New State Center study adds insult to injury

This piece appeared on Community Architect Daily on Tuesday,, January 23, 2018.

New State Center study adds insult to injury

By Klaus Philipsen

The replacement of a plan which had evolved from 15 years of charrettes, community workshops, work of high caliber design firms and planning by actual masterdevelopers with a study stitched together by a Tampa consulting firm ("Exceptional Service, Proven Results") with a hot needle for $79,000 to provide a fig-leaf for a Governor who is intent on undoing whatever his predecessor had done, is doomed to fail, no matter how you look at it. The new study was released Tuesday ahead of a hearing about State Center in Annapolis and is supposed to be "a fresh look" without consideration of anything done before. 

"This study has reinforced our long-held position that the State Center site has an enormous amount of potential for redevelopment” (Hogan)

The odds that a study produced on command could trump a process carried out by a team of many after a lot of give and take is almost zero, even before one takes a look at the new study. A quick glance through the study confirms, that imported consultants can't in a few months become smarter than the people who put their own skin into years of work, even if one forgives sentences such as:

The land area bounded by MLK Jr. Blvd. on the south, Howard Street to the east,
W Preston Street to the north and Eutaw Street on the west, occupied by the
Maryland Department of Health and the Comptroller of Maryland (among others)
is the most ideal (sic!) location for potential commercial and mixed-use alternatives.

Even if one forgives the suggestion of pedestrian bridges to cross traffic arteries in a city that, just a few months ago, tore down yet another one of those pedestrian overpasses which have long obtained a status of being dinosaurs of transportation planning.

The State Center Site is somewhat of an island of land surrounded by multiple
mixed land uses primarily bounded by busy Howard Street and MLK Jr. Blvd. The option of pedestrian bridge access from surrounding neighborhood districts would provide a much-needed linkage and connectivity of the subject State Center Site to a large population and commercial/residential base to the east of Howard Street and to the south over MLK Jr. Blvd.

 A lot of the previous planning concerned itself with overcoming the isolation of State Center which is the result of misguided superblock-thinking of the past which generated ped bridges in the first place and thus exacerbated the isolation instead of creating greater permeability throughout.  The study authors seem to be unsure that Baltimoreans can even properly imagine pedestrian bridges and helpfully list various "precedents" and even add really bad pictures to boot. Examples of pedestrian footbridge crossings are summarized in the table below. How very helpful!

1 John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, Nashville, TN
2 Gateway Trail Iron Bridge, Minneapolis, MN
3 W 84th Street at Normandale Lake, Bloomington, MN
4 Freight House Pedestrian Footbridge, Kansas City, MO
5 Pedestrian Footbridge at Steinbrenner Field, Tampa, FL
6 Pedestrian Footbridge at Disney Village Orlando, FL

The proposals continue to be offered on the most mundane level possible, including streetscape improvements suggesting to continue a wide green median for Eutaw Street. Wow, who would have come up with that audacity! Naturally, the study has to quickly admit that it is "cursory" and would benefit from additional next steps. Here is the complete list:

  • Performing additional due diligence and conducting a detailed real estate market analysis that incorporates direct market research to further assess gaps and feasible types of development to meet unmet demand taking into consideration DGS’ objectives for the State Center Site (e.g., creating/increasing jobs and economic activity to the area).
  • Completing a facilities assessment that evaluates the current buildings and related infrastructure in terms of useful life of existing structures.
  • Conducting a detailed transportation/traffic impact analysis.
  • Conducting meetings/focus groups with area stakeholders and community groups such as neighborhood associations that could be impacted by future development of the State Center Site regarding their perspectives on the strengths, challenges, and opportunities associated with the current and potential future uses.
  • Obtaining direct input from the outside development community which could be accomplished by testing potential market opportunities with the private sector through a formalized process such as issuing a Request for Information (RFI) that outlines DGS’ objectives including types of land uses and targeted economic/return on investment goals.
  • Identifying a solid, sustainable redevelopment strategy including opportunities for public private partnerships as well as a realistic timeline for implementation. 

Yeah! Anyone who followed the State Center project over the years will recognize these steps, all of them have long been taken and the results are known to anyone who wants to look. 

It is hard to read this study and keep a straight face, bad English, poor graphics, sad ideas throughout including "peer city" examples that are in part taken from Google Streetview and occupy many pages without shedding much light on why they would be suitable or what is to be learned from them. No better way to illustrate the malady of this study than another direct quote:

In the analysis of potential land uses for the State Center Site, the matrix that follows provides a summary of inventory within a 1 and 3-mile radii of the State Center Site. The purpose of this analysis is to recognize density of use and potential gaps of uses within the market area. The study of land use components in the 1 and 3-mile radii from the State Center Site is important because this represents immediate walking and/or short drive-time distance for potential user base. The population base within a 1-mile radius of the State Center Site is 52,278. The population increases to 302,982 people within a 3-mile radius equating to a 480% increase in population, all of which place varying demands on land use alternatives, summarized in the foregoing inventory matrix. There are several use categories that overlap from the 1-mile radius through the 3-mile radius.
The various land uses are similar to the Peer City land use components previously discussed. 

With such uninspired thinking it is then not surprising that the matrix of proposed uses marked as "highly likely" (whatever that means) includes a convenience store/gas station, the very abomination  which the good people of Towson recently fought successfully to be built on York Road. Other likely uses include a strip retail center and "university influence". These folks really love Baltimore!

As all bad studies, this one jumps straight from a non-convincing "analysis" to even less convincing "solutions" and use proposals without ever drawing any substantial conclusions from the analysis, summarizing deficiencies, or developing guiding principles or goals.

The study even leaves the most important questions out, which one has to surmise were the reason why Hogan dislikes the Ekistics plans so much:

  • What to do with the State owned buildings? 
  • Can they be rehabbed? 
  • If so, what should they be used for? 
  • Where should the State put its offices? 
  • If not here then where else? 
  • If here, how could rehab or new construction be funded? 

Anybody who would investigate these questions in earnest would eventually come to a solution that would look quite similar to what Ekistics proposed: A public-private partnership in which the State as the largest land-owner and user would leverage its assets to stitch together an entire new neighborhood to heal a big  gaping hole in Baltimore's heart. That wouldn't be the cheapest way for the State to get some updated office space, but it would be a responsible way for the State to be a property owner that is serious about economic development.

“Unfortunately, our repeated efforts to get this project off of the ground have been delayed by a group of developers who have sought to force the state to pay outrageous sums for leases that weren’t executed and who have failed in their commitments to the state, and more importantly, the citizens of Baltimore City. We remain fully committed to working with Mayor Pugh and community stakeholders to bring the full potential of this project to fruition.” (Hoagn Press release Tuesday)

The same Hogan who is willing to throw 5 billion dollars at Amazon is finding the leases suggested in the original State Center plan too expensive! Go figure!

Mercifully, the study has only 116 pages and never advances beyond the level of aerial photography with red circles marked for various use districts. It is easy to conclude that it contributes nothing to the discussion about State Center, except the insight that the Governor's professed love of Baltimore is very, very shallow. Instead of a diamond and ruby he gave us a trinket from a bubblegum machine for Valentines. In the current White House language: Sad. At least there is no serious talk about an arena in this location.

Caroline Moore