Category Archives: Urbanism

Can Art and Historic Preservation Coexist?

A version of this article When Public Art and Historic Preservation Clash appeared at Strong Towns on May 24, 2017.

Main Street Annapolis (wikipedia.com)

Annapolis is the historic capital city of Maryland and harks back to the Colonial days of the United States. The city’s core contains a lot of the historic fabric from the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s including historical gems such as the Maryland State House where the Continental Congress met in the 1780s, the William Paca House (1760s) and many others of lesser fame. While there was some significant demolition in parts of the city over time, fortunately the ravages of the urban renewal years did not gut any large portions of the core downtown and the influence of the automobile was minimal on the street size and configuration.  The preservation of the historical character is in large part due to the efforts of organizations such as Historic Annapolis and through Maryland and Annapolis Statutes as implemented by the city Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). Without these heroic efforts beginning in the 1950s and 1960s much more of the historic fabric might have been lost.

Fast forward to the present. Annapolis is generally a healthy and thriving city and is a very strong tourist attraction thanks to the aforementioned historic fabric. However, like many towns and cities, it struggles at times to keep the core areas thriving for locals beyond the standard tourist attractions. In addition to the historic Main Street area that is within the area governed by historic preservation rules, there is another close by area of West Street that has undergone quite a renaissance over the last 20 years with new shops and restaurants thanks to an innovative group of restaurant owners, artists and entrepreneurs who have coalesced the area into an “arts district”. This is due to there not being not a lot of scrutiny when this area was economically depressed. This redevelopment mimics reinvestment in cities where there is little regulation, as Andres Duany says “when government is not watching”. It’s page directly out of the Strong Towns playbook with events such as a weekly “Dinner Under the Stars” and the, “Chocolate” and “Fringe” festivals all organized at the grass roots level with great success.

Arts Festival on West Street (http://www.firstsundayarts.com/)

Compare these two approaches, one top down with codified rules and regulations at multiple levels of government and one bottoms up, with a “try lots of ideas and see what works” mentality led by hyperlocal citizens. When these two meet, in the case public art, there is clash of control.

While much of the “arts district” is outside the historic area boundary, there are a few buildings that are part of the arts district within the boundary and when one owner was cited for peeling paint, he enlisted a well known local artist to do the painting – with a mural.

Time Lapse – Tsunami Mural Annapolis, MD from Power Play Creations on Vimeo.

The response from the city was heavy handed, serving a court order to either repaint it or apply for a retroactive permit. While the HPC code does not specifically regulate paint it does regulate “architectural alteration”. This means the owner would have been completely within his right to paint it a non-historically accurate (whatever that is) color, but the fact that there was “art” in the image made it an “alteration”. After boiling away all of the legal minutia of this disagreement, it comes down to a control issue, not unlike those around Tiny Free Libraries. To be fair, the city says they might approve this particular mural, but they want make that determination.

From our local press:

“We choose not to regulate paint,” said Lisa Craig, the city’s chief of historic preservation, in October 2015, “but when paint gets to the point where it obstructs or detracts from the architectural characteristics of the building, then they (commission members) have to make a judgment call.”

And

Buckley [the property owner] sees it as an attempt to merge West Street’s historic nature with Annapolis’ artistic sector. “We look at beautiful cities all over the world in Prague and in Paris and these cities they make things work with historic buildings and they understand juxtaposition,” Buckley said Friday. “But I feel like we’re not getting that same thing here. So, as it became bigger than us, we decided we would stand up.”

Voices from both sides from a movie trailer “Cataylst” about the mural by Power Play Creations on Vimeo.

Beyond the specifics of this particular interpretation of the Annapolis historic preservation code, this situation is a prime example of two schools of thought on how to build great places, but with diametrically opposed approaches and represents the somewhat bi polar nature of Annapolis’s culture. Some resist change because change is negative and some encourage change because change is good.

For better or worse the court case – at least this edition anyway – was just resolved in favor of the city.

Tension between these cultures is certainly healthy as monocultures are fragile. But when the argument is more about control than substance, in my opinion the balance has shifted away from historic preservation’s original intent. Paint is truly ephemeral as the arts community showed in their cheeky response by staging a “mural funeral” when a second mural was cited by the city.

