Can Parole Ever Be Anything But An Inside Out Mall?

Almost ten years ago I wrote a piece on mobility in the Parole area in which I highlighted how the built environment goes from the human scaled environment of downtown Annapolis to a mega scaled “Smart Growth” development at Parole Town Center (sorry I categorically refuse to use their faux Anglo term Annapolis Towne Centre because it is neither). I intended to explicitly write more about this at the time but have only hinted at the issues from a mobility and Strong Towns standpoint in things I’ve written since. It’s now time to pick that back up, since the draft Parole Town Center Master Plan (2021) has just be released for comment by Anne Arundel County. There is so much to say about the area and specifically the plan, but I’m going to constrain myself to a few examples of the mobility discussion as I have submitted what is written here as feedback to the plan.

But first a few comments for context about the Parole area and the Town Center development in particular. In the recent past, since the Parole Plaza opened in 1962 when it went from sleepy rural land outside Annapolis to a developed retail center(s), it has been a poster child of the post WWII autocentric development pattern, the Suburban Experiment as Strong Towns calls it. Not only is there the mixed use Parole Town Center development that replaced the defunct Parole Plaza in the mid 2000s, but also the Annapolis Mall (which essentially killed the Parole Plaza, a feature of the suburban experiment), but also Forest Plaza (the old Hechinger Plaza), Festival at Riva and Annapolis Harbor Center (which it is literally impossible to walk to) in addition to other types of strip mall style developments. These commercial centers are all bounded by highways (US 50, MD 665) and principle/minor arterials that are typically 2-10 lanes (ie STROADs) that cater primarily to moving high volumes of cars quickly.

Road Network surrounding Parole from the Draft Master Plan with my annotations of the major commercial centers.

The last two Anne Arundel County General Development Plans (2009 GDP and Plan2040) indicate this is one of the areas where development in the county should be focused and as a result there is a lot of new (needed!) higher density housing, notably along Admiral Cochrane Drive and the Maris building on MD 450 as well as the housing units included in the Town Center development.

I mention all of this as context and to explicitly say that intensifying the area beyond the historical low density commercial strip typologies IS a good thing for the county. And more to the point that I have no criticism of people’s choice to shop or live there. If that works for you, that’s really a personal choice to make and not mine to criticize even if it is not the choice I would make. Everyone’s situation, requirements and desires is different and vive la difference! It’s also easy to look back on the modern history of the area and criticize the planning dogma of the time that resulted in the autocentric built environment; hindsight is 20/20 and at the time this was the next great thing. This history of the area is similar to many other places in the country and is a very long discussion that those immersed in Strong Towns principles are familiar with, but too much of a rat hole to go down here. That said, as the area intensifies, county planning efforts (essentially regulations) that guide the development into the future need to be periodically reevaluated in order to adjust to the current cultural and economic climate. This brings us back to the Draft Parole Master Plan.

The plan in general is very conventional. Not necessarily a bad thing, rather just the nature of the beast. While I’d love to see a more bottom’s up view (the subject for a future piece about what do do with the Annapolis Mall as it falters), there is nothing I can do to change anything fundamental about this process, it’s a hardwired system driven by state/county planning law and modern finance systems. We as citizens can provide feedback, but only within the system that this plan is written and implemented, so the rest of this piece is feedback on their mobility goals and implementation of those goals especially as they relate to the land use goals. As we all know, mobility and land use are flip sides of the same coin and that’s where incoherence between the narratives of each goal comes in. In my opinion, they get the vision right for the area:

One of the key principles of Smart Growth is the creation of walkable neighborhoods, with safe and convenient facilities created through mixed land use, compact design and street design that makes the experience enjoyable. The Vision for the Parole Town Center calls for the area to be both walkable and bikeable, with a “safe, pleasant bicycle and pedestrian network [offering] alternatives for traveling within and around the area.” Public input into the Parole Master Plan and the Parole Mobility Study reveals a strong desire for improved connectivity for both bicycle and pedestrian networks and more safe roadway crossings for walking and biking. While the 1994 Parole Urban Design Concept Plan emphasized the creation of a pedestrian-friendly system of streets and public spaces linking different areas of Parole, there remain significant gaps in the bicycle and pedestrian network.

These are two of their stated goals vis-a-vis land use and transportation:

Goal BE2: Promote vibrant, high-quality development of attractive and human-oriented buildings, sites and public spaces in the Parole Town Center for opportunities to live, work, learn and play without the daily use of a car.

