Monday, September 22, 2014

Federal Hill and the Self-Destruction of Diversity

Like many other cities, Baltimore is working hard to attract residents, businesses, and the corresponding critical mass of street life. So would it be strange to argue that some of the city's neighborhoods, like Federal Hill, are perhaps too successful?

In Chapter Thirteen (“The Self-Destruction of Diversity”) of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs argues that successful city districts tend to undermine themselves over time as a result of being successful:

“A mixture of uses at some place in the city becomes outstandingly popular. Because of the location's success, ardent competition for space develops. Whichever one or few uses have emerged as the most profitable in the locality will be repeated, crowding out less profitable uses. But from this point on, the locality will gradually be deserted by people using it for purposes other than those that emerged triumphant – because those other purposes are no longer there. The place becomes monotonous, so the locality's suitability even for its predominant use will gradually decline. In time, a place that was once successful becomes marginal (243).”

Jacobs goes on to argue that, unlike other organisms, cities seem to lack feedback mechanisms for self-correcting this trajectory. In other words, wildly successful city districts seem to behave like cancer cells. So, if Federal Hill is an example of the self-destruction of diversity, is there a way to add a feedback mechanism so the neighborhood isn't undermined by its own success?

There's been a raucous debate over the influx and expansion of bars in Federal Hill: some have compellingly argued that the bars are out of control, while others have just as compelling argued that the situation is exaggerated.

Jacobs describes this situation on Third Street in her Greenwich Village: “This street has become immensely popular with tourists. In their proportions of fifteen years ago, the evening visitors were a constructive part of the area's mixture. But night spots are today overwhelming the street, and are also overwhelming the very life of the area. Into a district excellent at handling and protecting strangers they have concentrated too many strangers, all in too irresponsible a mood, for any conceivable city society to handle naturally. The duplication of the most profitable use is undermining the base of its own attraction, as disproportionate duplication of some single use always does in cities (245).”

The situation in Federal Hill described in the link above does seem to resemble the situation on Jacobs' Third Street: Sugg lists examples in which the concentration of bars has (1) begun to displace the less-profitable mix of businesses that made the district desirable in the first place, (2) sorted out and concentrated bar patrons in a small area, and (3) induced a situation in which residents cannot absorb and dilute unruly behavior from said patrons.

The problem of concentration is key here. There will always be unruly drunks, and most neighborhoods can absorb a smattering of drunks diluted across many streets. But no neighborhood can absorb throngs of drunks concentrated on one or two streets! Indeed, the same concentration issue drives many other problems in Baltimore, such as the furor over concentrating drug rehabilitation clinics in southwest Baltimore.

So if a city district is overwhelmed by a concentration of one use, how should it manage that concentration?

As Sugg discussed, legislators already capped the number of liquor licenses in Federal Hill in 2000. Unfortunately, this arguably made the situation worse by accelerating the sorting-out process Jacobs described: if the supply of bars is constrained, then, over time, existing bars will sort-out to serve the most profitable segment of bargoers by turning into so-called “frat bars.” This is perhaps the commercial equivalent of the “gentrification” phenomenon in coastal cities with constrained housing supplies.

Sugg mentions Fell's Point as a neighborhood that managed to strike a balance between drunken revelry and diversified commerce. Her observations echo a sentiment I've heard from others: that Fell's Point is no longer quite the drunken party it was in the 90s. I wonder, though, if the taming of Fell's Point was not so much the result of any regulatory effort as it was more the result of the activity movement phenomenon Jacobs described:

“The self-destruction of diversity causes our downtowns to continually shift their centers and move. This is a force that creates has-been districts. The crossing of Chestnut and Broad Streets in Philadelphia was what real estate men called a '100% location.' It was an enviable place to be. One of the corner occupants was a bank. Three other banks bought themselves into the three other corners to be at the 100% location too. From that moment, it was no longer the 100% location. The crossing is today a dead barrier, and the tumble of activity has been pushed beyond (242-246).”