While historic preservation is critical for cities such as Annapolis, with all of the problems the Annapolis has, and yes, even though we are a small historic city we have many of the same problems larger cities have, spending money and effort on legal challenges is not effective solution to improving the city. Additional hurdles to revitalization based not on substance but control, especially those at the grass routes level, are the last thing the cities and towns need.

Anne Arundel can escape its growth Ponzi scheme

Appearing in The Capital, September 18, 2016

Anne Arundel County has been fortunate over the years to have steady economic opportunities, due in part to our location near large metropolitan areas as well as a strong federal and state job base. These economic opportunities, along with a rich history, quaint historic areas and miles of coastline on the Chesapeake Bay make Anne Arundel an attractive place to live.

County residents want significant limits on growth to maintain their quality of life. They also insist on high-quality services like roads, public safety and education — along with low taxes. In the short term, the county can attempt to solicit more money from the state and federal governments, borrow more and promote land development to increase the tax base. But the federal and state governments have their own fiscal problems, and so are contributing less. Borrowing, such as with the recent lengthening of bond terms, has a limited effect. This leaves growth as the primary tool for raising the needed revenue.

Growth in and of itself is not bad. When done in a long-term, fiscally sustainable manner, growth builds wealth for residents, business and the county. The 2009 General Development Plan discusses balancing land use, growth and fiscal policies, but much of the development in the county continues to be auto-centric, even in the targeted growth areas like Parole and Odenton.

We often forget that auto-centric suburban development is an experiment that has never been tried anywhere before. We assume it is the natural order of things because it is what we see all around, and in our collective psyche is the “American dream,” a non-negotiable way of life that must be maintained at all costs. But it is only in the last two generations that we have scaled places to the automobile. What we are finding is that the underlying financing mechanisms of the suburban era operate like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.

The root of the problem is that auto-centric development, in which residential and commercial areas are widely separated, requires tremendous amounts of land as well as infrastructure that is costly to build and maintain, while yielding very low tax revenue per acre. As long as strong growth continues and new revenue is generated to cover the short-term costs, we have the illusion of wealth because we are delaying infrastructure maintenance and personnel costs. This is the current state of Anne Arundel County.

Even with robust growth, we are starting to see the effects of these long term-liabilities, as indicated in the General Development Plan:

“Over the years, due to rising construction costs and other factors, the county has struggled to keep pace with the ongoing demand for maintenance, renovation and rehabilitation, and replacement of existing infrastructure and facilities that have been in place to serve the existing population and employment base.”

For citizens, this is most visible in the roads and traffic resulting from this development pattern. We cannot build our way out of congestion — we don’t have the land and most certainly don’t have the money. Yet we continue to promote development that virtually requires the use of an automobile.

The General Development Plan has goals, policies and actions to produce fiscally productive development, yet our specific regulations that developers must follow still produce the same patterns: greatly separated residential and commercial areas; big, dangerous roads; throwaway strip malls and parking lots. All this requires lots of driving. And it does not generate enough tax revenue to maintain the required infrastructure. We need to change these regulations to return to a traditional pattern of development in which neighborhoods are at a human scale with appropriate mixed use — places where people can walk or bike for many of their daily needs — while having viable transit options to connect these neighborhoods with the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas. There are still many places like this remaining in the country, such as the suburbs built before World War II. We should be emulating them for a fiscally sustainable future.

This essay was part of Becoming the best is a series of essays exploring the question of what it would take to make Annapolis and Anne Arundel County “the best.”

The Kobayashi Maru Test

Last night, the Annapolis Planning Commission faced their Kobayashi Maru test. How will they decide whether access to the Rocky Gorge planned development is via Aris T Allen Boulevard or Yawl Rd: place the lives of Rocky Gorge residents in grave danger by turning off and on a highway or assuring the destruction of the Oxford Landing neighborhood with 48 homes worth of traffic down their main street?

Followers of this development have been watching this issue come to a boil slowly over the last two years. But, for those not familiar with the development and this issue specifically, let me recap.

