929 NORTH WOLFE STREET, EAST BALTIMORE, MD 2012

I first worked in University Park at MIT in 1988 designing a tenant fit-up for a biotech company called Enzytech. Biosurface Technology would follow in 1991, 91 Sidney in 1998, 80 Landsdowne in 2000, 100 Landsdowne and a renovation of the Kennedy Biscuit Lofts in 2001, and the capstone project for us─Loft 23 in 2005 . Little did I know at the time that I would spend a significant portion of my career spanning several offices, working in that park for Forest City’s Residential and Commercial Groups, and that it would also lead to Baltimore.

BACKGROUND

In the 1950s, the Johns Hopkins Medical Institute (JHMI) relocated about 1,100 families in East Baltimore to make way for a campus expansion. The institute promised new housing for the displaced, but that unfortunately never found its way into their future plans. At the same time industry was leaving Baltimore, taking the jobs along with it. By the early 1990s the city had large areas of vacant row houses. According to the Washington Post, the city currently lists about 16,000 houses as vacant while the US Census put the figure closer to 47,000, which is about 16 percent of the housing stock in the city. No neighborhood was harder hit than the area around the hospital, formerly known as the “Middle East.” At the time of the proposed redevelopment there were only about 700 residents living in the initial 30 acres of the master plan.

Left: Looking up North Wolfe Street towards Johns Hopkins Right: Demolition underway

Left:  Looking up North Wolfe Street towards Johns Hopkins   Right:  Demolition underway

After years of reacting defensively to the neighborhood around them, Hopkins finally came to the conclusion that they should embrace and reinvest in the neighborhood. The idea was born for a mixed use research park similar to University Park at MIT that would include research space, retail space, a hotel and affordable and market rate housing. It would come to be known as the Science + Technology Park at Johns Hopkins. Based upon the success of University Park, Forest City teamed with some local minority developers in the New East Baltimore Partnership and was selected in 2005 to lead the development. At the same time, a not-for-profit organization was formed by the city to revitalize the community and greatly improve the quality life for its residents. The East Baltimore Development, Inc. (EBDI), along with partners including Johns Hopkins University and Forest City Enterprises, set out to create a research park and residential community that was diverse and economically sustainable. The development of a Life Sciences and Technology Park would serve as an anchor and economic engine for renewing the area along with new and renovated housing, retail establishments, services, and new mass transit connections. The master plan located research buildings near the hospital surrounding a park that transitioned to mid-rise multi-family structures along Eager Street, beyond which the scale became residential with a combination of restored townhouses and new construction.

Computer model of the Master Plan with the Hopkins Hospital campus at the bottom

Computer model of the Master Plan with the Hopkins Hospital campus at the bottom.

Eager to utilize the expertise that had developed through the 20 year build-out of University Park, Forest City combined Boston-based consultants with those with local knowledge. We were originally asked to support Forest City by overseeing the design quality of the residential work that would be undertaken by sub developers on various parcels in the master plan. This oversight role would lead to our developing relationships with local housing firms like Marks Thomas and Hord Coplan Macht who designed some of the early work, including renovations of some of the townhouses.

The Johns Hopkins Medical Institute needed more space and they had identified an on-campus parcel with an older building that housed 200 beds for graduate students. Although they still needed housing, this parcel, due to its location, meant it was underutilized relative to its development potential. The master plan’s high rise parcel along the proposed park had been identified for graduate housing to increase the opportunities for medical residents to be close to the hospital. An RFP was issued in 2007 for a student housing developer who would develop off balance sheet housing. We were asked to join a team as design architects led by Educational Realty Trust (EdR) along with Marks Thomas as the local architect of record. We were fortunate to be successful in our pursuit.

Master plan model

Master plan model

One of the first things we tackled was the massing that was set by the master plan. While it fit nicely into the model, a tower building with a wing that is half the height of the tower is more difficult to design than you might think. Achieving verticality is tough when the proportion resembles your pants being pulled up to your rib cage. Fortunately, the garage that was supposed to be hidden by the low wing (see model above) got rotated 90 degrees to improve the efficiency of the tower. This move allowed us to double load the corridor and adjust the massing to 8 stories and 20 stories, and that helped the proportions significantly. Steve Keyser, the lead designer for this project created this series of diagrams to explain the development of the massing strategy. Placed on a narrow site, the main building mass is a vertical slab, stepped to create a simple tower form.

Vertical Masses, Solids, Voids, Texture

Vertical Masses

Secondary articulation creates a building expressed as a series of vertical volumes. Each volume is assigned a distinct volumetric height creating a stack of boxes.

 Solid

The primary brick volume is stitched back together and interrupted by large secondary voids. The resulting primary solids are varied and result in a building responsive to a rich context.

 Voids

Large transparent volumes are embedded loosely in the voids of the primary brick solids.

 Texture

Vertically grouped windows and horizontally expressed glazed areas create a richly textured building skin.

