Let’s do the small stuff right to turn Baltimore around

OPINION: Observations and advice from a former city transportation planner who moved to Texas but still cares about his old hometown

lexington street vacants

Would West Side storefronts like these be occupied now instead of vacant had the city opted for multiple small developers instead of a holding out for a mega-project that never happened?

Photo by: Fern Shen

Last October I joined the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of people who, over the last four decades, moved out of the city of Baltimore. I now read city news from the sidelines in my new home in Dallas, but for the past six years I was a Baltimore resident and a planner at the city Department of Transportation. I was involved in long-range transportation planning and the design of many of the transportation projects you may have read about.

I also wrote articles on sustainable development and transportation at Car Free Baltimore. Practicing what I preached, I lived car-free in the city from 2010 to 2013. The experience changed my life and gave me a new perspective on transportation planning.

Because Baltimore was a significant chapter of my life, I feel obliged to offer some parting words of advice on how to make the city work better. During my time here, I saw a city with great promise that has survived a lot of challenges, but whose comeback is still uncertain. What I say may be direct, but I say it with love.

Incremental Changes Are Important

The Inner Harbor, Grand Prix, Harbor Point, the Super Block, Charles Center. Baltimore is known for its big projects, but I’ve often questioned the value of putting such large investments of time and money into such small areas of the city, especially a city with as much need as Baltimore.

Projects like Harbor Point are great – if they happen. Often, they don’t. That’s why smaller, incremental changes are so important to a city that’s in the transition between losing population and becoming an attractive, livable place. This is by no means an original idea. I’ve read versions of it from the who’s who of Baltimore glitterati, but working for a city agency made me see the issue up close. A decade was spent planning the West Side Superblock to no avail. Needed multi-million dollar transportation projects were sometimes delayed for years due to funding cuts or engineering issues.

While these things aren’t unique to Baltimore, it’s important to put low-cost, fast-turn-around stuff out on the streets that shows Baltimore is making progress and cares about neighborhood livability.

Small things like striping bike lanes, creating 20 mph speed zones for safer streets and installing new pedestrian street lights make a difference and contribute to neighborhood livability at a fraction of the cost of major reconstruction projects. For what we spend to build less than a mile of highway, we can stripe a full network of downtown bike lanes and cycle-tracks.

For large development projects, splitting the project up among multiple developers creates redundancy and shorter timelines. Had the Superblock been based solely on historic preservation principles and divided among many smaller developers, we’d likely see substantial progress by now. I understand big projects get people big recognition, but small, nimble and cheaper gets things done.

Sometimes there’s a single silver bullet that will change everything. But usually, it’s small, incremental acts multiplied a thousand times that have more power and which create the ripple effects that turn the tide.

Transit and Planning Policies

World class cities take transit and city planning seriously. This is one of the factors that drew me to Dallas. It not only has an extensive light rail system, but the transit stations have spurred billions in nearby real estate development projects which support ridership. Dallas’ transit system and recent neighborhood-oriented smart growth policies are a result of several major planning studies which were supported and implemented by city leadership.

Baltimore’s issue is that it loves big plans, but the plans often remain unfunded, unsupported, or are inappropriate to the city’s context. Baltimore’s recent Pratt Street Plan is a fine example of a beautiful grand vision, but an unfunded vision meant for a more perfect city where neighborhoods like Station North, Seton Hill, or Greenmount West didn’t have as much need as they do. Having been part of the planning team involved in the creation of Seton Hill’s Master Plan several years ago, implementing that plan would cost orders of magnitude less than rebuilding Pratt Street while stabilizing a historic neighborhood which lies on the edge of blight.

Trickle-down planning, where big plans and projects (ballparks, convention centers) serve as catalysts for neighborhood and city-wide revitalization, works in some cities. For reasons too complex to go into here, Baltimore is not one of those cities. This means funding and implementing smaller neighborhood plans should be a priority.

While Baltimore waits for the much needed Red Line, other ideas can fill in some of the transit gaps. MTA’s Howard Street upgrades are a step in the right direction. The Charles Street Streetcar idea should also be taken seriously by the administration. Portland’s streetcar network has spurred hundreds of millions of dollars of new investment, and there’s no reason to think a similar system in Baltimore wouldn’t do the same. Baltimore once had the crown jewel of streetcar systems, and it can again.

Making the bus network, metro and light rail lines more efficient could also attract more choice riders. While I was living without a car in Baltimore, riding the bus was a continuous source of frustration. Rethinking and simplifying routes, making the maps more readable, and providing smart phone arrival information are key to making bus service a viable compliment to fixed rail.

City Agencies

Of course we should audit city agencies – I said this even when I worked for one. The quality of city services is directly related to transparency and accountability. If agency staff know they can be sloppy with the numbers with no consequences, paperwork begins to fall through the cracks. Audits are common sense and should have been in place years ago.