Rocky Gorge is a planned development of 46 units of single family and townhouses south of Aris T Allen Boulevard. For a good overview, you can see the site plans here (76MB) or search for project PD2016-001 on the Annapolis eTRAKiT project tracking site for all the project details.

location

The project has a long and sordid history with many, many complicated facets. It began with two annexations of land in 2003 and 2005 followed by development approval (SE2005-11-547) and initial grading, the financial crisis of 2008, bankruptcy and sale to a capital management firm and most recently restarting the development in 2014. This history, while important to how we got to this point, is for the most part, water under the bridge, not to mention that the more you dig into understanding the history, the more questions arise. That said, one of the limitations placed on the development by the annexation agreement was no direct access from Aris T Allen Boulevard. However, that was predicated on a “relief road” south of the development, but for many practical and environmental reasons was never, and will never be built.

As the design and review of the restarted development progressed, due to the access limitation in the annexation, Yawl Rd was the only way in and out, straight through the center of the Oxford Landing development built in the late 1980s. And of course the residents objected, so resolution R-33-14 to remove the annexation restrictions was introduced to the City Council. If passed would open the door to alternative access via Aris T Allen Boulevard.  It wound it’s way through the process and was ultimately passed. I wrote about it here and here and the Planning Commission,  Transportation Board, and The Capital also thought it was not a good idea. Once the restriction was removed, it went to the State Highway Administration (SHA) for a decision as they “own” the road (MD 665). After an additional traffic study and meetings with the SHA, access was granted with addition of acceleration and deceleration lanes.

yawl_access

Rocky Gorge – Access Via Yawl Rd

Once this access was granted by SHA, the site plan was substantial altered to change the access from Yawl Rd to Aris T Allen. As such, the project went back to the Planning Commission, which brings us up to date for the meeting last night and the Kobayashi Maru test.

665_access


Rocky Gorge – Access Via Aris T Allen (right in right out)

The developer’s representative Allan Hyatt gave a long and somewhat tedious presentation. He is a lawyer and every presentation I have seen him make to a city Board or Panel is treated in language and actions like a trial, explicitly stating everything for the record along with expert testimony, even though the Planning Commission does not officially recognize “expert witnesses” (a point of snickering with the chair). This was a public hearing so a number of people spoke, residents, representatives of ARTMA, the Annapolis Neck Peninsula Federation, Oxford Landing, and Alderwomen Finlayson/Pindell-Charles, indicating significant safety problems with either access scenario – deadly car crashes on Aris T Allen or kids run over by cars on Yawl Rd.

Kirk

Those were the only two choices on the table: 1. Approve the application as submitted (design with ingress/egress to Aris T Allen only, other than a pedestrian/emergency connection to Yawl Rd) or 2. Deny the application and revert to the prior approval (design with ingress/egress via Yawl Rd only). Virtually all the Planning Commission members expressed frustration with these equally bad choices. There must be alternatives that would not be unsafe for users Aris T Allen or residents of Oxford Landing, but how? Like Captain Kirk, they chose a different way: leave the public hearing open indefinitely and allow the applicant – who fortunately saw the writing on the wall – to look for alternatives.

It is my hope that all parties involved can think about innovative solutions that attempt to mitigate the compounded mistakes and prior planning decisions that lead up to this scenario and hopefully learn a lesson and apply it future developments. The suburban design pattern of cul de sacs and hierarchical road networks is a detriment to incremental growth that is so important to a healthy Annapolis as it was intended by design to be static and does not scale well. See this short video for a primer on incremental development and why it is important. Much of downtown Annapolis and inner West Street developed this way and has been better off for it.

On Paint and Historic Preservation

The heat is increasing in the dispute between the City of Annapolis Historic Preservation Commission and property owners/artists in the”Arts District” (inner West Street). Good background can be found in articles in The Capital here, here and here. I am certainly not against historic preservation and it has been good for the city, but when it gets to the point of micromanaging (witness the past tussle over fiberglass columns), the balance has shifted too far. The city would be far better served with efforts like a form based code that dictates the general form – which we all love so much and which will last for a long time – instead of the minutia like paint color/design which can be very ephemeral. The City needs to concentrate on more important things. I think my paraphrase of Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous comment about pornography is à propos.

Time Lapse – Tsunami Mural Annapolis, MD from Power Play Creations on Vimeo.

——————-
Dear Mr. Mayor, Members of the City Council and Interested Parties-

I have been following with great interest the debate between property owners and the Historic Preservation Commission concerning whether paint color/design is within the purview of the Commission to regulate. While I understand and appreciate the hard work the Commission has done over the years to keep the town’s historic nature intact, I find the recent issue and potential litigation over the Tsunami mural distasteful at best and a waste of the city’s resources at worst.

Clearly the rules as written are ambiguous and in the words of Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio, paraphrased to whether murals of this sort are “architectural alteration”:

“…I know it when I see it, and the mural involved in this case is not that.”

With all of the problems the City has, especially vis-a-vis the budget, this seems to be a complete waste of time and money. Not only that, additional hurdles to utilization and revitalization of the numerous empty properties downtown are the last thing the city needs. Let’s concentrate on problems that really matter.

New Annapolis Library: Is It Good Urbanism?

13442235_10209566726382153_1756255976193696061_n

When The Capital published an article about the new Annapolis library design – you can see the site plan and initial renders here: http://www.aacpl.net/new-annapolis – my initial reaction and comment on The Capital site was the snarky “Call the architecture police!”. In our  West Annapolis Civic Association neighborhood Facebook group I ditched the snark and made two substantive comments, which I also submitted to the Library association:

  1.  Of course this is subjective, but looks too modern for the surrounding architecture. A variant of colonial revival would be much more in keeping with Annapolis.
  2. The preferred site plan with the parking in back is best and they acknowledge a “strong connection to West Street” but the MAIN entrance needs to be on West Street, not on the parking lot. Front doors facing a parking lot are counter to traditional urban architecture.

What ultimately bothers me about the design and site renderings is that this building is not sensitive to the area. It is a generic modern design that could exist in virtually any suburban location. This section of West Street is the transition from the loved “inner” and the unloved “outer” or “upper” West Street. The comprehensive plan and the Upper West Street Sector Study both spend a lot of time saying essentially, we need to extend the things that make inner West Street work out farther. Look at the renderings in the sector study. Do they look this the picture above? Architectural preferences aside, it is how the building addresses the street that is most important. We want this street to be people oriented and for that to happen we need the building to respect people on the street, making it appealing and inviting for people walking, not favoring auto mobility. This means putting cars in the back, siting the building closer to the street and having the main entrance on West Street, not turning it’s back to the street and facing the parking lot for motorists convenience.

The best way to illustrate this is with an extreme example of the contemporary schlock that passes for “urbanism” in the City of Annapolis (outside the historic district anyway): the new-ish CVS on Bay Ridge Ave (site of the old Mexican Cafe). Before you jump on me and say, yeah, but that’s Forest Drive/Bay Ridge Ave and it’s a car sewer anyway, yeah, I get that but aren’t we trying to change that?

 

IMG_5696

Facing north.

The CVS is chock full of check the box city planning. A little something for every interest group, trees, a wide sidewalk, gobs of parking, brick facades, stormwater management; but it all combines for a horrendous end result and this is what I want to avoid happening at the new West Street Library.

Let’s start to pick this apart: The wide sidewalk with a grass buffer from the street is great, although it needs street trees in the median between the sidewalk and roadway, but the “right in, right out” slip lanes to facilitate quick car turns off the 35-45 mph traffic are horrible for anyone walking as cars don’t naturally pause and if someone gets hit, it will not be pretty. This design telegraphs to motorists that throughput and speed are the most important things, not stopping and looking for pedestrians in the crosswalk. This is the same idea that wide lanes, straight runs and no street trees promotes. But the biggest issue is the front door is located in the far back corner of the building which you can not even see from the road.

IMG_5697

The view from the street.

