Pure Genius

Baltimore's next steps: transportation, energy, green building, food

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If the city planning director has his way, Baltimore's east and west sides, known for blocks of abandoned and boarded up buildings, will be getting light rail and produce stands. Yes, produce stands.

If Baltimore’s planning director has his way, the city’s east and west sides--known for blocks of abandoned and boarded up buildings--will be getting light rail and produce stands. Yes, produce stands.

Tom Stosur, director of the Baltimore City Department of Planning, has worked in Charm City planning roles for more than two decades. Today, he is counting on a new light rail line, new zoning codes and a new food czar to help transform the blighted sections infamously portrayed in HBO’s The Wire. Stosur talked to me Friday about the new Baltimore.

Let’s start with a lay of the land in Baltimore. What are some of the issues and challenges specific to your city?

  • We peaked in population in the city limits [85 square miles] in 1950 with close to a million folks. In the 2000 census, we had about 640,000. We’re hoping the 2010 census will show us to have stabilized. Repopulating the center of the region and reducing sprawl in the hinterlands is an ever-present challenge.
  • Within the city, we have pockets of low income, segregation, blight and vacancy that border mostly east and west sides of downtown—areas that have experienced the biggest disinvestment. It’s not widespread, but our issues related to crime and social issues tend to be concentrated in these areas.
  • We’ve been a leader in waterfront development for about 35 years. Along with Faneuil Hall [in Boston], Harborplace was one of the original waterfront destinations. It’s a great asset to the city. Investments for new office buildings are all gravitating toward the water and not the traditional downtown. So we’re trying to figure out how to keep downtown vital.

What’s the future of transportation in Baltimore?

The big gorilla on the map is our new red line light rail that will connect East Baltimore to West Baltimore and intersect with current north and south light rail lines. For the last 20 years, we’ve had a rail system, but for the majority of people who don’t live in north-to-south orientation, we’ve had a complete lack of connectivity. We’re in the midst of federal approval for this red line, and it will fill that void.

How will the trains for this new line be different?

It will be a leaner, meaner, quieter, smaller rail car. One of the less appealing things is that the original line has very long, clunky cars that are not low to the ground, so you have to get on special ramps. This new light rail line is looking at systems that are in place in Portland and Seattle. Part of it is going to be a surface portion where cars will share the road. It’s been a hard sell because people envision what we have on Howard Street, and it’s going to be much more friendly, with more seamless integration.

If all goes well we could be starting construction in 2012 or 2013. We could have a fully functioning system before 2020. In the shorter term, this past year we’ve initiated a new, very popular transit option called the Circulator. It runs very reliably, east to west, every 20 minutes, and it’s free.

It’s free? Our D.C. Circulator costs a dollar.

We’ve had a few issues with it. Folks are complaining that some of the homeless are using it very regularly, and it makes for not the happiest experience to sit next to someone who hasn’t taken a bath in three days.

What’s new in your energy department?

We have a partnership with the Coast Guard [in which] we use methane extraction from a city landfill to power a new Coast Guard facility.

One of the initiatives of our Office of Sustainability is getting out the energy message to the general public. With the Baltimore Neighborhood Energy Challenge (BNEC), the city is partnering with the Baltimore Community Foundation and Constellation Energy to do energy audits, detailed billing monitoring and provide free energy upgrade fixtures. The key thing is that BNEC is seen as a grassroots effort. We’re reaching out to about a dozen neighborhoods and getting a neighbor-to-neighbor thing going. We’re trying to find ways to raise energy awareness and sustainability awareness among our low-income residents. Hopefully it will build some money back in the pockets of some working class folks, and reduce our greenhouse gases. Our goal is to reduce energy use by 15 percent by 2015.

What other kinds of incentives do you have for city workers and businesses?

We do have green building legislation that is requiring 10,000 square feet or above to meet LEED Silver [certification] or above. One of the unique things Baltimore is doing is developing a Baltimore Green Building Standard.

How is that different than the LEED standards?

It will be a little more accessible to folks. We give people extra points just for developing in the city, because that’s a smart growth thing to do in general. The approval time is shorter, there are no additional review fees, there is less documentation required, and they get pledge points for future built-in green operation features.

You just hired a food czar.

Holly Freishtat is the new city food policy director. We’re one of the first places in the country to have someone on city staff working with the planning and health departments to promote access to healthy food across the city. She’s got a lot of experience working in the Pacific Northwest. She’s getting involved with everything from community gardens to getting folks with food stamps access to farmers markets.

Another thing you’re doing is rewriting zoning codes. How will that change the city?

Our sister cities—Washington, Philadelphia-- are going through the same thing. Codes are 40 to 50 years old [when the mindset was], “Let’s cater to the automobile, save manufacturing and separate uses, like commercial and residential.” We’re completely turning this on its head. Cities are important for a mix of uses and should be walkable. No more new surface parking lots downtown, period.

New zoning codes will ease restrictions on community gardens and urban agriculture and allow folks to do things like sell their produce from farm stands, even in residential areas. This is an important piece for some of these areas that have a lot of vacancy and blight. Maybe as a temporary solution we can create urban gardens and farms and provide fresh produce for some of these places that are food deserts.

What about chickens?

The whole chicken thing is a growing issue. [As we rewrite the code] this would be the time to address that issue as well.

Images: City of Baltimore

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure