ANALYSIS: Are Baltimore developers allergic to mass transit?

red line

Artist’s sketch of the Red Line, which appears more and more like an afterthought uncoordinated with the city’s development plans.

Photo by: Maryland Department of Transportation

It certainly seems that way based on the reception given to Baltimore’s No. 1 developer, John S. Paterakis Sr., when he disclosed his latest plan to expand waterfront development.

The bakery king turned property mogul, who already owns a sizable chuck of real estate known as Harbor East, yesterday proposed nearly tripling the number of residents living in his newest project, Harbor Point.

Harbor Point is a 27-acre “brownfield site” that formerly housed an Allied Chemical chromium factory (whose toxic wastes are buried and capped with concrete) that juts out on a peninsula between Harbor East and Fells Point.

What was stunning about yesterday’s unveiling of Paterakis’ plan to add 1,000 new residential units to the development is that nobody talked about mass transit.

Not his vice president of development, Marco E. Greenberg. Not his architect, Ayers Saint Gross. Not the Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel (UDARP) that vetted the plan. Not the director of city planning, Thomas Stosur, who sits on the panel.

The same phenomenon recently took place in Locust Point, where the city is pushing to help Under Armour expand with $35 million in proposed tax increment (TIF) financing. There’s no mass transit component in that plan, either. Nor is it part of 25th Street Station (an ironic name for a shopping center complex devoid of mass transit) approved by the City Council in 2010, which has yet to make tangible progress at its North Baltimore site.

Sandwiched Between the Harbor and Traffic Gridlock?

Are they thinking that people are just going to live and work at Harbor Point in a bubble and never leave?

Not exactly. Yesterday’s meeting went into meticulous detail about an underground parking garage between the concrete cap and the central portion of the site, which would rise up 16-18 feet above the cap.

The Paterakis architects were peppered with questions about how drivers would enter and leave the garage, with suggestions that well-marked signage would be helpful.

All of which left the unacknowledged elephant looming in the hearing room: how are people going to enter and leave the peninsula itself?

Located on a peninsula between Harbor East and Fells Point, Harbor Point has been planned be a densely packed office-retail-residential center without a mass transit option. (Harbor East Development Group)

Located on a peninsula between Harbor East and Fells Point, Harbor Point is planned as a densely packed office-retail-residential center without a mass transit option. (Harbor East Development Group)

Under yesterday’s plan, there are only two ways:

From a southern extension of Central Avenue, that would cross a canal that blocks off the development’s northern border, or via Caroline Street, which fronts the eastern boundary.

Access to Caroline Street would be made from a two-lane road called Dock Street or via an intersection involving Caroline, Thames, Block and Philpot streets.

The latter already serves office workers at the Morgan Stanley building at Thames Street Wharf as well as visitors to the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Museum and Park.

It’s a spot that now gets congested at rush hour and again when patrons disperse from Fells Point bars and restaurants at night.

A 12-story residential building proposed by the Paterakis group at the apex of the intersection foreshadows traffic gridlock on Caroline and other Fells Point streets built for 18th-century horses and wagons.

Red Line Not to the Rescue

Which gets us back to mass transit. More and more, the proposed $2.2 billion Red Line light-rail line between the Social Security complex in Woodlawn and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Campus seems like a pipe dream.

Yes, there is planning money but little political will to push the project forward. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seems to have lost what little enthusiasm she ever had for the project. Her planning and transportation departments reflect her road-oriented priorities.

Originally, the Red Line was supposed to cater to Harbor East with a station planned at Fleet St. and Central Ave.

That stop is still on the planning map, even as the center of gravity of the Paterakis development machine moves inexorably to the south.

Yesterday, the developer’s emissaries pointed to a park proposed above the underground parking garage as the focal point of Harbor Point.

The Long Walk

That designation would place the Red Line stop four blocks and one bridge to the north.

The transit stop would be a bit closer to Exelon Tower, with its expected 2,000-plus daily workforce. On the other hand, six-to-eight blocks would be the distance between the station and the Harbor Point promenade and the majority of residential buildings.