This is the view from the road which highlights how “disrespectful” the building is to the public realm. Note the service equipment on the left. This type of stuff is usually relegated to the back of the building where people won’t see it. The faux divided light windows and faux second floor (I guarantee there is no actual second floor) are meant to be vaguely reminiscent of Annapolis’ colonial architecture (except for the CVS trademark awnings) for anyone whizzing by at 40 mph and remind people of real colonial architecture like that of the state office buildings on Bladen Street:

state office buildings

Real colonial architecture, although actually built in the 60s.

Now back to the CVS and the coup d’ etat, a drive thru pharmacy.

IMG_5699

Facing south. It almost looks like a prison with superficial accouterments.

IMG_5698

The coup d’ etat: the drive thru.

This is the ultimate in autocentric design. Yeah, yeah, I know people don’t want to get the kids out of the car to pick up a simple prescription, but jeeze couldn’t you put that in the back along with the service equipment and not have it be the predominant feature on the street? This says “don’t bother coming here unless you are in a car”. Furthermore anyone walking to the front (actually, back) door has to walk across the parking lot (there is no pedestrian path from the sidewalk to the door) and perhaps worse, the drive thru lane that is so common on fast food restaurants like my favorite new Taco Bell on West Street.

IMG_5702

The new Taco Bell farther out West Street. Note to walk into the restaurant, you have to cross the drive thru lane. How inviting for a pedestrian. But then again no one walks here.

Now with the sensitivities of extreme examples, go back and look at the preferred site plan along with the image at the top of this piece:

preferred library site plan

The design doesn’t completely turn its back on street but gives it the cold shoulder and is sited like any other typical suburban office park-like building. While not nearly as bad as the CVS or Taco Bell, a suburban office park-like building is not appropriate for the traditional environment of this part of West Street which at least initially celebrated the street’s public realm. Since the lifespan of this building is planned to be more than 50 years, we should make sure that it will integrate with the long term plans for the area so that as West Street is once again celebrated as a wonderful public realm, this building won’t turn into an eyesore.

Why I Ride A Bike

A shorter version also appeared as an Op Ed column in The Capital on May 11, 2016.

Aerial view of Annapolis, Maryland

Aerial view of Annapolis, Maryland (Library of Congress)

Let me get this out of the way: I am a bike guy. I love bikes, all kinds – transportation bikes, off road bikes, racing bikes and classic bikes.

But that’s not why I ride a bike for transportation.

I currently reside in Annapolis, the capital city of Maryland, a smallish city of about 40,000 people. The dominant view of cycling here is that it is an athletic or recreational endeavor. You know, “put the bike on the car and drive somewhere to ride”. However, Annapolis is ideal for getting around by bike. It’s compact, only eight square miles, and you can pretty much get to any part of the city and even the surrounding areas that are experiencing a lot of urbanized growth with a flat two or three mile bike ride.

Annapolis Map

Annapolis is very compact.

This is easily within the ability of most people. I ride my 1972 Schwinn around town because it’s a convenient and economical mode of transportation to accomplish my daily business of getting to the DC commuter bus stop for work, shopping, and socializing around town. But there are too few of us and we often feel like lone voices in the wilderness. Thankfully, many cities around the world and a growing number of cities in the U.S. are proving that bicycles can easily be a part of a modern transportation system. What’s missing here to make transportation cycling appealing for more than just the “Strong and Fearless” – or those who have no other choice – are the connecting off-road paths and bike lanes called for in the city’s excellent, but mostly ignored, bicycle master plan.

Bikes are cheap and save money. Despite this area having a very high median income, many residents in the city pay a disproportionally large portion of their income to own and operate a car, never mind multiple cars. Using a bike for around town trips can easily decrease the number of vehicles a family needs to have and saves wear and tear by using the car only for those trips that require it. Riding a bike for my daily needs saves thousands of dollars per year in my family budget. Relatively inexpensive bikes can easily haul a surprisingly large amount of stuff, require very little maintenance and avoid the city parking costs. And, bike riding if viewed as something regular people do, provides equity of access to our streets as Bike Law’s Peter Wilborn writes about in Charleston SC.

Bike towing a moth sailboat.