Goal BE4: Provide a well-maintained multimodal transportation network that is safe, efficient, environmentally sensitive and provides practical and reliable transportation choices and connections for all users.

The main complaint I have with the existing and planned Parole area as enumerated in the document is that it is basically an island surrounded by highways and arterials that provide through traffic around the area (US 50, MD 450, MD 2, MD 665, Forest Drive and Riva Rd primarily), which essentially renders any changes inside the area moot with respect to fundamental mobility and housing goals. For example:

Internal connections are good but not enough.

Ultimately, a place like Parole Town Center which is touted as an example of “Smart Growth” is really just an inside out suburban mall with some housing. Yes, it is mixed use and walkable inside the boundary, but it still for all intents and purposes requires access to it via automobile, unless you are a cycling nutball like me and take the lane on the arterials; not for the faint of heart. Is that really “smart” in the larger context? Much of the “Smart Growth” efforts in the area suffer from this (the subject a future post).

Here is where the incoherence between the two major plan goals occurs. This existing constraint (surrounded by highways and arterials) will not change as indicated in the section 4.4.2 Transportation Standards Statement 2 because these roads services vast parts of the county:

Adequate Public Facilities (APF) standards for roadways in the Parole Town Center should be tailored for the urban context. In general, APF requirements restrict development that cannot meet defined standards for mobility and ensure that all development projects contribute a fair share to the effort to maintain adequate traffic capacity in the area. Within the Parole Town Center, consider whether urban levels of congestion should be acceptable at some locations and/or at peak travel times in order to accommodate the development densities envisioned in the Town Center; however, regional through traffic should be able to flow through the Parole Town Center in a reasonable amount of time on roads designated for that purpose.

(my emphasis added)

If that emphasized statement is adhered to as we all know it will be – there is zero appetite for turning any surrounding arterials into a human scaled streets – intersection enhancements as outlined in the plan will accommodate people in a slightly less hostile autocentric system. I understand the reasoning for maintaining the arterials and can’t say I disagree with it necessarily, but the narratives of the goals are incoherent. Ultimately, unless something very different is done, the stated goals of making the Parole area a truly people centric urban place that is accessible and connected to the surrounding areas without an automobile will never be achieved.

The plan makes one small nod in this direction in section 3.2.2.3.3. Underpass Treatments, but with only the mamby pamby language “could ultimately transform these areas into desirable places”:

As major limited access highways traversing the Parole Town Center, US 50 and MD 665 create significant challenges for connectivity between the different parts of the Parole Town Center, with local movement across these corridors limited to four points. Three of these crossings are underpasses that create unique challenges for bicycle and pedestrian movement. With constrained space, traffic noise, and a hard concrete character, these spaces become uninviting and dissuade bicycle or pedestrian use. Special underpass treatments at the US 50 underpasses at West Street and MD 2, and the MD 665 underpass at Riva Road, can improve the pedestrian or bicyclist experience in these spaces and encourage their use to move through the Parole Town Center. Safe bicycle and pedestrian facilities through these areas should be enhanced with innovative artistic design treatments such as bold murals, colorful and decorative lighting, and other artistic elements as appropriate to generate a stronger sense of place in Parole. Numerous considerations would need to be settled, including identifying responsibility for cost and capacity for installation and maintenance; compliance with all standards for traffic control devices; and ensuring there are no adverse impacts to the bridge structure or its maintenance. Such efforts would need close coordination with MDOT SHA, but further exploration could ultimately transform these areas into desirable places.

(my emphasis added)

Paths in underpasses or tunnels are very hard to implement in a way that is positive. Typically they are either loud and uncomfortable at best or dank and dangerous at worst and are to be avoided. What you end up with is an experience similar to the “pedestrian friendly” diverging diamond that Chuck Marohn lampooned so many years ago (and was one of the first Strong Towns things I ever saw and worth, eh hem, the chuckle to watch).

While I typically am not a fan of bike and pedestrian bridges because they are extremely expensive and often circuitous, the only way to achieve these two main plan goals simultaneously is construct grade separated infrastructure that connects networks outside the area to the area, essentially “flying over” the arterials in a congruous manner that is safe and pleasant for users. It offends my Strong Towns sensibilities to even suggest this, but like I said earlier, I can not change the boundary conditions of the problem, so this is as good as it get if I want to have input.

There are some examples of infrastructure like this in the US and in places like the Netherlands where they do more than just pay lip service to alternate transportation modes. This is what is what is needed here.

