Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Same old story, not much to say...

There's a belief among some (many?) that development in the central Maryland region is akin to a zero-sum game. That is, more development in one area (e.g. Howard County) leads to less development in another (e.g. Baltimore City).

This may be true, to a small extent, but what the idea fails to adequeatly account for are the vast differences between various parts of the region and the complexity of consumer tastes.

Nevertheless, arguments based on this assumption are made against additional development in Howard County and Columbia, because Baltimore City, with it's dwindling population and decaying housing stock, "needs" development.

Rarely, however, is the question asked: Does Baltimore want development?

Just as we can't assume that development is development is development in this region, we can't assume that that is true for Baltimore City, too. Not to sound like a marketing campaign, but Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods. Some really nice. Some... not so much.

Unfortunately (and not to sound cliche) the city is only as strong as its weakest neighborhoods. These are the places where revitalization is truly needed and, in many cases, where it is ongoing, albeit at a slow pace and, regrettably, without resounding success.

The neighborhoods where large-scale, profitable and effective redevelopment projects are being built are precisely the places where it probably isn't "needed" -- like Canton and Federal Hill. These are also, however, neighborhoods where significant development (or, rather, development similar to what has been proposed for Columbia) isn't wanted, either.

Who among the hundreds of people who packed City Hall recently to debate the ever-divisive Icon tower proposal left satisfied?

Certainly not the developer, who hoped the $75 million high-rise he's pushed for two years would inch closer to approval.

Certainly not Canton activists, who wished the City Council committee would vote down the condominium plan they've fought since Day One.

But maybe the politicians, who, by not voting at all, seemed to sidestep a sticky issue with potential for repercussions in an election year.

The council's silence, however, appears to be backfiring. The developer and the Canton community - who seemingly agree on nothing else - are demanding a vote. Both sides want a final answer on the project that has weighed on the waterfront neighborhood for nearly two years.

As a result, a vote could come as soon as tomorrow, officials said late last week.

"It's a head-scratcher for us because it seems like there are people who just don't want the debate to happen," says Marco Greenberg, vice president of Cignal Corp., the Timonium-based firm behind the Icon. "It seems like there's been this effort to hold it back, to delay, to sit on it, and that's what's happening again.

"There's a little bit of gamesmanship being played."

Adds Nancy A. Braymer, a Canton Square resident and Icon opponent: "I think it's important that the elected officials make it absolutely clear what their position on this is."

The Icon faced steep odds going into the April 18 hearing before the council's land use committee. Not only did the councilman representing Canton oppose it, so did Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Dixon and Councilman James B. Kraft had repeatedly said they would follow Canton's lead on the Icon. In other words, if the people who would have to live near the tower didn't want it, they would support them.

The Icon's prospects were so bleak, committee members discussed canceling the hearing altogether. Instead, they just nixed the voting part - a long-favored political tactic that allows officials to essentially shelve unpopular legislation without having to go on the record.

But this time the council didn't just skip the vote - they announced that they were "delaying" it so the city's Transportation Department could finish a report on traffic problems in the southeastern part of town.

...The Icon, a condominium and retail project, would rise about 260 feet, or 23 stories, from what is now a parking lot for the Lighthouse Point shopping center, a nondescript waterfront plaza anchored by a Blockbuster video store.
I'm not quite sure what the point of this now-rambling post is. You could probably say I'm just cherry picking an example of NIMBYism in Baltimore that closely mirrors what we see in Howard County in order to make some snarky point. But that's not the whole story.

I want Baltimore to be a great city and I also want the same for Columbia. Columbia's already great, but it can be better. Baltimore has a long way to go, however.

Which is not to say that it's impossible to turn the city around, but the problems are so much deeper than a lack of development in certain areas and white flight. The problems are as entrenched and interrelated as any we face as a society -- drugs, poverty, crime, deindustrialization (or creative destruction, if you're an overly optimistic and insensitive economist) and, the culmination of them all, a lack of hope. There are parts of Baltimore and other cities that are so fundamentally disconnected from mainstream America and from the typical dreams, goals and opportunities most of us (i.e. suburban folk) share that books are written about kids who simply go to college.

And saying that development in Columbia robs Baltimore of its opportunity for renewal fails to do the situation any justice. Just as housing alone fails to solve any of its problems.

We’ve been searching for decades for a solution to this mess, and although programs have been started, money has been allocated, needles exchanged, houses built, clinics opened, schools chartered, streets patrolled and, naturally, fingers pointed, we’ve accomplished little. Our well-meaning but ineffective policies, like the well-meaning but ineffective politicians who create them, may sometimes pay credence to the scale of the problems but fail to fully acknowledge their scope.

David Simon, creator of The Wire and other fantastic works about Baltimore, has a great take the plight of our cities. He told Reason magazine about a panel discussion he participated in at some think tank:
…I spoke at one of those groups. There came this point where a guy said, "Well, what is the solution? Give me the paragraph; give me the lede. What’s the solution, if not drug prohibition?"

I very painstakingly said: "Look. For 35 years, you’ve systematically deindustrialized these cities. You’ve rendered them inhospitable to the working class, economically. You have marginalized a certain percentage of your population, most of them minority, and placed them in a situation where the only viable economic engine in their hypersegregated neighborhoods is the drug trade. Then you’ve alienated them further by fighting this draconian war in their neighborhoods, and not being able to distinguish between friend or foe and between that which is truly dangerous or that which is just illegal. And you want to sit across the table from me and say ‘What’s the solution?’ and get it in a paragraph? The solution is to undo the last 35 years, brick by brick. How long is that going to take? I don’t know, but until you start it’s only going to get worse."

And the guy looked at me and went, "But what’s the solution?" He said it again. [The Wire co-creator] Ed Burns restrained me.


Anonymous said...

Ask Peter Beilenson. Ask Ben Carson. Ask Bea Gatty. Ask Paul Farmer.

Solutions to tough problems can be found and tough problems can be solved.

Education. Treatment. Opportunity. Funding. And hard work.

It's not nimbyism to encourage smart growth development in already developed areas. But it needs to be development that is welcomed by the local community, not thrust upon it.

Jessie Newburn said...

Great post, Ian!

This weekend I had a lengthy conversation with my brother, Dave Newburn, who graduated OMHS in 1986. He is now teaching "Land Economics" to MBA students in the real estate track at Texas A&M University.

But his class and perspective is anything but the norm. Dave actually got his PhD from Berkeley as an environmentalist. (I forget the exact department in which he studied.)

We talked much of NIMBYism and the concept of "home voters," people whose primary asset is their home. (Unless, of course, you prefer Mr. Rich Dad / Poor Dad's take on homeownership.) When people experience their home as their primary asset, they become "risk averse" and often consider change in the landscape of their neighborhoods as adversely affecting their investment (their home's value).

Hence, the term "home voter," and a section of the population that becomes, in essence, single-issue voters based on fear, real or perceived.

Reference the Columbia Council elections, the Council's minimal actual influence on the outcome of the WCI towers and the lopsided emphasis on where candidates stood vis-a-vis the 22-story condo and the legislation introduced to retroactively reduce their previously approved permits. (That's a mouthful of a sentence!)

Much more to say about what I learned -- and continue to learn -- from my brother; and perhaps I'll blog about it, but for here's a bit of close-to-reality humor about intelligent design and development:

Most folk know the acronym of NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard!

From my brother I also learned about the BANANAs: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything!!

Then, of course, there's another iteration: NOTE, which stands for Not Over There Either!!!

Oi. Do we ever need fresh thinking. This yes-no-push-pull approach to problem-solving is getting so old.