On Tuesday, Baltimore's Planning Commission will hold the first of nine scheduled community hearings on the city's proposed new comprehensive master plan.
If approved, the document will serve as a blueprint for how the city spends $2.4 billion on capital projects over the next six years and will form the framework for the first revision of the city's zoning code in a third of a century.
At 187 pages, including an introduction and appendices, the document contains myriad graphs, charts and statistics and more than 100 recommendations for housing, employment, recreation and education.
As Baltimore's population levels off after 5 1/2 decades of decline, the plan details the city's potential for growth.
The day before the release of the draft this month, Planning Director Otis Rolley III sat down in his office to talk about the plan and its significance.
Let me start with the most basic question. What is a master plan and why is it important?
It provides the guiding principles of how you are going to make capital investments over a set course of time and what steps you're going to take as it relates to zoning and zoning policies that affect the entire city.
We have a fiduciary responsibility to ... the citizens of Baltimore, and I think they would be that much more comfortable knowing there is a rhyme and reason and strategy for how we spend those public dollars.
What are the guiding principles in this plan?
The goals all focus around quality-of-life issues for the citizens of Baltimore and for the new citizens that would come into Baltimore.
It's been, what, more than 30 years since the city had a master plan?
How have things changed - how have the ideas of planning for a city changed in a third of a century?
Wow. The planning field has changed and the city has changed dramatically since 1971. ... We understand better now, I think, than ever before how important it is ... that mixed-use communities where there is an opportunity for you to live, work and shop always provide for a better, healthier neighborhood. I think we have also gotten smarter in terms of recognizing the need to be very strategic in where we invest the city dollars and that it can't be a solely politically oriented or patronage distribution of resources. It has to be building on the strengths of different parts of the city and where can we get the best return on investment.
So, what is new in this plan? I noticed on a map of proposed future land uses there are things like mixed-use nodes, transit-oriented development, bio-university districts. Why are they in there?
A lot of the things we propose in the future land uses are not in our current zoning code because they weren't even thought of. Just the concept of mixed uses - and [that] those uses not be conflicting with each other but actually building off of each other - is a new approach to planning.
Transit-oriented development, of really trying to concentrate your density in terms of residential density and retail density and commercial density around transit nodes, is relatively new, and those are recommendations that we make as well within the plan. Clearly, we want people to be close to public transportation sites so that the car is not king.
In terms of the university districts, these are another example of a mixed-use zoning category that would meet the needs of the 14 colleges and universities within the city in a way that is complementary to the communities that they're located in. ... Mixed-use commercial and industrial use, creating opportunities for flex space and business parks, etc.
Talk about mixed-use nodes, transit-oriented development. What does the master plan do to promote those areas?
The idea is that, in areas in close proximity to a transit stop, that we would deal with you in a favorable way as it relates to height issues, in terms of your floor-to-area ratio, to try to provide more opportunities for you to have greater density in those areas. And so there would be a comfortable mix of retail, commercial and residential space in those areas in ways that you wouldn't typically do in areas that are now our typical [residential] areas. You may have a transit stop right now in [a residential] area that could be reconfigured as a mixed-use zone where you would be allowed to be denser there. And so it's building within the code our ability to be a lot more flexible in terms of providing opportunities for greater density.
So this would address some of the controversies that have been ongoing regarding things like height limits in Mount Vernon?
In Mount Vernon, given its proximity to the light rail, the subway, the Amtrak station, it would allow for greater flexibility in terms of the mixes of uses. Currently ... you're allowed to build as high as you can given your lot size. But you don't necessarily have the freedom you would have of mixing the uses that you would in a mixed-use zone.
So that would be allowed in a way that it's not currently allowed. We would not necessarily be having these discussions about height because it would be understood: If it's a vacant lot, if it's close to a transit location, it has to fit in terms of the design and architecture issues - but that height is not necessarily an evil thing because we want the density to put more people on the street.
And this plan would eventually lead to amending the zoning code?
Correct. If this is adopted, we would begin to rewrite the zoning code. And our hope is to have a new zoning code in two years.
What would that do?
The old zoning code would go in the shredder. The new zoning code would articulate what are the controls and promotions throughout the entire city. In the comprehensive plan, in the appendices, we are recommending some new categories of the zoning code. We would probably make some changes to the existing categories.
To go back to the map, when I look at the mixed-use, nonresidential uses, they seem to be around the waterfront, replacing the old strictly maritime uses. What does that do?
It's trying to allow for more flexibility for commercial and industrial uses around those areas but also recognizing that we're not getting a lot of the ... hardest, dirtiest, most obnoxious industrial uses anymore. We're not primarily a manufacturing-based economy in the city anymore. It's just trying to give the maximum amount of flexibility to the industrial uses around the harbor.
The plan mentions that the city has the capacity to grow by about 170,000 people. That would be over what period of time?
Actually, it wasn't making a recommendation in saying we expect those people to be here in five years or 10 years. What it does is, it's a holding capacity study that says given your infrastructure, the amount of vacant properties and structures, what could you absorb in a healthy way?
That's a pretty hefty increase over the current population (about 641,000).
It is a pretty hefty increase. But as you know, at one point we were almost at a million. That was unhealthy. But ... we could very well deal with that type of increase. And particularly if it happened over a 20-year cycle, there would be no problem whatsoever.
The master plan mentions something called growth priority areas. Can you talk a little bit about those and what they are, what they mean?
It's certain parts of the city that we recognize in terms of their vacancy rates. The infrastructure is pretty much there. The people are not. ... The prime example is the Park Heights corridor, recognizing that you can't do a block here and a block there. One of the recommendations of the Park Heights master plan is that you have this 75-acre parcel in the middle of Central Park Heights that would have to be redeveloped, while at the same time doing stabilization in areas of high homeownership through the rest of Park Heights so that you can truly regrow that community.
