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Rent an apartment, get a bike: Baltimore developers pitch a new, carless way to live

Wheelhouse developers offer each resident a new bicycle for renting. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)

When tenants begin signing leases for apartments in the Wheelhouse in Federal Hill this July, the landlord plans to give them a bike along with the keys.

The developer of the 28-unit, five-story complex on South Charles Street, 28 Walker, hopes to discourage tenants from even owning cars and needing a place to park.

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“We’re taking a step further than providing a bike room,” said Scott Slosson, development director for 28 Walker. “We’re giving everyone a bike.” Slosson said that will remove “a major barrier for people who maybe just moved here, haven’t ridden in awhile, want a bike but don’t know what to buy. ...We don’t think anyone living here will have a car.”

Around the country, developers like 28 Walker have decided it’s good business to build close to bike lanes and trails, as well as public transit. Their buildings often offer places to store, fix and wash bicycles as amenities beyond a pool, pool table — or parking space.

Slosson said he ordered a fleet of 92 low-maintenance Priority brand bikes “for the cost of building a parking space or two,” which can exceed $25,000.

Developers and other businesses are starting to join cyclists and advocates in calling on Baltimore to complete its master plan for a bike-pedestrian network. They say delays likely have to do with money, logistics and an entrenched car culture that produces a “bike-lash” when precious asphalt and concrete is diverted from roads and sidewalks for a relatively small constituency that seems dominated by more well-to-do residents.

Still, developers say the movement is likely to accelerate because many younger professionals don’t want to drive to work, and see walkability as a key reason to live and work in a city.

Kate Drabinski, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor who has commuted by bike for a decade, said she’s already noticed an uptick in riders on Baltimore’s streets since the city began adding protected lanes in recent years. Every morning, the 43-year-old Charles Village resident rides about three miles to the University of Maryland Medical Center downtown where she locks her bike and catches a shuttle to her office.

Despite road hazards, angry drivers and gaps in the lane network, she views riding as a joy and expects people moving into Wheelhouse will feel the same way. She thought the idea of living among other cyclists sounded appealing.

“My bike makes me feel free,” said Drabinksi, who also rides to the gym in Harbor East, doctor appointments at Johns Hopkins Hospital and most everywhere else because she rarely drives. “I wish everyone could have the feeling.”

Developers want tenants like Drabinski because it eventually could mean they don’t have to build expensive, space-consuming parking decks. And city life, and their projects, become more appealing.

At McHenry Row in nearby Locust Point, where 28 Walker began opening housing, offices, shops and traditional parking garages in 2012, Slosson said he’s noticed fewer residents own cars. Zoning required 1.5 spots per apartment, but experience has shown only spot one is used.

Amelia Neptune, director of the League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly America program, said developers are taking advantage of the trend and getting ahead of cities in many cases on bicycle-friendly development. She praised Wheelhouse for handing out bikes with leases, which she said is uncommon.

“There’s been an uptick recently in cities and businesses offering these things,” Neptune said. She thinks that could be because climate change — and the contributing role of cars — “has become a bigger piece of the public consciousness.”

Other developers in Baltimore say demand is making bike amenities standard. Time Group has included bike storage in each of three buildings it’s developed in the past five years, two downtown and the Fox Building in Hampden. Some also have repair tools and air pumps, said Dominic Wiker, the firm’s development director.

Developers also anticipated demand for bike storage from tenants in the recently opened 414 Light Street, an upscale glass apartment tower developed by Questar Properties, said Ruthie Schuchalter, a company representative. She said Questar built storage rooms on six floors inside the building and bike racks outside.

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“The bike storage rooms are well-utilized by our residents, although we can’t say for sure that this has impacted demand for parking,” she said. “Our sense is that many residents choose to have bikes in addition to, not necessarily in lieu of, their cars. But bike storage has certainly been popular among our residents.”

Nonetheless, Liz Cornish, executive director of the advocacy group Bikemore, said developers are discovering there are marketing and financial benefits to encouraging biking that go along with the well-known health and environmental benefits.

