Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

New Baltimore area regional plan for sustainability

Baltimore photo collage.  "BaltimoreC12" by Excel23 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Is discussed ("A plan to lift Baltimore region from good to great") by Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks who writes:
I have read a lot of reports and recommendations for improving life in metropolitan Baltimore over the years — some interesting, some scathing, many bland or puny-minded, most ignored or forgotten. 
The regional plan released Monday by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council goes further in describing our problems than any report I've seen from a local government entity; it's refreshingly honest about the area's racial, economic and social issues, and it provides a road map to a "shared regional destiny" that is clear and even bold. ...

For years, the council's main interest was transportation. In fact, until recently, it seemed to have little to say about anything potentially controversial, such as poverty and affordable housing. But with the establishment of the Opportunity Collaborative — the entity that came up with Monday's report — the council ventured fully into the areas of housing and workforce development.
Also see "A regional approach to close the Baltimore Metropolitan opportunity gap" (op-ed, Baltimore Sun).

The Baltimore Metropolitan Council is the designated metropolitan council of governments, focused mostly on transportation as it is the "Metropolitan Planning Organization" designated by the US DOT as the transportation planning organization for the region. (The bike and pedestrian plan I did for Western Baltimore County was funded through the BMC.)

-- Opportunity Collaborative, Baltimore Metropolitan Council
-- the planning document doesn't seem to be available yet, although it was released yesterday, but should be made available here, Regional Plan for Sustainable Development

Not having read the plan, given that it isn't available, here's my take.

1. Too much development capacity in the metropolitan area.  The biggest problem for the Baltimore metropolitan area is that there is too much "build out" capacity compared to demand.  So there will always be pressure from the outlying counties (Howard, Baltimore, Carroll, Anne Arundel, Harford) to capture development which might otherwise be focused on Baltimore City.

Baltimore County alone has maybe double the "growth areas" or supply of developable land -- Towson, Hunt Valley, Owings Mills, White Marsh, area near the Aberdeen Proving Ground ("Harford, military officials worried about lay-offs, BRAC," Baltimore Sun), Essex-Middle River -- than there is demand.  Baltimore County too, like Baltimore City, has lost a lot of its previous manufacturing-industrial base. For example, the Sparrows Point steel plant is actually in the county.

It is the "sprawling outward" and migration of office space outside of the city to mostly greenfield locations despite a lack of demand over the past 40 years that has consigned Baltimore City to its impoverished state.

2. The lack of a transit network, as opposed to some transit lines, (see the past blog entry "From the files: transit planning in Baltimore County") prevents re-centering of development in the core.

Towson aerial photo.  From the Baltimore Sun.  Towson has about 90,000 residents and is the County seat and business center, along with Hunt Valley, which is not quite 10 miles north of the incorporated area.

3. I can't speak about counties other than Baltimore County, but I thought when I worked there that the County was content to measure success in terms of "doing better than Baltimore City" as a baseline, and that was the wrong comparison.

Interestingly, Baltimore County has over the decades done some of the region's most innovative planning.  Arguably, it may be the location of the first Urban-Rural Growth Boundary (Urban-Rural Demarcation Line), created in 1967, a few years after the pathbreaking environmentally focused "Plan for the Valleys," done by Ian McHarg.

Later innovations included creation of one of the earliest county agencies focused on the environment (for example, zbout 15 years before DC created an equivalent agency), "outsourcing" programming planning responsibilities within the park and recreation system to citizens (although this was mostly for budgetary reasons, it's a forward approach to citizen involvement), land use planning focused on redirecting growth to existing places, co-location of government facilities (such as the combined Senior Center and Library in Pikesville), and an urban design unit to provide technical assistance to communities.

The planning office tried to implement a smart growth planning code (which was successfully opposed by the land use bar, the biggest source of campaign contributions) and in the 1950s, the parks department and school system developed a wide-ranging MOU for joint use of facilities, with the parks department funding more robust facilities in the schools to support time-shifted access for residents more generally.

(And I developed my "Signature Streets" concept there, rooted in part in the County's history of planning-related innovation.)

4. Baltimore City and County should merge.  In 1851, Baltimore City and Baltimore County split, so the City technically is separate, although there were some annexations until about 1919 (a later amendment to the state Constitution precludes Baltimore City from annexing any more County land)..

Interestingly, rather than splitting between city and county, around the same time, Philadelphia instead became a city-county, and later so did San Francisco.  And New York City consolidated out of five counties in the 1890s--technically the counties still exist legally, under the rubric of the city).

Between the City and County, they have not quite 1.5 million residents.  But Baltimore's peak population, around World War II, was close to one million.

The City and County should re-merge, comparable to some of the combined city-counties elsewhere in the country such as Indianapolis, Lexington, Louisville, Macon-Bibb County, and Nashville-Davidson County.

It would be very controversial, in part because the County has more residents (823,000 vs.622,000) and fewer elected officials (seven Councilmembers in the County + the County Executive vs. 14 Councilmembers, plus the Council President, plus the Mayor in the City), which would change the political calculus somewhat, and in ways that the African-American dominated political structure in the city could see as being designed deliberately to disenfranchise their political power and prominence within the city.

The disenfranchisement issue is subtly different from the related issue of more conservative suburban voters outweighing more progressive voters in the core of the city, a problem common to Toronto and London and typical of the large city-county combinations like Indianapolis--but not the center city counties like Philadelphia and San Francisco, while in New York City, Staten Island is the conservative outpost that gets politically outweighed by the rest of the more progressive city.

5. But a combined City-County would be the nation's sixth largest city, just edging Phoenix. Harnessing some of the financial prowess of county could help to better address the poverty problems in the city.