In other words, Harbor Point would resemble a suburban gated community (the “gate” courtesy of the Inner Harbor’s undulant contours) almost wholly dependent on cars, with maybe a Charm City Circulator route tossed in for tourists.

Several times yesterday, UDARP members cited Battery Park in Manhattan as the model and guide for Harbor Point.

Perhaps in terms of location by a scenic body of water there’s a similarity. But Harbor Point is fundamentally at odds with what makes Manhattan attractive to new residents and a magnet for commuters and tourists – an integrated and functioning transit system.

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  • Richard

    What a thoroughly discouraging article. I still remember the Baltimore Regional Rail Plan of 2002. What a crock that was! Nothing ever came of it. We can spend billions in tax dollars on the ICC, the Wilson Bridge, and the DC Metro, but the Baltimore area continues to suffer with an abysmal transit system. But if the Baltimore region isn’t willing to advocate for better transit, then so be it. The DC Metro will be up to about 9 or 10 lines, including a complete Purple Line, before you see anything of substance added to Baltimore’s lame rail network.

  • eastcoast

    what will happen if there is an extremely high tide, hurricane, or when the water from a hurricane that has passed by maryland (not a direct hit) happens. All those people, all those cars, just floating around in their underground parking garages, hmmm. Their worried about signage? What about the individuals who try to get out in their cars only to be flooded? This scenario never come up? Remember, “nature bats last.”

  • Jed Weeks

    Thank you! Add in conspicuously lacking bike and pedestrian infrastructure (which is also being ignored in many other major redevelopment projects in the city despite the City Council’s Complete Streets Resolution) and you have a recipe for autocentric disaster.

  • Jeff Wachter

    I’m new to Baltimore and want to know if there are any transit advocates on city council?  You mention here that the mayor’s interest is tepid, at best.  Is the problem with where the transit will go?  I can understand opposition to certain transit lines that are aimed to encourage/enhance gentrification, but simply opposing transit across the board doesn’t seem like an element of a particularly forward looking agenda.

  • Jacob

    Wow, two transit stories in a row NOT written by Brew’s own “PlanningTransit writer.” Did Ms. Shea fire him (also not writing at “Balt. Inner Space” either) or was he just demoted to writing comments?

    I thought the article was generally well written, but not every development has to be along the Red Line (should it ever get built). Yes, TOD is important, but waterfront property sells better. Red Line development will likely happen closer to the launch of the Red Line – ten years long years from now.

  • Sabina Pade

    Am not sure why the article’s title specifies *Baltimore* developers.  Developers almost everywhere, save for Japan, tend to sidestep discussion of mass transit.

    In fairness to Paterakis & Co., the presumptive tenants of Harbor Point are a clientele that heretofore has not shown much eagerness to use Baltimore’s existing buses and light rail.  Not to say that Harbor Point, or Baltimore generally, wouldn’t benefit from having better mass transit, or that people shouldn’t press for better mass transit, or even that had Baltimore better mass transit, people wouldn’t use it; merely to point out that, particularly in comparison with cities such as New York, Tokyo, Paris, DC, and the like, Baltimore is lacking a vital element: sufficient density of potential transit users.  

  • Curtis

    It is frustrating, indeed.  Better transit would not just be a huge boost to downtown Harbor East, but for surrounding residential neighborhoods and households that think that every adult needs a car, thus squeezing parking, let alone Baltimore’s funneled artery roadways.  

    Development and $$$ is better than 27 acres of dirt, but the transportation plan for Harbor Point is a mini-Tysons Corner waiting to happen.  And with that planning montrosity, office tenants eventually began saying they didn’t want any part of it.  Alignment of multiple economic interests and Metro is now on its way. 

    Assuming we live in an alternative universe and the Red Line musters the political will to be built in the near future, a dedicated right-of-way, fixed-guideway shuttle or a personal rapid transit (PRT) connecting the heart of Harbor Point with the Red Line Fleet Street sation would catapult Harbor Point into a truly brilliant brownfield redevelopment project.    

