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Best of 2013: Battling bleakness, envisioning a better city

Our coverage of city planning, urban design, civic self-image and making Baltimore more livable

Above: A popular Brew post in 2013 imagined a new Eutaw Place entrance to Druid Hill Park and proposed a way to better connect the park to the neighborhood.

Say what you will about Baltimore’s vacant rowhouses, pedestrian-unfriendly streets and shuttered downtown stores – many of its residents stubbornly cling to the belief that amidst the decay and ghastly planning boo-boo’s lies a town that is both livable and lovely.

How else to explain the fact that Brew readers, a hardened lot, responded so enthusiastically to our piece about remaking the entrance to Druid Hill Park so that it connects elegant Eutaw Place to the city’s premier park?

We got a hefty 44 comments on that November post by Gerald Neily and Marc Szarkowski – a detailed plan to soften the barrier created by whooshing traffic on Druid Park Lake Drive, integrate the park with the neighborhood and perhaps do for struggling Reservoir Hill what a spruced-up Patterson Park did for Highlandtown.

The Artscape vibe - something to try for across the city, all year long? (Photo by Fern Shen)

The Artscape vibe: Something to try for across the city all year long? (Photo by Fern Shen)

Readers got downright giddy about the revival the city could spark if they took the time to re-engineer the park’s perimeter as they spend millions to rebuild Druid Lake (a project necessitated by new federal requirements for the storage of drinking water.)

“Love the ideas,” wrote BmoreFree. “Now is the time to leverage the improvements that will be made with the water project. . . Some basic retail (i.e. coffee shop or a sports store) would make a great addition to the Reservoir Hill neighborhood.”

There were still others, like commenter Barnadine_the_Pirate, who said things like “Makes perfect sense. Never gonna happen” – and their skepticism was not surprising.

If not on the Water, City Hall is Just not That into You?

As The Brew reported at length in 2013, debate raged over the city’s longtime economic development strategy. Critics say it overly favors waterfront projects, like the $107 million Harbor Point tax increment financing (TIF) package, at the expense of needy neighborhoods elsewhere.

Reinforcing this view were the bad headlines for some of the big-scale, city-subsidized projects once hailed as “game-changers” – the proposed big-box redevelopment in the once thriving downtown West Side, for example, and the Baltimore Grand Prix that sent race cars screaming down city streets.

Jeanine Jones, in the East Baltimore neighborhood of Midway, lives among the city's more than 16,000 dilapidated vacants. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Jeanine Jones, in the East Baltimore neighborhood of Midway, lives among the city’s more than 16,000 dilapidated vacants. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The city acquired the so-called Superblock more than a decade ago, but in June – after giving a group of New York and Atlanta developers four extensions to start construction – the mayor terminated the agreement. The 3.6-acre parcel, home to buildings that preservationists say are architectural gems, remains a raggedy ghost town.

Likewise, the Grand Prix, after three controversial years, was canceled for the remaining two years of its agreement with J.P. Grant’s Race On organization, completing its transition from mayoral pet project to costly historical footnote.

You can still see the skid marks at the finish line on Pratt Street. More significantly, civic coffers were lightened by $8 million for major street repaving and police and fire overtime. (The city gained $135 million in tourist and hotel dollars from the event’s three years, according to a mayoral defense mounted via twitter.)

Wal-Mart Triumphs

In North Baltimore, residents acknowledged that a Wal-Mart would be coming and focused on making sure the 11-acre site was well-designed to help boost up-and-coming Remington and neighboring Charles Village.

But when the project was reviewed by the city’s design panel, its members were appalled, calling it “bleak” and “fake.”

Old Goucher resident Bruce Willen presenting changes  he said would make the Wal-Mart project more pedestrian-friendly. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Old Goucher resident Bruce Willen presenting changes he said would make the Wal-Mart project more pedestrian-friendly. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Residents said subsequent design changes didn’t do enough to make it pedestrian-friendly and lessen its impact on neighboring residents. At a November hearing, project supporters (including many who came in a bus paid for by Wal-Mart) accused the critics of just trying to keep out the discount mega-retailer. Planning Department staff privately characterized the opponents as elitist NIMBYs. The project easily won Planning Commission approval.

Brew stories in 2013 reported on some of the city’s efforts to improve neighborhoods, including a demolition and community greening project in East Baltimore as part of the mayor’s Vacants to Value initiative and a new and controversial crackdown, via the city’s zoning code rewrite, on nuisance liquor stores. (We took a look at how the idea was playing in Park Heights.)

Groups like the Community Law Center are attacking the same quality-of-life issues through other approaches, including an $8 million lawsuit against a Texas-based company that CLC says may be the single biggest negligent property owner in town.