Baltimore City is a "small city," ranking 26th (DC is 23rd), while Baltimore County is the third largest county in the state by population, and 69th largest by population in the nation (Fairfax County, Virginia is the 36th, Montgomery 41st, and Prince George's 59th).  

By merging, the City and County would be resetting their trajectories, albeit jointly.

Rank City Population
1 New York City 8,405,837
2 Los Angeles 3,884,307
3 Chicago 2,718,782
4 Houston 2,195,914
5 Philadelphia 1,553,165
6 Phoenix 1,513,367
7 San Antonio 1,409,019
8 San Diego 1,355,896
9 Dallas 1,257,676
10 San Jose 998,537
14 San Francisco 837,442

Note that different population estimate sources yield different conclusions.  Some add up so that a Baltimore City+County combination would be greater than Phoenix's population, others show Baltimore City+County slightly behind, but still ahead of San Antonio.

At worst, a combined Baltimore City+County would be the nation's seventh largest city.

6.  This would allow Baltimore to begin to reassert its importance and position as a leading city on the East Coast and in the Mid-Atlantic region.  Now, it's a distant third to DC and Philadelphia in the Mid-Atlantic region, no longer considered in the same tier as New York City or Boston, with a negative velocity, especially in terms of external perception post-Freddie Gray riots.

(Note that residents I've talked to are actually heartened by the post-riot community response.)
Crumbling house in Baltimore neighborhood
Patrick Semansky/Associated Press.  Crumbling house in Baltimore neighborhood.

7.  What this would mean to the metropolitan area is that Howard County would continue to be residential suburban in orientation, Harford and Carroll Counties would remain mostly rural, and Anne Arundel, with Annapolis, would be the political center, with its commerce focused on government and maritime functions.

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At 8:15 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Merging county-city would increase the ability to borrow, allow for a large number of employee reductions, and in general be a positive move.

Doesn't solve in micro-issues of urban poverty in any way.

Also employee reductions tend to be very unpopular.

At 9:41 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

FWIW, of all the large jurisdictions in the greater region, Baltimore County is probably the most fiscally conservative. E.g., they don't borrow much for capital improvements, prefer "pay as you go," so they build less.

The "outsourcing" of programming provision to residents for the parks dept. is another example of this.

They take a long time to hire people. E.g., a guy who is planner for the parks dept. worked on temporary contracts for years before he shifted to permanent status (and he complained about how this hurt his pension).

They did a cram down on pensions in 2009, and restricted pension benefits for elected officials. They didn't RIF a lot of people during the recession, because they don't have an overly big staff but they did offer buyouts.

with the Nov. 2010 election they continued to shrink, merging depts. (e.g., planning and their equivalent of DHCD, with a combination of district planners and revitalization coordinators into one position, etc.).

2. But yes, would have nothing to do with dealing with micro issues of poverty, and that's somewhat outside of the skill set of Balt. County staff generally, although poverty is an issue in the old Essex-Dundalk areas (deindustrialization) and D4, which has the most outmigration from Baltimore City of the impoverished.

I do think having more money from consolidating back office functions would help.

3. ... but, Balt City gets certain inducements and special treatments within the state financing system, e.g., it controls its own roads unlike every other "county", keeps the gas tax I think. If this were extended to the City+County footprint, that could generate more money too.

A combo would increase bonding capacity as you say, although that is a facility Balt. County hasn't used much. It'd likely reduce interest costs.

4. But I think a lot of the positive changes could be branding and positioning. From two average places to one, that in combination, could be pretty amazing. It would make as one city much of the area within the Baltimore Beltway, excepting the portion within Anne Arundel County. (Just think if DC could do that.)

At 7:06 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: branding, absolutely would help and with rankings.

But it strikes me that most of these city-county agglomerations are driven by issues of gravity: either financing for transit (NYC), water access (LA) or now pensions.

At 8:28 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

It would be interesting to figure out why the Louisville, Lexington, Nashville, and Macon ones happened. And Indianapolis, which by the way was helped in the way I see a Baltimore City County combo.

but yep, it's partly out of the Orfield Metropolitics argument and the way jurisdictions in Minneapolis aren't merged, but share certain tax resources and have an agreement not to poach businesses from each other.

At 8:52 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

yes, cleveland has a similar system -- RITA -- regional income tax.

In other news, Meredith Whitney just gave up on her hedge fund and her muni call.

That said, the scandal in goverment is how duplicative we have invested in local goverments. Huge trust issues here.

At 9:40 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

1. I'll have to look into the RITA. They do have the arts tax (on tobacco products), which I think is a good idea, but now how it's charged. It should be a regional tax, like the Huron Clinton Parks Authority in Southeastern Michigan or the Regional Assets District in Allegheny County, PA.

2. wrt Meredith Whitney, I don't think her general point about local government financing was wrong, but her ideas about timing and the nature of the problem probably were.

3. wrt "duplication" in local government it's a tricky thing. it's between local control and efficiency. The efficiency part of me wants to do things like merge Baltimore City and County and Rhode Island with Connecticut and Maryland and Delaware, etc.

But the local control element is important to some.

It's just in these kinds of economic times, it makes more sense to merge like functions and cut out duplicative administration.

e.g. Gov. Christie forced the consolidation of a lot of micro districts across New Jersey.

I know that when I was getting the Detroit News e-letter, there were many examples of consolidation of services across townships. Or certain local fire districts in California are merging, etc.

Allegheny County has been an area where there have been discussions over the years about merger with Pittsburgh. But either the Mayor or County Executive would end up losing out... But there are more than 200 cities, towns, and special districts in the county. some super micro.

in a period where it is likely where govts. have to rely on reduced income streams, consolidation will likely occur some.

but the average citizen does end up in a place further from the elected officials than before.


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