  • Gerald Neily

    Jacob, who’s Ms. Shea? Maybe you mean Brew Editor Ms. Shen. Mark Reutter was the right person to write these stories because the Harbor Point hearing is a current event, and a professional journalist like Mark is the right person to witness and report on it. 

    I’m a planner – I deal with the future more than the present. I wrote my piece on how the Red Line should directly serve Harbor Point three years ago: And then I wrote an update five months ago after the Exelon building was announced: 

    And as a planner, I blame the transit planners for this sorry situation, not the developers or architects or politicians. Yes, density is good. Mixed use is good. Too much auto access is bad. The Harbor Point site is potentially spectacular and it appears that ASG has done a great job of taking advantage of this. Baltimore needs all the upscale growth it can get.Accordingly, this site cries out for great transit. Upscale residents, workers and visitors will only use transit if the transit is great. It is no consolation that transit planners would use intentional street congestion to try to force users to take poor inconvenient transit many blocks away. It is also no consolation that users would drive in the most congested commuter rush hours, and then park their cars and take transit for shorter off-peak trips (mostly using a Circulator, not the inconvenient Red Line).It is even more appalling that the Red Line hugs the waterfront, without being oriented to it’s development, thus being disoriented from the much larger rider-shed of less affluent people who would actually use it and the larger MTA system that ought to feed it and be structured by it.It is most appalling of all that the MTA designed a super-expensive multi-billion dollar project (getting evermore expensive as it is designed and delayed) that cannot be built in phases, only as one gigantic unaffordable chug. There now needs to be a tunnel under Fremont Avenue. Does that mean they have to get rid of the one under Cooks Lane again? And the system capacity is appallingly small for such an expensive project. What we need is a system that can grow in affordable manageable phases, each done right.Harbor Point is the perfect potential transit oriented development. The 20 year development  horizon dovetails perfectly. John Paterakis and his team need to be very concerned with the incompetence of the MTA planners. They can certainly see the pathetic excuse for a transit system which the MTA already runs. I don’t expect them to call out the MTA and their apologists while they are selling the project at public meetings, but they need to yell loudly behind the scenes.Harbor Point should be the clarion call for everyone to wake up to the wretched multi-billion dollar failure of the MTA Red Line plan. 

  • Sabina Pade

    Am also not sure why anyone continues to advocate in favour of light rail, for example the Red Line or the Charles Street Trolley.  Key to good public transit are density of service, frequency of service, and dedicated right-of-way.  Bus is incomparably more apt than rail at economically providing density and frequency of service, and dedicated right-of-way is more economically, and more quickly created if it needn’t include track and power supply.  

    With its predominantly lowrise housing, Baltimore will not in the foreseeable future be a sensible candidate for a mass transit rail network.  At a comparatively modest price, on the other hand, Baltimore could have an excellent public transit system, if it were willing to provide dedicated right-of-way for buses.

    • Next stop a cooler future

      Sabina I strongly disagree with your argument that Baltimore lacks sufficient density of potential transit users and that we should simply settle for Bus rapid transit. Baltimore’s radial roads like Edmondson, Liberty, Reisterstown, Falls York, and Harford Road each have density that is on par with what you find in Portland, Austin, Boston or Seattle. Each of these cities has widely commended rail line systems. The problem in Baltimore is that the state settled for cheap in building its two existing lines. They built along existing train lines where the land was cheap and failed to place most stops outside of the inner city, in places that are accessible to transit oriented residents. You essentially have to take a car to use either of the lines in many places. Each of those radial roads mentioned above has some of the city’s most used bus lines. The 8 could easily coexist with a rail line that connects seemlessly Towson to JHU to Downtown. Also building a sensible and well planned system would be a great way to increase population density in Govans, Waverly, and Barclay. Its not that i don’t support BRT I just know that rail transit is better. 