A most basic implementation is similar to bridges over arterials on the Pinellas Trail in St Petersburg FL. This is typically what would be constructed in the US. It is minimal but does achieve the grade separated goal and these are contiguous, safe and pleasant to ride, run and walk over.

Street View Link: https://goo.gl/maps/wpSqfzUGqgXNcgYj8

In the Netherlands on high traffic volume arterial roads (but much less than say on MD 2), they have shared use paths paralleling the arterials. The US is moving in this direction, but a key difference is how crossings are treated. In the Netherlands they are moving to “uninterrupted shared use paths” that bypass the level crossings at high volume roundabouts. Something like this could be used for example with a roundabout between Town Center and Forest Plaza or on Riva Rd instead of traffic lights and at grade crosswalks.

Perhaps the most Gucci of grade separated infrastructure is In Eindhoven Netherlands. Not only is there is a bike roundabout over a busy arterial intersection achieving all the goals, but it is really interesting from an aesthetic standpoint. Placing something like this atop the MD 2/450 intersection would allow both aforementioned plan goals to be achieved. Spokes off this roundabout could be connected to the Poplar trail leading to Downtown Annapolis, north towards the hospital, to the Maris building and into Town Center in a safe, pleasant and rather spectacular way.

This is an expanded version my feedback to the plan that includes more background and context for readers that are not as intimately familiar with the plan. While I think there are county planners (and the planners on their consultant team) that understand what is being suggested, it will be interesting to see whether they will acknowledge that such radical (for the US) infrastructure is needed to achieve the stated goals or whether they punt and leave mobility as lip service as currently written. Ultimately this will determine whether the Parole area stays as one huge inside out mall or becomes the desirable urban place.

I have to end this piece by indicating how conflicted I am about making recommendations like this. Of course if I could waive my magic wand and remake the country or even just the county in the Strong Towns mold overnight so that we would not have a need for such a heavy handed response to the dominant STROAD mindset of most transportation professionals, I would. But “shyeah and monkeys might fly out of my butt“… While I think there is little chance these kinds of suggestions will ever be implemented (too “out of the box”, low priority and lack of funding for construction and maintenance, and frankly would be a waster of money), the exercise herein is worthwhile because it illustrates the outcomes our current transportation policy and how at odds it is with our stated goals of creating places worth caring about and how impractical and expensive it would be to do without changing anything else. In places like the Netherlands they have made those choices and changes and while the same infrastructure might be just as expensive there, it’s built judiciously as the right tool for the job. We have a lot to learn about the perverse incentives of policies we just take for granted and hopefully this post at the very least brings these to light.

2 thoughts on “Can Parole Ever Be Anything But An Inside Out Mall?

  1. Good stuff! Looks like you’ve identified a case study that is a location-specific variant on a problem nationwide: the installation of this “town center” typology nearly always depends on a high level of both accessibility and visibility for the retail element to be attractive. Hopefully the transformation of Parole will be more inventive than the 10+ year old reinvention of the Springfield Mall (in northern VA) to Springfield Town Center (which I’ve covered in my blog)…but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Any efforts to make the place too ped friendly will likely create traffic chokepoints that might discourage people from driving through the area, and if too many people bypass and the place suffers low visibility, the lucrative national chains (who can pay big-ticket leasing rates but also who perform market analyses that allow them to read and understanding traffic modeling) will steer clear of the area. I love your Eindhoven example, which would be indeed a Gucci-level compromise…but the only way it would achieve community support is if superimposed on a fundamentally car-friendly configuration. Bringing us back to Square One: the public will continues to favor the stroads.

    From your description in the first few paragraphs, it seems that Parole owes its retail node status to those very highways that make it so difficult to redevelop as something human-scaled. One shopping center opened after another when Parole Plaza kickstarted the area’s development a half-century ago. This clustering takes advantage not just of car friendly arterials (and commercial friendly zoning) but the economic clustering that allows hyper-competition–i.e., of one new strip mall to deploy a mild innovation that helps it compete and eventually siphon market share away from the strip mall 500 feet away that opened five years earlier. Eventually this most likely killed Parole Plaza. How are the other shopping centers faring? I don’t know this area, but I appreciate your idealism tempered by your recognition that a Rolls Royce solution isn’t likely to work as well in a City of Subarus.