And so this is a strategy saying that ... if an area meets certain criteria, our approach has to be comprehensive in dealing with helping it rebound.
What are the criteria?
Part of it is the level of vacancy, the proximity of infrastructure, the level of homeownership, the ability to leverage significant private investment ... and also the proximity to transit as well.
What other priority growth areas are under consideration?
Southwest, the Westport area, Rosemont community, Poppleton community, EBDI.
What are some of the more important specific ideas in the draft plan?
Some of the ones that rise to the top in terms of interest for me [include] ... trying to increase the number of affordable-housing units in the city and the quality of affordable housing. I think issues around the nightlife for the city, making live entertainment much easier and much more manageable and figuring out how we can extend the closing time [of bars]. ... We have the most historic districts and landmarks of any city in the United States. We've done a lot in this current fiscal year, much more than we've done in the last decade, to preserving and enhancing those treasures. The plan makes strong recommendations on how we can do that much more. I think that's crucial to the city's health, its heritage, its history.
Let's take those three areas. How would the plan foster those goals?
For the affordable housing ... if there are city dollars in a project we make sure these projects are mixed-income projects, to provide an opportunity for middle-income and low-income residents to be part of that project. ... Now that the city is becoming healthier and healthier, we have the opportunity to say, if we're putting these dollars in, you, Mr. Developer or Mrs. Developer, need to make sure that there are opportunities for all Baltimoreans to live there.
Is there a specific percentage of affordable units in the plan?
No. And the reason why is because the inclusionary housing task force is in the process right now of reviewing that and making recommendations. We hope that those recommendations come down prior to the adoption of this plan so we can include it in the master plan.
On the nightlife piece, we do make very specific recommendations of changes in the zoning code to allow for live entertainment. A jazz trio to perform in a pub, which right now would be prohibited, an acoustic guitar player to play his guitar or a saxophonist to play their sax.
They can't do that now?
You need a special permit. It's impossible in many districts. You have to go through hell and high water. What does it say about our city in terms of what we want in terms of a vibrant nightlife? We made recommendations in terms of the state. The state makes decisions on your closing times. We can only make recommendations there. But we would like to see our time extended, whether it's 3 o'clock or 4 o'clock. But 2 o'clock does not work.
Is that all bars in the city? Neighborhood bars would now be open until 4 o'clock?
We talk about districts. Maybe just within the [Central Business District] bars can be open until 4, and neighborhood bars can be open until 3.
Do you anticipate some neighborhood opposition?
Definitely. I think if you had a district, like CBD, we have mostly tourists, our hotels are here, there's a certain level of expectation of it - having much more of a 24-hour venue. I think it would be easier to pass districts-specific [plans] where you could stay open later than to have a uniform time of 4 o'clock for the entire city.
Why is it so important that bars stay open until 4?
It's important in terms of tourism. We have 15 million tourists. Unfortunately, many of them are here just for day trips. One could argue that part of the reason they're only here for the day is because there was not enough for them to do in the evening. ... That's the thought. A world-class city usually has legal entertainment beyond 2 o'clock.
Do you specify [the districts]?
So a decision like that is up to the City Council or the Planning Commission?
The third area we talked about ...
On preservation and heritage. We make recommendations in the plan on investing more capital resources into preservation of our landmarks and historic structures as well as providing opportunities for low-interest loans. We have a number of historic districts that are middle- and low-income ... and so we make recommendations in terms of low-interest loans and forgivable loans that would allow people to restore and enhance their historic structures.
You make a point in the plan that it's important to communities that, as school buildings get closed, that they be recycled and reused in a timely manner.
Correct. What we've asked for in the plan, and what we've asked for as part of the facilities solution plan, is that prior to a school closing that we have a plan in place for its reuse. I think we owe that to the community. And also, from a development and fiscal perspective, that makes the most sense.
There's not a price tag on this plan. If you were to do everything, how much would it cost?
We did everything with the reality on our shoulder that we have about $2.4 billion every six years to invest in the city. And that these strategies as articulated in the master plan would determine how we would spend those investments over the course of six years. So it's difficult for me to say, if we implemented everything it would be two and a half billion dollars. But it is easy for me to say that everything in here makes sure that two and a half billion dollars is spent wisely.
How binding is this document if it's adopted?
If it's adopted by the Planning Commission, and then by the City Council and the mayor, it is binding, completely binding. The city charter states that the Planning Commission is supposed to use the master plan in moving forward in saying yes or no on any of our capital investments or capital transfers.
What's next for this plan?
Next is we have nine Planning Commission community hearings, one in each of the nine planning districts. And then, after those meetings, we'll have about three or four weeks to sift through what was given to us, make changes to the plan.
The Maryland Department of Planning, the state, will ... provide us with their input by April 3. ... Then, on April 20, we'll present it to the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission will hopefully adopt it. Then it will go to the City Council, the committee of the whole. They will review it.
Anything else about the plan you want to say?
Baltimore, I beg of you: Please participate in the community hearings. This is truly a draft.
We want to hear comments; we want corrections; we want constructive criticism; we want to know if there are parts of it Baltimore feels needs to be stronger, if there are parts of it that Baltimore feels need to come out. We need that input. If you live in Northwest and you miss the one in Northwest, it's OK - you can go to any of the other ones, because this plan is not geographically based. I beg Baltimore to participate and take ownership of this plan. Because at the end of the day, it's yours and you are setting the course for your city.
Copies of the city's draft master plan, as well as a list of public hearings, are available online at www.liveearnplaylearn.com.