She estimated most major developments in Baltimore in the past five years include bike amenities such as storage, racks and maintenance areas.

“We consult with developers all the time on how to make their developments more accessible and friendly to those using and arriving by bike,” Cornish said. “They are ahead of the city on this. They see a lot of their garages downtown are at 30 percent of capacity, and not just residential but commercial. Yet most are required by zoning to have all this parking, and they have to bundle the cost with the rent.”

Caroline Paff, a principal at VI Development, consults on a major project at Clipper Mill in Woodberry and said the developer wanted to take advantage of nearby trains, trails and bike lanes. They planned for bike racks inside and outside of garages and stands for tools and pumps.

The developer wanted to reduce the number of costly parking spaces, enabling a rent rebate for tenants without cars. But after an outcry by neighbors worried about the large number of new apartments and the effect on limited street parking, the project won’t cut the spots.

The developer of a smaller project nearby also plans to limit parking, offering bike storage and parking for car-sharing and ride-sharing services.

Paff also worked on Port Covington in South Baltimore, the planned mixed-use community where developers have already built protected bike lanes. Those lanes, however, remain cut off from the rest of the city.

The gaps are frustrating and discourage “most riders who are less than expert bike commuters,” she said.

Baltimore has 162 lane miles for bikes, including some shared with buses and some that are buffered, according to the city’s Department of Transportation. There are more than 41 miles of trails. The department is requesting $1 million in funding annually through 2025 to build at least 30 lane miles, which represents about 15 miles running both ways. Advocates say that is more than a previous projection but well short of outlines in a 2015 Bike Master Plan.

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Cornish said the city needs to fill the gaps in its lane system and connect its trails, which she said would cost around $60 million. She also called for dedicated funding for building and maintaining the system.

That may seem like a big commitment for the fewer than one percent of Baltimore commuters who cycle to work, though it’s been rising, according to a recent report from the League of American Bicyclists that analyzed U.S. Census and other data. For biking commuters, Baltimore just beats the national average but lags the 50 largest cities, which average 1.2 percent.

Meanwhile, the report found, 6.7 percent of Baltimore commuters walked to work and the city ranked 9th among big cities for non-car commuters when all foot, bike and public transit commuters were considered.

Cornish, who rides a bike to work, said Baltimore’s figures likely undercount bike commuters and would grow if the lane system were complete and safe.

Paff agrees the city could do more.

“Bringing usable, safe and convenient bike trails to neighborhoods throughout the city can enable a really transformational change in commuting,” she said.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of Baltimoreans who have never owned a bike and don’t know how to ride,” Paff said. “We could do a huge service to communities across Baltimore with bike donations, maintenance workshops and instruction. Then bike trails become highways and connections to schools and jobs. There’s no reason we can’t do this in Baltimore.”

A rendering of the Wheelhouse apartments in Federal Hill, which plans to give a bike to each tenant.
A rendering of the Wheelhouse apartments in Federal Hill, which plans to give a bike to each tenant. (28 Walker)

Developers like 28 Walker and Slosson could lead the way with projects like Wheelhouse.

Slosson said a bike-friendly building wasn’t a stretch for him. He commuted for years by bike from his home in Canton to 28 Walker’s Locust Point offices.

He’s seen the gaps in the system but said South Baltimore is particularly suited to those without cars because of its proximity to bike lanes, trails, bus and rail stops, the water taxi and the central business district.

Wheelhouse’s zoning allowed developers to forgo offering parking. It’s on Charles Street, a main neighborhood thoroughfare, across from Cross Street Market, a popular city market that is being renovated. Skipping a parking garage left space for three ground-level retail storefronts, including one already leased to BRD, a fried chicken shop.

Slosson believes the building will attract graduate students and young professionals with rents of $900-$1,000 per bedroom, which is how the units can be leased in the building that emphasizes “co-living.” The landlord can find roommates and provides some furnished apartments, as well as a lot of common areas and planned events — maybe some on bikes.

“I think the bikes will create awareness as people ride around the city on them,” he said. “And change perceptions about how you can live in the city.”

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