      • JS

          @9b1752477b9aa3b218c21e64598df460:disqus  , I agree…the “radial roads” you mention are in fact some of Baltimore’s oldest roads. Streetcars served these routes and development followed the streetcars. The oldest houses along Harford Road, for example, generally are only three blocks or fewer along the main roads. The bus numbers are artifacts of the old streetcar system. The rail lines grew the city, so why not put them back?

        Shame on UDARP for comparing Harbor Point to Battery Park. A dysfunctional bus system is no substitute for a well run rail system, and planners should know better than to ignore the geography of the area.

    • Gerald Neily

      You can certainly make a strong case for busways, Sabina. That’s what former Governor Ehrlich and his Transportation Secretary Bob Flanagan tried to do. (They also wanted slot casinos and were slammed mercilessly by the General Assembly and The Sun – haha.) But if we had followed their general course, we could have had a very good Red Line by now.

      In my view, the key would be building a downtown bus tunnel that could then be adapted for light rail. That is exactly what Seattle did. I wrote about it in the Brew: 

      This is the building blocks approach to rail transit that I have advocated here. A great Red Line could be built in phases by focusing on segments that have many other benefits. Seattle’s densities are generally lower than Baltimore’s, as are other cities with good rail systems like Portland and Atlanta. In my view, Baltimore has excellent raw material for any kind of transit system, and the key is planting the seeds of a system we can grow with.

      But there are problems in the details. A “cartoon” regional rail plan like was developed in 2002 will not work. It’s the planners’ fault, as I said.

      Speaking of busways, Jacob and Sabina, I recently wrote a piece comparing the Red Line to Cleveland’s new Euclid Avenue busway as inspired by the two cities’ race to the population bottom, which The Brew rejected. I guess it was pretty contrived and not very journalistic. Maybe I’ll put it on my blog, but maybe it just wasn’t that good. The Brew has no need to fire me because they don’t pay me. But I love the Brew, and can only sit back in awe at what a fabulous job Fern and Mark have done. And I’ve never even thought of myself as a good suck-up. 

      • Next stop a cooler future

        Gerald, I agree with many of the points you raise, but your perspective about the inferiority of the the 2002 plan is unclear. I’ve read your blog but perhaps you can clarify you’re disdain here. In my view there are a few problems that I read in your plan, which actually closely resembles the 2002 plan but for a few details. I think your suggestion that the yellow line head to City College and MSU via 33rd st to be a bit problematic. Your plan completely cuts off the York Rd corridor to Towson which is one of the most congested bus routes. In avoiding the 2002 plan you cut off 3 major colleges from connection to the system. I support the use of streetcars but that is really an insufficient  tool for developing a rapid transit system. My vision supports much of the 2002 plan for rail and would include various east west streetcar lines such as at North Ave, 33rd St to Druid Hill, and perhaps cold Spring Lane.

    • JS

       Sabina, “density and frequency of service” do not in any way describe the MTA. Pardon the pun, but how many ways can I rail against the MTA? I’ll spare everyone here, but will simply wonder, Sabina, do you take the bus?

  • Sabina Pade

    Seattle, cited below, I think is a really, really good illustration of why people should think twice before looking askance at bus and advocating light rail.  

    Seattle’s bus tunnel was built because, at the time, bus traffic moved very slowly through downtown and because insufficient political consensus could be found for dedicating a surface avenue to bus traffic.  Most of Seattle’s downtown buses didn’t, and don’t pass through the tunnel; but those that do are more rapid, during peak hours, than the surface buses.  The addition of a dedicated right-of-way for transit – and of a weather-protected area to wait for one’s bus – quickly proved a blessing.

    The bus tunnel was fitted from the outset with tracks, in view of their ulterior utilisation.  Troublesomely, the set of tracks it was fitted with proved unsuitable.  Thus when Seattle later decided to go ahead with light rail, the tunnel had to be closed and a new set of tracks fitted.  During this closure, which lasted well over a year, the surface avenue above the tunnel was at peak hours reserved exclusively for bus traffic.  Downtown did not become a peak-hour traffic chaos as a result.  Apparently the number of vehicles transiting through downtown, as opposed to leaving or entering it, during peak hours is not troublesomely large.  

