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Klaus Philipsen, FAIA is an architect, urban designer and architectural writer specializing in urban architecture, adaptive reuse, preservation and transportation work. He is President ArchPlan Inc. past chairman of the Baltimore Design Center, member of the AIA National Regional and Urban Design Committee and president of NeighborSpace Baltimore County. He is a co-founder of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide smart growth group. Klaus has been a presenter, speaker or moderator at international, national and regional conventions and events about cities, design, smart growth, economic development, livability, sustainability and transportation. He writes an architectural column in a local paper and is a urban design contributor on a statewide radio talk show. For inquiries about presentations, participation in discussion panels or articles write to info@archplan.com

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Ice House - How Transit Could Revive a Neighborhood

Facilities from times past

The Ice House (see video) in West Baltimore was one of the places where ice was made in Baltimore. One would think that ice making is a relic from a distant past when people had no refrigeration and ice came initially from frozen lakes up north and was stored in central facilities until the hot summers in Baltimore would have melted the last block of ice away and fall would come and soon more ice.
But the Ice House was active until the 1990ties, not only storing but making ice right there in the factory, with compressors and lots of ammonium which eventually became its downfall when a big fire gutted it in 2004. Nobody suggests that ice making should be brought back here, but the debate what to do with the remaining historic brick building and what with the large empty lot behind it has been going on for a long time, since the fire, really.
The remaining Ice House ruin with commuter surface parking in the foreground
Transit to the Rescue?

The intention of the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) to build a new subway/surface transit line right in front of the Ice House (see video) and the presence of an existing commuter rail station there has stimulated discussion about "transit oriented development" and the community has spent about the last seven years participating in workshops, charrettes and committees discussing the future of the area and how the transit investment can spur development and how the fallow lands, once developed, can spur transit ridership. (see Strategic Plan)

The Sustainable Communities Grant

At the recent annual meeting of the Citizens, Planning and Housing Association (CPHA), one of the oldest advocacy groups in Baltimore, the Ice House was the topic in the context of the Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI) grant that will support strategic thinking for its redevelopment. I was invited as a panelist to talk about how the Ice House and the Red Line can work hand in hand. This won't be easy since the area is heavily dis-invested. Developers that I have brought in to discuss future uses got a real serious look on their faces, attest the place "no market" and conclude that the "numbers wont work", meaning that the high cost of development won't find the necessary returns to make the investment worthwhile for them.

What does it take to "create" a market?

In my little talk I explained that in such a situation much creativity and leadership is needed, a broad approach and partnerships between the community, the public and the private side. Some public help probably needs to be injected. Help preferably in a form that doesn't require cash, something that neither city, state or the federal government have to spend, as we all know. One way to do this is to leverage existing assets that the public owns already (like land) or that the public plans to build anyway (like the new transit line) or bring future benefits to bear now like in tax increment financing (TIF).

Applied to the Ice House and West Baltimore, probably all of these tricks are needed to turn the situation around: First, a broad big picture approach. In the community based West Baltimore  planning process participants concluded that their biggest asset is the existing MARC train stop.  It is Baltimore's closest train stop on the commute to Washington. This really makes transit a central piece in the puzzle and even more so when the planned light rail transit line is added. Second, the Ice House project needs to be bigger. Additional nearby properties need to be improved and developed as part of a bigger masterplan so one investment doesn't sit in isolation. Third, one needs to identify win-win solutions. Such as commuter parking. It could be built on the Ice House lot providing a jump-start to the site in the shape of a two-level concrete base that accommodates all the MARC parking and creates a clean slate for development to go on top. The current surface parking lots could then be developed without costly structured replacement parking and pay for some of the up-front cost for the parking decks on the Ice House site.

The future "Red Line" transit and the existing commuter train station would ferry people to and from Washington DC, a red hot market that could give Baltimore a boost via the 45 minute rail life line that connects West Baltimore with Union Station in DC. Maybe those folks would like to live in a tall apartment building on top of the Ice House parking decks with a fantastic view of downtown Baltimore to the east and the Gwynns Falls greenway to the west. The historic Ice House would give the investment "character", maintain the scale at the edge. It could accommodate incubator offices, a climbing gym, an art factory or whatever else the "creative class" would like to see, with some luck, maybe even the one or the other service that the existing residents really need in their community. Obviously, the above scenario is simply illustrating by way of example how big picture, public private partnership, asset leverage, and win-win could look. A solution based on actual design, cost and realistic demand projections may look very different. It hopefully becomes clearer through the SCI grant.

Before TOD becomes plausible for West Baltimore, it would help to be able to point to success in areas in Baltimore where the market is already strong. Successful public private partnerships converting "transit adjacent" development into truly transit "oriented" development may do what success usually does, breed imitation.

Where are equity and justice?

If the mechanics of "market creation" sound like "trickle down" to the existing West Baltimore communities, it probably is. Given the state of much of West Baltimore with its abandoned factories, boarded stores and vacant rowhouses, new blood, new people and disposable income are sorely needed to create demand for the missing services. Maybe higher income development allocating here because of the connection to DC, can bring eventually all the things to the area that any really sustainable community needs: Grocery stores, coffee shops, banks, dry cleaners and vibrant public open spaces.

The residents that have stuck it out in the area for the last difficult decades deserve protection.  Principle #1 established in the community planning process leading to the strategic plan is that nobody should be forced to leave. Not through demolition (like in the community north of Johns Hopkins Hospital) nor through high taxes or rents (gentrification). Critical voices pointed out that the West Baltimore communities received the shaft already once as a result of grandiose transportation plans when the "highway to nowhere" was built as part of the urban interstate craze. The ultimately aborted freeway piece demolished hundreds of houses and expelled equally many households. This injustice shall be a warning and reminder that whatever will happen in West Baltimore needs to be fair and equitable. It may be sad that "trickle down" is about the best one can imagine but with empty public coffers little else seems to be possible.
New development in Columbia Heights in Washington DC. Picture taken during an educational tour with community members and masterplan designer Otto Condon of ZGF

That revitalization leveraged by transit is not a pipe dream and can come out quite spectacularly, can be observed in Washington's Columbia Heights, an also once derelict neighborhood which transit combined with community resolve turned into a shining star with many former residents still in place to tell about it.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Photos: ArchPlan (copyright) Updated: 12/1512 17:49

Related stories on this blog:

Station Area Planning with and for the Community
Making New Starts More Nimble
Integrated Transit Design
Commuter Rail and the Creative Class
ArchPlan TOD Projects Part of National Conference

Other link:
A wide ranging story in the Atlantic about DC's gentrification


  1. The question might be posed: Does building a rapid transit(or not so rapid trolley) line create a market? Does it provide a supply of desirable consumer goods or services (other than transit service) or create additional disposable income for consumers to expend on necessities? Does it support growth of existing demand or existing markets?
    Flashback to 1976: US DOT denied transit funding to Denver for rapid transit and funded a transit line to downtown Buffalo from the suburban interceptor at the University of Buffalo. I have visited both frequently and am very familiar with each city.
    Buffalo's linear transit does not appear to have revitalized downtown to any extent at all.
    Denver moved forward with local funding efforts and built an integrated rapid transit line that directly served the multi-faceted economic centers of its metropolitan area, as well as built a tollway circumferential expressway and a new international airport. Denver has sustained its position as a thriving trade center in the middle of the western US.

  2. Hi Klaus,
    I loved reading this piece! Well written! :)

    Hotel Room Investments