities either: most of the institutional buildings that make them up can be distributed in and among ordinary mixed-use neighborhoods. This doesn't mean that institutional buildings can't be focal points – in fact, in Chapter 19 Jacobs argues that institutional buildings can serve as focal points, terminating vistas, and landmarks precisely when they're situated in the ordinary urban fabric! (Philly's City Hall is a great example.) Confining these institutional buildings to special-use districts like civic centers only robs cities of the opportunity to use them as orienting focal points and landmarks throughout and across their urban fabrics.

Of course, it's easy to argue against the creation of new special-use, single-use, institutional districts, but many such districts already exist in Baltimore and elsewhere, so how can we fix their border vacuums? We'll examine solutions for different kinds of institutional facilities and districts in upcoming posts; this first post will only focus on convention centers, arenas, and sports facilities:

CONVENTION CENTERS, ARENAS, AND SPORTS FACILITIES
Baltimore actually deserves considerable credit for building its convention center, arena, and baseball and football stadiums downtown at a time when many other cities were confining them to special-use districts or pushing them to the fringes. Camden Yards, for example, was so successful it revived a nationwide trend of building enclosed downtown ballparks.

Even as early as the mid-1950s with the planning of the 1st Mariner Arena, Baltimore was already making an effort to locate new civic institutions downtown, an effort that did not go unnoticed by Jacobs: “Baltimore, after playing around for years with this plan and that for an abstracted and isolated civic center, has decided instead to build downtown, where these facilities can count most as primary uses and landmarks (404).”

The convention center offers a looooong blank wall to the street!
But while the Convention Center, 1st Mariner Arena, Camden Yards, and M&T Bank Stadium are all venerable, well-located institutions, their integration into the surrounding urban fabric is rather clunky. The convention center is perhaps the worst example: it occupies a vast superblock that offers an endless blank wall to the sidewalks. This superblock is boxed in by unpleasant arterials (Pratt, Charles, Conway, and Howard Streets) and a surrounding ring of hotel and office superblocks, several of which have pedestrian-draining skywalks to the convention center. Similar problems afflict the 1st Mariner Arena. The area suffers from a dizzying, overlapping array of border vacuums!

The locational and spatial requirements of convention centers, arenas, and stadiums pose quite a dilemma: these facilities work best when located downtown and they need large open spaces to accommodate conventions, concerts, and sporting events, but this is fundamentally at odds with the need for small urban blocks. It seems the best solution to the dilemma is to raise the facility above the street grid and to fill the space underneath it with retail-lined cross streets. (This, of course, also requires a residential context!) This was the happy outcome of the decision to convert the Reading Terminal train shed in Philly into a convention center – part of the facility is thus discreetly elevated above a wonderful public market.

Baltimore is already aware of the shortcomings of the current convention center and arena, but unfortunately the proposal to replace them with a combined convention center/arena/hotel complex is, if anything, even worse. To me the idea is reminiscent of John Portman's “big footprint” developments of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, many of which devolved into self-contained, insular, fortresslike, “city within a city” complexes that turned their backs on their host cities. In other words, these are precisely the kinds of special-use facilities/districts that form border vacuums! (In this case a convention goer would never have to leave the megafacility's hotel/convention/entertainment bubble.) There are many other legitimate concerns too:

Firstly, the convention industry is shrinking, so pouring public funds into a new facility for a contracting industry might be a mistake. Why would you add more convention space if the existing space is already underutilized?

Secondly, although the proposal intends to greet the street with a retail liner, this liner will likely struggle because the site currently lacks the appropriate context to support it. Retail liners require an adjacent context of dense residential blocks, but often they're dropped into the middle of nowhere, so they sit vacant! Urban retail also requires small blocks – it'll probably struggle if it's forced to mask the long, unbroken walls of a superblock. Furthermore, if the streets slated to accommodate the retail liners are unpleasant traffic sewers, then the retail will continue to struggle. So retail liners can't be airlifted in and expected to work miracles – they require an intricate, complex context to work properly, and the discussion on providing that context is often absent, as seems to be the case with this proposal.

It might make more sense to improve the existing convention center by (1) punching retail niches and cross streets through the complex's blank walls to reduce the amount of underutilized floorspace, (2) downsizing the arterials around the complex into normal streets that could accommodate the retail, and (3) breaking up the surrounding superblocks and infilling them with smaller residential blocks that would support the retail. (A small example of this strategy is the incipient project to replace the Mechanic Theater with a mixed-use apartment building, though I think the remainder of the Hopkins Plaza superblock still needs to be broken up.) Several decades from now it might even be possible to progressively dismantle portions of the convention center as the industry continues to shrink and the facility reaches the end of its “design life.” The reclaimed space could then be infilled with mixed-use blocks.

The far more modest conventions of the future could either return to the Fifth Regiment Armory, or if the city insisted on a new facility, it could take a leaf out of Philly's book and solve the dilemma of accommodating a blank-walled mega-space in an urban setting once and for all by building a modest convention center atop the Lexington Market buildings, and perhaps adapting the Hutzler's complex as the facility's grand entrance (akin to Philly's Reading Terminal Headhouse). So rather than relegating hotel, arena, and convention programming to a single self-contained basket, such a facility would essentially require visitors to patronize discrete shops, entertainment venues, and hotels throughout the downtown, and it might even breathe new life into a market (and a west side) that has grown increasingly seedy over the years.

A similar strategy might work for the 1st Mariner Arena: the existing arena could be refurbished and raised above a street-level layer of mixed-use programming as long as (1) the repellent arterials around the arena were downsized, (2) cross streets were introduced underneath it, and (3) the surrounding superblocks were broken up and infilled with fine-grained residential blocks. (A residential building could even be built in the airspace above the arena.) There also is the possibility of moving the arena to the ballpark area and enclosing it (along with Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium) with mixed-use infill. The ballpark area might then evolve into a normal neighborhood that seamlessly connected to existing surrounding neighborhoods.

Unfortunately an opportunity to try just such a strategy on a modest, tentative scale was recently squandered: rather than using dubious financing schemes to build a superfluous blank-walled hotel superblock, the site could have been infilled with mixed-use residential blocks.

Some institutional border vacuums are the result of unnecessary stuntery.
Finally, what about smaller congregational facilities, like operas, theaters, and museums? If they're distributed across the urban fabric (i.e. not clustered in special-use districts), these smaller facilities generally don't form border vacuums on the scale of those around the larger facilities discussed earlier. It's possible to rely on architectural richness to overcome their blank walls, or you can integrate shops right into their street frontages (which the Mechanic actually did, though I think the lack of adjacent residential buildings and the dreary setbacks gradually undermined them). Unfortunately, while it's relatively easy to avoid creating border vacuums around smaller congregational facilities, many such contemporary facilities – particularly those of the “starchitectural” variety – still unnecessarily fall into the blank-walled desolation trap!

Next time we'll examine solutions for more superblock borders (like “big footprint” commercial developments and their accompanying parking garages), so stay tuned!

- Marc Szarkowski
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