    The merits of the completed first segment of Seattle’s light rail line are easy to identify: the train coaches are more spacious and more comfortable than buses; they run more smoothly than do buses on common right-of-way; and they are little subject to the vagaries of surface traffic.

    The demerits of Seattle’s light rail line are no less glaring: compared with the bus lines it replaces, it is slower in bringing passengers to and from its principal destinations, which are downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac airport; it is significantly more expensive to ride; it is notably more difficult to access; and it largely neglects, in its service, the large area of the city it bisects.  Being more massive than surface buses, hence slower to accelerate/decelerate, it also increases the transit time for buses in the tunnel it shares with them.

    Seattle’s light rail line looks very cool.  It is comfortable to ride on.  But seen from the standpoint of cost versus tangible benefit, it falls embarrassingly short of what could have been achieved had the same amount of money been spent to improve Seattle’s bus system.  Seattle has in fact cut back on bus service in the face of steadily increasing rider demand areawide, in order that it might better cover the operating deficit of the light rail, which serves only a small percentage of Seattle’s transit users.

  • PatrickMc

    Gerry, I thought you had previously argued against a waterfront alignment for the Red Line and for one more focused on Eastern Avenue (but maybe I’m not remembering correctly). Now it sounds like you’re arguing for a Red Line alignment that would go through Harbor Point, is that correct? 
    Shouldn’t we instead be pushing for the segments of Central Ave. between Fleet and Harbor Point to be bicycle and pedestrian-oriented, to connect the planned rail with the destination, and for an extension of the Green Line Circulator into Harbor Point, for door-to-door transit access? I know you’re not a big fan of the City-run Circulator or the current Red Line plan, but at this point doesn’t it make sense to adjust the proposed systems rather than starting from scratch?

    • Gerald Neily

      Start from scratch, Patrick. The Red Line has no funding or political consensus. The Charm City Circulator is being funded by closing fire stations and rec centers and letting schools crumble. We need an actual MTA system. No, I’m not in favor of an Eastern Avenue Red Line either. Art Cohen demonstrated how it’s superior to the present proposal, but not nearly good enough. We’re talking 3M square feet at Harbor Point – it demands superior transit right into the site (yes, 6-8 blocks is “transit starved”). HarPt will overrun Central Avenue with traffic – not good for bikes. Thanks for the Seattle report, Sabina – Baltimore can learn a lot.

      • Mobtown

        Not true about Circulator funding… It’s being funded by a dedicated parking tax increase on off-street garage spaces. It was a new revenue stream created for the Circulator (that has the added transit-friendly benefit of de-incentivising cars/parking) and is not pulling money away from existing services like fire stations and rec centers.

        • Gerald Neily

          Mobtown, you’re using the passive voice to obfuscate the fact that the city government took 4% of the 20% parking tax away from the general fund, otherwise used for things like fire stations and rec centers and gave it to the Circulator. The city did it.

          • Mobtown

            My understanding is that the city increased the parking tax and that increment is what’s funding the circulator. But, even if I’m wrong, I think the city has created a valuable and transit service. I ride it just about every day and it’s being used by Baltimore residents of all classes, not just tourists. That’s good, right? Ultimately, it’s services like this that help grow the tax base. It seems you want transit but don’t want government to pay for it?

          • Gerald Neily

            Yes, Mobtown, the city raised the parking tax and spent the money on its Circulator, just as they’ve raised various other taxes and given it to various things. That’s how taxation and budgeting works – reflecting priorities. The Charm City Circulator is thus a higher priority to the city than the fire companies that they just closed. Please make note, Lex (instead of accusing people of “whining”): The city could shut down the Circulator, demand that the state-run MTA provide good transit service as they are supposed to, and allocate the money to other priorities like fire service.