The building is designed to relate to an emerging context that blends many scales of development and diversity of use. As the tallest of the planned buildings in the new development, the residence hall identifies the significance of this location within the greater Baltimore context. Along the southern approach to the city, this building rises to frame views of the city skyline to the southwest. Similarly, the upper levels offer a unique opportunity for the residents to connect with this larger context with expansive windows celebrating the views. The development of the massing recognizes the 10-story context of the immediate area which includes the medical and research facilities of Johns Hopkins University, a hotel, and other technology facilities. Ashland Commons, a new park, forms the east edge of the site. The building relates to this amenity with smaller scale features that include entrances, projected bay windows, retail shops, and a mid-level roof garden that overlooks this park area. Primary building materials of brick and architectural precast form a wall of grouped unit windows that are used to give texture and scale to the building and provide a reference to the traditional materials of the area.

Left: Context plan diagram      Right: Massing /façade elements diagram showing response to the context

The 2008 financial crisis brought a halt to development as the project could not get financing. Interestingly enough, all parties stayed at the table and creatively put their heads together to structure a deal that by 2010 could move ahead. Although I can’t profess to understand the complete structure of the deal, I know a few things did change. EBDI became the owner of the project and was able to issue some tax-exempt bond financing, EdR became a fee developer and operator, Forest City reduced the price of the land, and the design team also took a haircut. Moving a deal like this forward even in 2010 was no easy feat, but the good effort on all sides proved successful in the end.

The resurrected project proceeded to gather the final approvals and began construction. The building houses 575 graduate students in studios, one, two and four-bedroom suites with a fitness center, meeting space, and other support facilities. Consistent with the goal of creating a vital urban environment in East Baltimore, the ground floor is populated with street accessed retail and support spaces. A roof deck connects with the amenities to provide outdoor space for lounging in good weather.

Known as 929, the project succeeded in attracting tenants in spite of a neighborhood only a few steps into its renaissance. From what I understand, it has attracted other renters beyond the targeted graduate population of the hospital.  Along with these signs of progress, there was a desire for a broader vision. The recession had taken a head of steam out of the project and the development community. Locally, there was some feeling that even though new housing was built, the community would not be able to turn around without sustainable jobs. Forest City engaged the well-known planning firm Sasaki to re-envision the plan encompassing approximately 88 acres. Key to their plan was rebuilding the public realm and focusing on neighborhood institutions like a K-8 charter school, a public library, and the existing church communities. The plan extends the green space virtually to the railroad connecting with transportation and suggests more housing to meet the needs of all segments of society. 929 remains a center piece fronting on the major open space.

Left: Sasaki plan showing new school in the upper left Right: Sasaki rendering 929 is on the left

Right: Sasaki plan showing new school in the upper left    Right: Sasaki rendering 929 is on the left

Parallel with the construction of the graduate housing, we teamed with Sultan, Campbell, and Britt, a local minority firm who we came to know through Stan Britt’s presence on the Urban Design Review Panel (UDARP) as design architects for a 1,500 car parking garage. Building the garage would free up development sites for the second phase and provide needed parking for the hospital and graduate housing. A key requirement of the design was that it express its function in an interesting and pedestrian-friendly way and have retail in the base along Ashland Street. As a 10-story 500,000 square foot structure on a tilted plane of a site, the entrances and exits were challenging as was managing the scale. We used a base expression to relate to the pedestrian activity and took advantage of the concrete structure to bring depth to the façade. Grouping the floors in two story increments visually reduces the apparent height of the building. Perforated screens in two different apertures create a random pattern that changes transparency from day to night so that the garage projects a safe well lit environment. The brick color was consciously differentiated from that of the graduate housing to enhance the feeling of a city as opposed to a project.

Left: Walgreens is a great new neighborhood retail amenity Right: Floors are identified by famous Hopkins researchers

Left: Walgreens is a great new neighborhood retail amenity     Right: Floors are identified by famous Hopkins researchers

I knew the garage had succeeded at blending into the neighborhood when Forest city’s Scott Levitan sent me a note and said, “Ed, the garage continues to get rave reviews, perhaps too good, because people still don’t know where to park.”

These buildings, along with several hundred units of housing, the Maryland Public Health lab, and a new lab building and hotel under construction, represent significant progress. The idea for the charter school was implemented and opened in January of 2014 to fantastic reviews. The Henderson-Hopkins school is operated by the Johns Hopkins University School of Education in partnership with Morgan State University’s School of Education and Urban Studies under agreement with Baltimore City Public Schools. The $43 million dollar facility is the first new school in East Baltimore in 20 years and an architectural award winner by Rogers Partners from New York.

929 in the center, the garage behind it, with the new school directly above to the right with white roofs across the cleared parcels

929 in the center, the garage behind it, with the new school directly above to the right with white roofs across the cleared parcels.

Even with all that has been accomplished to date, we are reminded that East Baltimore remains a work in progress and continued understanding. Urban transformation at this scale is difficult to accomplish in a time frame that anyone feels is fast enough. And crashes of the magnitude of 2008 serve to put caution flags up in neighborhoods like East Baltimore. The first phase of the 6 acre park has been put out to bid and several more housing projects are in the works. It took 20 years for University Park at MIT to be completed and its starting point was significantly higher than East Baltimore’s. As we designed the buildings for last few sites in University Park, we wondered when there would be no “Park,” just the City of Cambridge. The scale of the East Baltimore plan is larger and therefore the potential for change is greater. There will no doubt be more real estate up and down cycles to go through as well as other challenges. We are proud to be part of its beginning and will be watching its “urban transformation” with more than a passing interest.