Hiring and keeping qualified staff at every level of the organization should be another priority. I was lucky to work with exceptional individuals during my time at Baltimore DOT, however, my agency lost several well qualified staff simply because public sector salaries are often far less than the private sector. Yes, public pensions are generous, but pensions usually don’t attract movers and shakers. Merit raises do. I’d agree pension reform is needed in cities throughout the country, but at the same time, city policies should make it easier for middle managers to reward staff who do exceptional work.

At the director level, focus should be given to finding and promoting visionaries who can inspire and lead. Baltimore needs a Janette Sadik-Khan, a Gabe Klein or a Cory Booker (yes, I know he was a mayor, but he’s still a good leadership example). Managing a bureaucracy is important, but finding individuals who can speak truth to power and lead by example can transform a city.


It would be dishonest to talk about my experience in Baltimore without mentioning the crime issue. When people ask me why I left Baltimore, I find it difficult to give a single reason. A great job offer was the primary factor. But what led me to begin looking for work outside of Baltimore was crime. During my relatively short time in Baltimore, my apartment was broken into twice, my car window (when I had a car) was knocked out several times, and I was one of the guys who was randomly attacked by a group of teens during the rash of cyclist assaults last spring. I’ve also witnessed several phone thefts on buses, open air drug deals, and other quality of life crimes. And by the way, 90% of what I mentioned in this paragraph happened in “good” neighborhoods.

Baltimore’s crime issue is complex and often misunderstood. I don’t pretend to understand it myself. Murder statistics say if you’re not part of a certain demographic (young, black) you’ll probably be okay.  But we have to care about those homicides and not lose sight of the entire spectrum of crimes which affect residents across socioeconomic groups. Almost every single person I’ve met in Baltimore who has lived in the city longer than three years has been affected by crime in some way or another. This is unacceptable, and residents should not be silent about it. City leaders should deal with the decades-long crime epidemic with all of their worldly powers, as if it were a humanitarian crises. Because it is.”

I understand the police department recently completed a strategic plan to improve their operations. One of the recommendations was to have officers walk a beat. More cops being seen in the neighborhoods, outside of their squad cars, is what the city needs. The perception of safety is just as important as crime statistics. Residents need to know the cops are looking out for them. Criminals need to know there are police officers involved at the neighborhood level, in every neighborhood, potentially just a block away from where a crime might occur.

The importance of reducing crime in the city cannot be overstated. Half measures are not enough. Hundreds of millions of dollars invested in a neighborhood where residents still don’t feel safe to walk their own streets at night – that’s an investment that’s for nothing. Baltimore will be won, lost, and won again on how it deals with crime.

Role of Private Investment

Dallas is in the process of converting a major bridge over the Trinity River into a pedestrian-only public space which will be on par with the High Line in New York City. This $11 million dollar project would not have happened if it weren’t for a private $8 million donation. Likewise, several major parks in downtown Dallas were funded with millions of dollars of private money.

The public sector cannot do everything, and while Baltimore’s major institutions have given substantially over the years, the city needs increased private investment if it hopes to see continued improvement.

World-class cities are funded not only through tax revenue and parking fees, but through philanthropic organizations that are interested in creating a legacy beyond their front door. The legacy of the city, its people, and its institutions are tied together, and all three have equal roles in creating a better place.

An Optimistic End

Despite all of this, I’m still optimistic about Baltimore.

I wouldn’t have bothered to write this article if I didn’t care about the city’s future and the people who made the last six years the most educational and interesting chapter of my adult life so far. It was a wild ride. I look forward to visiting in the coming years and riding the Red Line, seeing shows at new theaters in Station North, and riding a bike downtown again, but this time on a brand new network of cycletracks.

In the meantime, you can still find me on a bike or taking a bus somewhere, but in a completely different landscape, deep in the heart of Texas.
This commentary was written for The Brew by Dallas city planner Mark R. Brown, AICP, PTP.

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  • davethesuave

    some of the answers are painfully obvious.
    cops on the beat, yes.
    complete legalization of all drugs, as well as prostitution, yes.
    slashing the property tax rate in half, yes.
    occasionally electing politicians outside of the Democratic Party, yes.

    some of you will say some of these points are unobtainable. i say remember, consumption of alcohol was illegal about 80 years ago. marijuana was legal once. and since prostitution is one of the oldest professions in the history of the planet (can’t remember what the oldest one is, it’ll come to me, but i recall it’s close to prostitution), it might as well be made legal, if only to protect the sellers & buyers. or do we prefer the beating to death & dumping of women’s bodies behind the local elementary school. as long as we don’t have to SEE it, right?

    c’mon people, think.

  • Stan47

    The writer touts “incremental changes” instead of big projects, then goes on to recommend the Red Line, a project whose impact on the aging water, sewer and gas lines along its route cannot be overestimated.

  • James Hunt

    No doubt the author means well, but this article is a minefield of ill-considered references. For example, citing Corey Booker for his “leadership.” Don’t we already have an abundance of people who don’t take care of their properties?