    No doubt Annapolis Mall has declined after losing three anchors in the last few years, but two of them (Lord & Taylor and Sears) basically went defunct nationwide, so nothing to be ashamed of. From what I can tell, the mall still retains some fairly choosy tenants: Crate and Barrel, Urban Outfitters, The Container Store. So the question remains: is there a market demand for another major retail node in the wake of consumer shifts away from physical shopping? Is the area growing enough and does it need another human-scaled, aesthetic walkable node that may very well become “downtown Annapolis but with easier parking”? Sure, the tourists may still want to see the real deal, but locals may decide a facsimile is good enough: still with nice restaurants but lots more of the utilitarian shopping (Container Store, Crate and Barrel) that DT Annapolis lacks and, by its physical nature, never will possess.

  2. Hey Eric, thanks for reading! A few things:

    You are absolutely correct on the development trajectory of the area. Side note: the Civil War era history of the area that gave it the name “Parole” is interesting too, but not relevant to the modern development (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parole_camp). MD 2 is the busiest road through the area (other than divided highway US 50) and is one of the first long MD state roads/highways of the automobile era. The northern section from Annapolis to Baltimore was the final nail in the coffin of the B&A railroad, both passenger (1954) and freight (1977) service, and the southern section essentially has opened up development all the way to the bottom of the state (Solomon’s Island). So yes it does owe its commercial “success” to that.

    The commercial activities of the area follow the standard trajectory: originally there was only a horse race track and a drive-in theater in a rural area followed by Parole Plaza (which put a knife in the heart of downtown Annapolis at that time), followed by Westfield mall (which put a knife in the heart of Parole Plaza), followed by the town center development (whose effect on what is yet unknown). The rest of the commercial areas are doing “OK”. I thought Harbor Center was going to fail, but seems to have some new life despite the demise of the movie theater. That said, as you always note in your writing, the “quality” of the retail has fallen over the years with mostly second or third tier national (discount racks), some regional chains, some local stuff, and the long time institution the “Amish Market”. The Festival at Riva also just had a big sprucing up with has brought some life back to it with lots of smaller chains and mom/pop, and the Home Depot strip is kinda just there – they originally opened a second Annapolis store when Hechingers went away to keep Lowes from coming in, but it appears the area cam support two. Retail/hospitality in the town center proper is also “OK” despite some big names departing, and I think it is buoyed mostly by Target, Whole Foods, and Bed Bath and Beyond. As with any place that has been around for 50+ years, there is a lot of old time nostalgia for the “way it was”, especially with respect to Parole Plaza which had a very iconic monument sign (featured in the main image in this piece). There are several FB groups of people who wax nostalgic about frequenting it (and the other original area retail) as a child or young adult and that does make altering the area more in line with the current plans sometime difficult as it inspires nonspecific criticism related simply to change.

    The mall is an interesting issue and I think you’d enjoy writing about it from your typical angle. It was doing quite well up to the 2007/8 economic crisis. Coincidentally in 2007, a third large edition was opened which has never been very successful. However, I think the economic crisis and the general demise of retail is not what has hurt it most, rather the design of the addition was incoherent. They essentially created a second major and independent “hallway” and internal access was through an existing anchor. It’s really weird. It always appeared to me to be like the room of requirement in Harry Potter, you’d never know it’s there unless you know it’s there. I believe that mall is not long for the world and it will be interesting to see what the owner does with it. I don’t know anything about what the modus operadi of Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield is and whether they just milk these falling value properties into the ground and sell them or whether they end up being proactive in redeveloping to meet contemporary conditions. I think this will determine how long it limps along. That said, I want to write about what I would do with that parcel if I were King for a day.

    I think what will happen in this area is just more of the same on all fronts. The county will continue to emphasize higher density, mixed use development. There is lot happening with a new mixed use, but mainly residential development across Riva Rd at the former USi/ATT/IBM data center and one down the road at the old ARINC site). At the same time, the county and state will not make any substantial changes in the road/ped/bike network other than some low hanging fruit changes that will come out of this master plan update or things that can be forced during a redevelopment application, mostly around internal networks. Ultimately, I think the attitude we have to take is much like the latest from Chuck Marohn on the subject of congestion: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2022/2/21/we-need-to-embrace-traffic-congestion-not-fight-it People will accept it for what it is, until they dont. Eventually, auto mobility will get so bad people won’t use it as “drive to urbanism” and the people who actually live there will demand some changes. It’s the old Yogi Berra sentiment “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” But all of that is many years down the road.

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