CLC also started (in partnership with The Brew) a blog called Booze News to push the city liquor board to get tougher on troublesome bars.

Livable or Lame?

A lot of what makes a city livable are qualities of the I-know-it-when-I-see-it variety. Architecture critic James Dilts saw some in the sprightly design of the University of Baltimore’s new Angelos Law School building.

Fern Shen detected it, oddly enough, at Artscape this year. (“Spontaneity, diversity, no cars – an urban studies seminar with a side of fried dough.”)

Wait a minute, livability? Likeability? Baltimore? Lameness is more like it, according to The Washington Post.

Yeah we got rats - you want to make something of it?

Yeah we got rats – you want to make something of it? (Brew photo library)

One of their columnists put on his pith helmet and ventured up here last year. He enjoyed Station North, raved about the ample parking (huh?), ragged on our penchant for camp (“ultimately as empty as Baltimore’s rubble-strewn vacants”), and concluded, “I wouldn’t want to live there, but what a place to explore!”

Another Post writer (a New Yorker transplanted to Baltimore) waxed prolific (3,017 words) on the city, confiding: “I like Baltimore. . . except for the racial segregation. And the failing schools. And the homicide rate. And the rats.”

Faint praise? Lies, damnable lies? Contemptible trolling? A useful mirror? We asked our readers and, ever ready with introspection, they weighed in.

Another insight into what citizens are thinking came from an online survey conducted by The Warnock Foundation. By a wide margin, the answer to the question of what’s holding Baltimore back was “political leadership.”


Here are quotables from our 2013 coverage of planning, urban design, architecture, civic self-image and making the city more livable:

Druid Lake rebuild offers chance to reconnect gateway street to premier park

Druid Park Lake Drive is such a vicious automotive intrusion that concentrated focal points of human activity are needed on both sides of the intersection, all carefully coordinated and designed to make the park as alluring as possible.

Mayor weighs settling lawsuit by former Superblock developers

The city acquired the buildings a decade ago as part of a $150-million effort to revive the district by attracting national retail stores, a high-rise apartment tower and a possible luxury hotel.

After agreeing to five extensions, Rawlings-Blake terminated the agreement last June and announced that the site would be open to new bidders. By this time, the city had spent more than $3 million propping up the water-damaged Read’s building and tearing down the former Greyhound Bus Terminal.

Kay Adler demonstrated for the full restoration of the Read's store last year. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Kay Adler demonstrated for the full restoration of Read’s Drug Store as part of Superblock. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

2014 and 2015 Grand Prix will be canceled, mayor tweets

News breaking over the summer that the event once again lacked an official sponsor – followed by hints and winks by the administration that next year’s Labor Day weekend was booked with a Navy-Ohio State game at M&T Bank Stadium, conflicting with the race – signaled that the end was near, though no one at City Hall could publicly admit that the race had fizzled.

The Grand What?

The mayor dispatched her top economic aide to babysit the promoters. She lined up community groups and councilmen to vouch for the event’s importance – and insisted the [Grand Prix] race was a complete success right up to the time when the stage curtains parted and the promoters were left to hang for owing millions of dollars to vendors and to the city itself.

Though labeled as “bleak,” Wal-Mart store is on track for approval

David Haresign castigated the design for lacking relief from the asphalt paving, “gigantic” parking lot and blank walls, while Thomas Stosur, the normally mild-manned chief of the planning department, simply said: “I’m overpowered by the amount of brick.”

A packed meeting on the Wal-Mart project  where citizens sought to slow the process and improve the design. (Photo by Fern Shen)

A packed meeting on the Wal-Mart project where citizens sought to slow the process and improve the design. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Residents from the Remington and Old Goucher communities weren’t much happier. “This could have been plucked out of any suburban shopping mall in the country,” Bruce Willen of the Old Goucher Business Alliance, complained. He emphasized that the store is located in a residential area, but the plan was “very hostile to pedestrians.”

As community groups sue out-of-town property owner, some ask, where was the city?

Jones had a mixed reaction to news this week that one of the nine blighted units – 714 East 21st Street – is part of the Community Law Center’s lawsuit against its owner, the Texas-based company that the group says is possibly the city’s largest out-of-town “slumlord.” “This area’s been like this for years. That property has been vacant for 30 years. Why did the city let it get like this?”

Baltimore’s future tied to the fate of Metro West complex

Sited on the precipice between downtown and West Baltimore, the fate of these 11 acres is far more central to the city’s attempts to reverse its decades-old decline in population and neighborhood stability than anything on the attention-grabbing waterfront.