Yes, bikes can do real work. Extracycle makes great hauling bikes (I do not own one or have any financial interest in the company) and some awesomeness from a local Moth sailor.

Bikes are cheap for the city, too. A lot of the auto-based traffic here is short trips around town, which can easily be done on bikes. The city is geographically constrained by two rivers and the Chesapeake Bay and as a result land is extremely valuable. While the city is in reasonable fiscal shape overall, it has neither the means nor the land to widen roads for more cars. Development is a hot topic here, and the general opinion is we need to lock the door in the Party Analogy. It inevitably conjures the traffic “boogeyman” as the assumption is that an additional person equates to an addition car. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many small bike projects the city could do that would have a high return on investment in mobility. We often hear that Annapolis is not affordable. With a good cycling infrastructure, we can support additional development and can attract younger people who will likely choose bikes for a significant portion of their transportation needs. It doesn’t take much of a shift to bikes to have a large effect on traffic congestion and amount of needed parking.

And finally, there has been a lot of discussion recently in various forums here about rampant speeding in the city. I believe much of this occurs because people spend so much time in their cars in traffic that they have become chronically frustrated, often expressing that frustration as impatience or even road rage towards other drivers, walkers and bike riders. Spending time on the other side of the windshield brings the perspective of non-drivers into clear focus. Everyday riding makes me appreciate the luxury when I do use the car, especially if the weather is bad or I am tired. As a result, I am much more relaxed and courteous behind the wheel when I drive.

May is National Bike Month and we should celebrate transportation cycling. If you are a recreational rider, throw a basket on your bike and make a few trips to the store; if you haven’t ridden in a bike in a while, dust off that bike in your garage or grab an old beater from Craigslist and give it a try. The more people ride, the safer it is for everyone and the more apparent it will become to city governments that bikes can perform real work.

alex_pline_bike (1)That’s why I ride a bike.

Alex Pline is Chairman of the Annapolis Transportation Board, Vice President of Bicycle Advocates for Annapolis and Anne Arundel County and when he jumps out of a telephone booth in spandex, rides with the Annapolis Bicycle Racing Team.

Does West Street Need a Taco Bell?

In July of 2014 The Capital published an article about a possible land swap between the City and a property owner in exchange for some land to reconfigure the Chinquapin/West/Admiral intersections. One aspect of that was the possible addition of a Taco Bell drive-thru restaurant at the site of the old Whiskey. I wrote about that in an Op Ed in the Capital. I’m not sure what has transpired with respect to the intersection other than I know SHA is looking at some options, but there is movement on the Taco Bell front.

Fast food restaurants in the City of Annapolis require a special exception to the zoning code and the owner has submitted an application to the Board Of Appeals which will hold a public hearing tonight (6/2/2015):

SE2015-001 – Special Exception application by Star Properties, LLC, property owner, and R & R Ventures East, Inc., business owner, to develop a fast food restaurant and an associated drive-thru facility, on property located at 1803 West Street

Below is my public testimony submitted for this hearing:

Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on SE2015-001.

I believe the request for special exception SE2015-001 should not be approved. My objection is not the product the business is selling, but the form of the building from which the product is sold. Fundamentally, a fast food restaurant and an associated drive-thru facility is not appropriate for this location along West Street because of the form of the proposed building – an automobile oriented drive-thru typical of suburban strip mall development – is not consistent with the City’s Comprehensive Plan and as analyzed below, there is a very large opportunity cost to the City with this building form.

Drive-thru Restaurant is Inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan

In chapter 3 of the Annapolis Comprehensive Plan on Land Use and Economic Development, there is a set of cascading principles, objectives and opportunity areas that is directly applicable to this special exception request.

Principle 2. Infill development can occur, and it should occur in a manner that respects the size, scale, and use of existing and historic development patterns … Successful infill

maintains and/or restores spatial continuity to streetscapes; strengthens neighborhoods and commercial districts … introduces compatible uses that complement community attributes and needs.

Outer West Street is designated as an Opportunity Area for redevelopment:

This Plan recommends a transformation of the area, from an automobile oriented suburban commercial pattern to an urban character focused on residential development and commercial uses.