    Unfortunately, a lot of the misbegotten ideas he notes were begotten by city planners marinating in popular nostrums of their eras. Perhaps the solution is to cashier 90 percent of the planning apparatchiks (BDC and Dept. of Planning included) and pay the remaining 10 percent a lot more to focus on core issues like making sure our water and sewer systems are adequate well into the future rather than inflicting the latest planning theories on unsuspecting citizens.

  • green lisa

    A large concentration of small scale development….yes, that’s what makes cities interesting to people….just like Jane Jacobs said. And not having to use a car is an extra plus. Cars are burdensome, dehumanizing…

  • Gerald Neily

    The multi-billion dollar Red Line is just about the LEAST incremental transit project conceivable. Not only would it be isolated and disconnected, it also would prevent anything resembling a coherent comprehensive system from being built afterward. Also, Dallas is also just about as polar opposite of a city from Baltimore as there is in the U.S.

    • Herx

      Sorry, Gerald Neily, I don’t understand you at all. You think the Red Line has no logical backing at all? Obviously, you do not know the real Baltimore at all. Where are you from? Obviously not from here.

      Point 1: The currently proposed Red Line links MAJOR employment centers with intensive residential areas. What part of the that plan do you think is unreasonable?

      Sorry, but your objection makes no sense at all to people who know the real situation.

      • Gerald Neily

        Herx, the problems with the Red Line are not the places it serves. It’s that it provides incredibly bad service for its price and makes a shambles of the transit system. My proposal (which I use only as an example, not as a “my way or the highway”) follows pretty much the same route but with far better connections. The Red Line was developed in 2000-1 by merely drawing a line on a map, so as a “connect the dots” exercise, it’s fine. They’ve been trying to somehow ram it into its routing ever since. I’ve lived here since 1960 except college.

      • Aaron Mirenzi

        haha and who are you herx? do some research before you put your hands to the keyboard.

  • VictoryG

    Yes focus on the smaller incremental projects. The message is overall good. I know that the Red Line is a hot topic, but the author of this article mentioned it 2 times in his article without actually promoting the idea, while promoting dozens of other things. Yet the Red Line sentence is what the commentators are focusing on. He is taking the red line plan which is approved as far as the public has been told and supporting incremental improvements near it’s stations.

  • Carol Ott

    You know, this article and its comments made me think of something….you know those “Balance Baltimore’s Budget”-type surveys the mayor drags out every year so citizens can pretend their opinion is having an impact?

    I just realized…usually Rec & Parks and a handful of other city agencies are on the “Add/Subtract” list — where we’re allowed to increase or decrease their budgets…but I can’t recall seeing Baltimore Development Corporation on that list. BDC has never been on the chopping block.

    Maybe it’s time to start considering that possibility, and not just in a pretend survey — maybe it’s time to adjust their budget in the real world, to reflect citizens’ real concerns and needs.

  • KnowNothingParty

    A couple of “small things” to help Baltimore stop its decline should include; city juries end its jury nullification that has allowed repeat violent offenders to continually walk away only to be rearrested for more crimes. For the life of me I cannot fathom why city juries just find it near impossible to convict violent thugs. REDUCE property taxes to below that of surrounding jurisdictions. This will not happen because The Mayor and City Council hold much power in being the ones who can bestow “tax breaks” to those who they chose to. Shape up the city school system by teaching the 3 R’s, promote a culture of self reliance and end this urban culture of dependence. There is 3 minutes of my life I will never get back.

    • New to Bmore

      This is a great response. Let’s be blunt- Baltimore is failing because of the amount of poor black people in our borders and all the social ills that come along with them. Of course a lot of their terrible behavior and general station in life isn’t their fault, but the fact remains that being around them can be intolerable for a lot of people.

      Here’s more of the conversation:

      • B_R_K_S

        Let’s be blunt – your statement is racist. Whether you intended it to come off that way or not, I don’t care. I think you need to check your preconceptions at the door before you blame the structural oppression of the group of people (“their terrible behavior”) on the very same people being continuously and actively oppressed. You are right in pointing out it isn’t their fault, but based on your tone and that link you provided, it doesn’t seem you care much about that fact.

        So, let’s revise, shall we?

        Baltimore is failing because of structural racism, included a historic housing policy (see Red Lining) which segregated where its population lived based on race. In addition, city money (held by whites in power) went to promote the dissemination goods, the development of services, and access to decent jobs only to those of a certain race, who lived in certain neighborhoods. Compounded with white flight to the suburbs, you have pockets of extreme underdevelopment where a majority of the residents are of minority races.

        Social ills are imposed from outside friend, not generated from within.

        • Day_Star

          Wow, I disagree with both of you. One is a gross representation that further poisons the well and has no strand of constructive criticism. The other is a sad excuse with no mention of personal or collective responsibility.

  • Sean Tully

    We can dance around the real issues facing Baltimore all we want by building the Red Line, bike lanes, hiring more qualified employees and keeping them, etc., etc., etc., but nothing will change until we get a strangle hold on crime and lowering property taxes significantly and I don’t see either of those coming down the pike any time soon.

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