Once thriving, then blighted, soon to be a park

Could this spot – once thriving, then blighted, now spiffed up – fall back into dilapidation, she was asked. (Humanim has agreed to be responsible for maintaining the park, where the porous paving requires special care to ensure it is absorbent.) [New Broadway East Community Association president Doris]
Minor-Terrell said that was a significant concern. “We are going to have to watch that closely,” she said. “The community will have to be very much involved with maintenance.”

Lifting up Park Heights by cracking down on liquor stores

This cause-and-effect debate has dogged the initiative, with some predicting that the poverty, joblessness and other urban ills plaguing the whole city, but especially West and Northwest Baltimore, would leave the area unchanged after the shut-down of a few liquor outlets.

Spontaneity, diversity, no cars – an urban studies seminar with a side of fried dough

The things that make Baltimore’s annual three-day street-level smorgasbord of music, arts, crafts and food enjoyable are features that ought to be hard-wired throughout the city on all the other days of the year.
Spontaneity (strangers danced, kids tried lucha-libre Mexican wrestling), affordability (it’s free!), diversity (we had plenty) and no cars (streets blocked off, people biking, walking, taking the light rail).

All those Jane Jacobs values seemed to be on display. Maybe instead of ordering up another consultant’s report on how to “grow” the city and (try to) gin up redevelopment with TIF subsidies, the mayor and other movers and shakers could just look at some Youtubes from Artscape.

A law school building that’s smart and stimulating

In the classrooms and elsewhere, acoustical baffles hang from the ceilings between the rows of lights. LED lighting is employed throughout the building, most notably in the lobby where the wing-like suspended chandeliers appear from the outside like a flock of white birds or butterflies.

Bold  colors and butterfly-like chandeliers in the atrium lobby of the University of Baltimore law school's new building. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Bold colors and butterfly-like chandeliers in the atrium lobby of the University of Baltimore’s law school building. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Scenes from the Canton Crossing ribbon-cutting

The big-box retail coming to Southeast Baltimore – a Target anchoring a pleasantly landscaped plaza featuring a slew of national chain stores – drew raves from the city’s shopper-in-chief at a late afternoon ribbon-cutting ceremony. “I love DSW! I am a registered card-carrying shoe shopper,” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, standing solidly on her signature shiny, black, three-inch high pumps.

Another Inner Harbor remake plan, with everything but a price

Speaking afterwards to
The Brew, Gross said he thinks the Inner Harbor makeover would urbanize the Inner Harbor. “One of the failures of the original plan is that it is very suburban,” he said.

Chain restaurants and attractions dominate at the Harbor these days. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The Inner Harbor, Baltimore’s cash cow? Or bete noir? (Photo by Fern Shen)

A makeover that’s more than skin-deep

Proponents of the waterfront facelift have a particularly sticky public relations problem, as they push a project that would cost tens of millions of dollars (no price tag was given) in a city with deep poverty, neglected neighborhoods and citizens increasingly opposed to tax breaks for glitzy downtown projects

Har, har, says Washington Post: Baltimore’s got a lot of rats

You’ll find the obligatory rat stat in here: “According to CitiStat, the reported rat rate increased from fewer than 10 rats per 1,000 residents in 2002 to 60 per 1,000 in 2009,” she writes. “A Baltimore City Health Department report that year noted that ‘the rodent infestation rate in Baltimore is six times the national average.’”

Dumped on, Baltimore deconstructs the debate

“Oh DC, Baltimore is the glass of blistering liquor we wish we could throw in your face,” wrote Alchemiholic. “I worked in DC for six years but nothing – not even the 2.5 daily hours of commute time – ever enticed me to live there. Your culture of transience and bloodless hierarchy is as chilly an institution as any of your museums, and only fractionally as interesting.”

“Baltimore is a city of (white) islands, interconnected by routes through some of the worst urban blight in the US,” said maus 92. “Blocks and blocks of abandoned and crumbling row houses cover vast areas of the city. As much as Baltimoreans are proud of their city, it is hard for an outsider to understand why. When I take clients and visitors through the city, this is the first thing they notice. Maybe the residents have gotten used to the conditions in their city, and chose to ignore the obvious.”

What’s holding Baltimore back?

Asked what is the single biggest obstacle keeping Baltimore from reaching its potential, respondents to the Warnock Foundation’s online survey has some answers that would surprise few outside Baltimore. Crime and poverty were high on the list, coming in at 2 and 3.

But the No. 1 “single biggest obstacle” was not one of those familiar urban ills conjuring images of bullet casings or boarded-up houses. It was political leadership – by a wide margin.

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