I think a similar phenomenon occurred in Fell's Point: at some point in the late 90s, the concentration of bars reached an inflection point in which they began to undermine the vitality of the neighborhood, rather than contribute to it as they previously had been doing. The district may have sorted itself out for one activity (drinking) to a degree such that even bargoers eventually migrated elsewhere – to Federal Hill and Canton, where the same sorting-out, homogenizing process began again and is perhaps now reaching an inflection point in those neighborhoods!

Interestingly, Sugg noticed that some of her friends are returning to Fell's Point: “Several we’ve become friends with have told us they now go to Fell's Point bars instead. They report the Federal Hill bars are overcrowded, with bartenders serving obviously drunk people.” But might the drunken revelers eventually flock back to Fell's Point too once Federal Hill is played out? In short, there seems to be a loop of bargoing activity between the waterfront neighborhoods that follows the migration pattern Jacobs described.

One commonly-discussed solution for this cycle is to set up a regulatory framework in which the Liquor Board would restrict licenses to establishments that seek a decorous clientele, or to follow similarly-squishy “community impact” or “community needs” dictates. But I think vague taste-setting regulations only exacerbate current problems: any time a distant board has to rule on ever-changing local conditions, it seems that corruption, or at best bureaucratic neglect, emerges.

I think the only long-term solution for the concentration phenomenon is to divert a given use from an area where it's becoming a burden to an area where it can be an asset. Jacobs calls this “competitive diversion” and suggests “zoning for diversity” to encourage it:

“The problem is to hamper excess duplications at one place, and divert them instead to other places in which they will not be excess duplications, but healthy additions. The other places cannot be fixed on arbitrarily; they must be places where the use concerned will have an excellent opportunity for success – a better opportunity, in fact, than in a locality that is doomed to destroy itself (252).”

In the context of Baltimore, I think this could be achieved by closing the chasm between Pigtown and the South Baltimore peninsula with a mixed-use neighborhood – some of the pressure on Federal Hill could therefore be diverted to the stadium area. The caveat is that any new neighborhood could not come in the so-called “entertainment district” format. Not only do such top-down concoctions fail to support themselves financially, but they only exacerbate the problem of single-use concentration!

So I think a new neighborhood between Pigtown and the South Baltimore peninsula would need to be cultivated incrementally. That is, other than adding streets, subdividing vacant land into small lots (rather than awarding it all to a single developer), and encouraging mixed uses under a minimal, flexible zoning code (or perhaps none at all), I don't think the city would need to do anything else to induce an “entertainment district.” Given the proximity to the stadiums, it'd emerge organically if it only had the chance!

There were also some responses to Sugg's op-ed along the lines of “If you don't want another bar in your neighborhood, we'd gladly have it in ours instead!” These comments reflect Jacobs' observation that at the same time as there are neighborhoods overwhelmed by a single use, there are other neighborhoods lacking that use that could benefit from it, and indeed desire it:

“At the same time narrow multiplications of uses are destroying mutual support in one locality, they are depriving other localities of their presence, localities where they would add to diversity and strengthen mutual support (250).”

For example, some in Remington desire more commerce, and some of the bars concentrated in Federal Hill could potentially gravitate to Remington to improve that neighborhood's supply of “third places.” A similar migration could enliven North Avenue in Station North, or Howard Street, or any number of faded commercial streets in need of diversified commerce.

But the Sun article suggests that the city's current zoning code discourages such competitive diversion: it sorts out and confines uses to limited areas, in effect imposing a “bar district” on one neighborhood, a “liquor store district” on another, or a “dollar store district” on yet another.

There is an opportunity for the new zoning code to encourage the opposite: it could legalize the mixing, diluting, and diversification of commerce across all neighborhoods so that no one neighborhood is burdened by the concentration of a single use.

- Marc Szarkowski
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