Specifically:

Buildings should front directly onto West Street with little or no front yard setbacks and little interruption of facades. And, It is recommended that the street transition to an urban boulevard in character with widened sidewalks, enhanced pedestrian and bicycle crossings, street trees, transit features, and street lights.

The typical drive-thru restaurant with a building set back far from the street surrounded by parking and other auto infrastructure is counter the these statements from the most general principle to the most specific opportunity area recommendation.

This automobile oriented development is decidedly not friendly to anyone outside of a car. The typical design of a drive-thru restaurant such as that proposed requires multiple curb cuts across pedestrian ways such as the sidewalk along West Street. Curb cuts can be dangerous to pedestrians as drivers fumble with purchased food as they drive out of the lot. Patrons wishing to visit such an establishment without cars must walk through surrounding parking from the sidewalk and most often cross drive-thru lanes leading to the establishment doors. By design this template is intended for areas where all people are in automobiles; for pedestrians, at best it is unpleasant or at worst dangerous.

A vibrant street life similar to what exists on inner West Street is created when people can walk and ride bikes along a streetscape that is interesting at a human scale. If we want to extend this to outer West Street as indicated above in the Comprehensive Plan, we must make choices that are people oriented. There are already examples of this along this part of West Street such as the mixed-use development at 1901 West, the new commercial development at 1730 West, and significant public investment in pedestrian infrastructure (sidewalks, signals and crosswalks). We need more development like this and an automobile oriented drive-thru restaurant is decidedly not consistent with these recent private and public investments.

Fiscal Productivity of a Drive-thru Restaurant

Beyond the aesthetic and functional components related to the Comprehensive Plan, there is a fiscal component associated with the proposed development plan. An automobile oriented development pattern represents a lost opportunity for the City. Property tax revenue is the single largest source of revenue for the City and it is in the taxpayer’s interest to receive the best return on property tax investment by promoting development that maximizes the use of City infrastructure.

It illustrative to compare the return on investment for a given frontage by comparing tax revenue from two diametrically opposed building forms along West Street: a traditional urban commercial form on inner West Street as encouraged in the Comprehensive Plan with a low density automobile oriented form as is the existing condition on much of outer West Street. A typical Taco Bell drive-thru restaurant occupies approximately 30,000 sq ft. (for example, 3091 Solomon’s Island Rd, Edgewater). For the purposes of this comparison the inner West model is Rams Head Tavern and Theater and the outer West model is McDonalds, which is the same type of automobile oriented design as the proposed Taco Bell. Both are relatively similar uses (consumer-based food) and share about the same frontage along West Street, although the proposed Taco Bell is approximately twice the lot size. Using the existing property tax rate of 0.640 per $100 of assessed value, we compare the value to the city of the two diametrically opposed development patterns:

Establishment Land Area(sq ft) Assessed Value ($) Tax Revenue($) Revenue/Area($/sq ft)
McDonalds 25, 264 1,157,900 7,411 0.29
Rams Head (2 plots) 16, 192 4,661,800 29,836 1.84

(source: MD Real Property Database)

From a fiscal standpoint, the urban commercial form is significantly more productive per square foot than an automobile oriented drive-thru restaurant by more than six times. A building form that maximizes the available land – parking lots and drive-thru lanes do not “improve” the assessed value much compared to a building – also maximizes the return on investment for a given amount of the City infrastructure (water, sewer, streets). For a City that is continuously facing budget challenges, why would we want to encourage development that minimizes return on investment?

Conclusion

The most important aspect of development along the West Street Corridor/Opportunity Area, is the form of the buildings, not the businesses occupying the buildings. There is nothing inherently wrong with national chains or prepared foods per se in this area, as long as the form of the building maximizes financial productivity and in consistent with the City’s Comprehensive Plan. Furthermore, businesses come and go in response to changes in consumer tastes and market demand, and a building that is not purpose built as a drive-thru restaurant is much more likely to be easily reused as the occupying businesses change. This helps make the area much more resilient to future change.

As the proposed form of the building is inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan and represents lower fiscal productivity for the City, the special exception should not be granted.