  • brian g

    how is 6-8 blocks transit starved? that’s hardly the distance to a “suburban gated community”

    besides the fact that the charm city circulator green & orange lines already serve this area,  the mta metro isn’t too far either and is connected by the harbor east shuttle. the water taxi, including the free routes, also run to this area. plus, it’s actually pretty easy (and nice) to bike to harbor east from many points in the city, such as mt vernon via the jones falls trail.

  • Trent Spriggs

    The Red Line is holding hearings and seminars currently.  This line will serve Harbor East and all downtown.

    The MTA has a site showing all the meetings and seminars connected to the Red Line.  The next meeting is July 12.

    The CAC will next meet on Thursday, July 12, 2012 at St. William of York Catholic Church, 600 Cooks Lane, Baltimore.

  • Sabina Pade

    And yes, I do take the bus, in Baltimore as elsewhere.  I have never held a driver’s license.  I agree that density and frequency of service are not strongpoints of Baltimore’s bus system presently, although certain corridors are reasonably well served, and the light rail does offer some park&ride possibilities for suburban commuters.

    Baltimore’s mass transit, like Baltimore’s public housing, is administered largely with the perspective of providing a handout for the poor.  Like public housing, it is avoided by most people who are able to do so.  Racial and social biases here compound and obscure the difficulties inherent to providing quality mass transit.

    Reality is that mass transit remains for very few people, and for very few communities anywhere an option of first resort.  No light rail line, however posh, is going to lure the average American driver away from his vehicle.  Unaffordable parking, or terrible traffic congestion, may push him from it; but Baltimore’s downtown has little of these latter.  Thus rather than dream of a DC-like subway network, better we should try thinking  outside the American box.

  • Nolen

    “In other words, Harbor Point would resemble a suburban gated community (the “gate” courtesy of the Inner Harbor’s undulant contours) almost wholly dependent on car” 

    This quote sums up everything wrong with development in the city. It’s all targeted at people who developers want to lure from moving to the suburbs, but they don’t do this by amplifying what makes city life unique: locally owned businesses (a franchise of a national chain doesn’t count), walkability, public transit options, a true sense of each neighborhood’s uniqueness. All these developments look like they were pulled from one of 3 style manuals of repetitive suburban aesthetics (but pointing upward instead of outward). 

    Baltimore City would look as hideous and soul-less as the awfully-developed northern Virginia suburban area if the developers had their way. Reddish-orange fake-brick facades broken up by tan concrete slabs and either dark blue or brown handrails. 

    Also… 1,000 units? Really?? I would love to see the vacancy numbers on the last 7-8 years of condos that have sprouted up like so many pipe dreams across various neighborhoods. I’m sure it’s sky-high. There’s absolutely ZERO incentive to spend $150,00-$300,000 on a condo, when you can own a 2 or 3-story house with a yard in an actual neighborhood for just as much. Also, those have access to transit.

    If the city wanted to increase the number of people living here, and do the right thing, instead of giving these developers tax breaks and whatever other incentives they give them to build these monuments of bad taste, they would give first time home-buyers and small businesses and (maybe a few) developers tax breaks to fix up the miles and miles of empty rowhouses and storefronts in this city. When 1/3 of the available housing stock in this city sits empty (that was the last statistic i read a few years ago), why does anyone think it’s a good idea to build even MORE empty housing?

    • Gerald Neily

      Nolen, it is a sad commentary, but the city has been giving out huge tax breaks to virtually anyone who says they can save us, and yet Paterakis is practically the only one who has come up with a model that works. We have to adapt.

      Cooler Future, I realize I didn’t respond to you. At the current rate, the 2002 transit plan north corridor Yellow Line would be built about 2075. The Red Line might happen by 2030. We need a plan that succeeds a lot sooner than that. Like now.

  • craigpurcell

    Harbor East would make a great high speed ferry destination for people coming to Baltimore from Rock Hall/Eastern Shore and Annapolis and tieing into the light rail system to get to the airport, hospitals, stadia or going north to schools.

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