Solid Information, Real Conversation, and Negotiation, not Misinformation, Grandstanding, and a Refusal to Negotiate: the Role of a Councilperson

What follows is a case study a bit on my involvement with the Transform Baltimore rezoning process–offered not to criticize anyone involved or to take sides, but to illustrate what kind of councilperson I aim to be.
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The Transform Baltimore comprehensive re-zoning process affects every corner of the city and every part of the 1st district. Inasmuch as it modernizes our zoning categories and brings current non-conforming buildings into a more solid legal status, Transform Baltimore will be a very good and helpful tool.
 
The challenge, of course, is in the details. Zoning issues are normally handled one property at a time, which makes it easier for community organizations and neighbors in general to think about the change in zoning, the proposed project, and decide whether to support the change in zoning or oppose it. With the entire city being rezoned at one time, it is necessary for every single engaged community member to dig deep into the plans and look for anything harmful to their community. If a property owner was looking for a good time to try and slip something through–now would be it. You can find all of the information here: http://www.rewritebaltimore.org/downloadables.html and pore over the map details here: http://cityview.baltimorecity.gov/rezoningpubliccomments/
 
Fell’s Point residents in particular–especially those living in the Washington/Chester/Eastern/Aliceanna corridor–have raised objections to the Transform Baltimore plans on the basis of 1) the zoning of some specific properties along Chester Street; and 2) the height restriction of the C-1 (neighborhood commercial) zoning category. Their efforts can be tracked here: https://www.facebook.com/prideandproperty/
The end result of their activism has been a proposed historic overlay zone for Fell’s Point which would limit all future development in the area to a maximum of forty feet in height. When pressed, they’ve stated that this height restriction is non-negotiable and is the best way to preserve the historic character of Fell’s Point. Those residents, in seeking to enlist support in their efforts, reached out to council candidates with their concerns. They asked us to push for the 40 foot height restriction with them, and to promise to do everything possible to establish that 40 foot restriction once we are elected, even if taller heights are put in place in the coming months.
 
The character and quality of life in Fell’s Point is already being affected by the density and height of Harbor East and Harbor Point–it would be terrible to have 100 foot tall towers along Chester Street at the boundary of Fell’s Point and Canton. I grew up in a historic Baltimore neighborhood and watched a 300-foot tall tower go up a block and a half away, completely out of proportion to anything in the surrounding area. Height and density restrictions are important for good urban planning and design.
 
Aside from poring over the maps myself, I went to as many of the related public meetings as possible: a Planning Commission hearing on a proposal for 2030 Aliceanna, the public map hearing at the Southeast Anchor Library, and meetings of the Fell’s Point Residents Association and the Fell’s Point Community Organization. I’ll be part of the last map hearing in December: Tuesday, December 15th at 6:00PM at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute 1400 W. Cold Spring Ln., Baltimore, MD 21209. I spoke with Councilman Kraft, his staff, residents, community leaders, and property owners–all to better understand what was at stake and the best way forward.
 
Even with all of that, some things were missing which have prevented a more positive outcome. People were upset, but they didn’t have solid information about which properties were involved, the zoning categories, the waterfront overlays, and the various height restrictions. Instead of focusing on specific properties and getting the zoning right on them, the conversation stayed general and thus unproductive. There was also bad information about the height of current buildings in Fell’s Point, which made any conversation or proposals for what future heights ought to be into guesswork. So I spent four hours with a laser distance measure walking through Fell’s Point and calculating the heights of the existing buildings there–because no one knew them. Not the city, not the property owners, not the residents. And how can we have a conversation about future heights if we don’t know existing heights?

Finally, there has been a refusal to negotiate and no real effort to engage in a productive conversation involving the various stakeholders: residents, business owners, and property owners. There’s been a very substantive and serious effort put into the historic overlay proposal, but it hasn’t been matched by a commitment to dialogue and problem-solving. Instead, we’ve seen a lot of personal attacks against Councilman Kraft, alarmist social media postings, incorrect information about current building heights, and an emphasis on confrontation. Sometimes those are the proper tactics to employ–and they are good for getting attention quickly to an important topic like this one. But at some point the process has to transition into a genuine conversation building towards an appropriate outcome.

And that’s the role of a city councilperson in situations like this. Not to grab a bullhorn and lead the charge, but to listen to everyone involved, bring people together, and arrive at a solution. One of the Fell’s Point residents urged me to sign their pledge and “Act like the councilman right now.” That’s exactly what I’ve been doing: bringing broad attention to the issue, urging people to become engaged, learning as much as I can about the issue, listening carefully to the people involved, moving beyond the emotional arguments to examine the real details, finding the actual data (building heights) necessary to have an informed conversation.

The only thing I can’t do now is the last part–getting everyone together to negotiate–because I’m just a candidate at the moment. But, if I could, I think this would be a solid outcome. C-1 height restrictions at fifty feet. C-2 broken into two different categories: low-density car-oriented development (like the Burger King, Rita’s, and Royal Farms along Chester) and high-density mixed use development (up to 100 feet). That way the current use on those properties can be accommodated without opening up the possibility for a later change into a 100 foot tall structure. The waterfront properties can be the mixed-use C-2 because they already have height restrictions from the waterfront overlays. There may be other wrinkles worth adding, but I think that would address most of the problem.

Attached is a database of building heights in Fell’s Point, for those who want to look at actual numbers. They are as accurate as I could make them, but I’m not a professional surveyor or anything like that.fells point heights

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Solid Information, Real Conversation, and Negotiation, not Misinformation, Grandstanding, and a Refusal to Negotiate: the Role of a Councilperson

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