Thursday, October 4, 2007

New York Times upsets Bill Struever

Bill Struever was a little riled up Thursday morning as he addressed folks who were about to take the Baltimore Development Corp.’s 2007 Baltimore City Real Estate Tour.

What had the founder of Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse upset was a New York Times story that appeared Thursday that suggested – OK it said – that Baltimore’s revival was being slowed by the “turmoil in the national economy.”

Actually, to me, the story didn’t put Baltimore in that bad a light. And it certainly laid the fault on the national economy – not on anything that was or wasn’t done locally. But I’m not a developer with tens of millions of dollars on the line.

Anyway, at the beginning of a 10-minute welcome at the impressive Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, Struever – dressed much more casually (jeans and a plaid button-down shirt) than any of the other 200 or so attendees -- said he wasn’t happy.

“If you give me that reporter and let me drive him around town for two hours, I’ll straighten him out,” Struever said.

He mentioned the article twice more in the welcome.

Did you see the article? Was the reporter correct about Baltimore? Do you think Struever had reason to be upset?

-ED WALDMAN, Managing Editor, Business


Bruce Godfrey said...

Yesterday, I had business in both Baltimore and Washington. I went to Baltimore first, and got a close-up look at the level of grime, inattention and decay shown on the floors, walls and walkways of the Baltimore Metro, replete with miserable ventilation on the train and in the station alike. Lexington Market station looked like an abandoned warehouse with Dracula-style lighting.

Then I took my walking tour downtown to the federal courthouse, replete with plenty of debris everywhere, and at 8:45 AM, no less. Then I caught a bus on Charles Street up to Baltimore's Penn Station. In addition to grossly late service, the bus driver on Route No. 3 was positively obscene in both her language and inability to handle the simple task of clearing the coin machine to allow new coins to be deposited, resulting in a nearly 4 minute stop near Charles and Fayette.

I went to DC and saw a gorgeous city with functioning, clean and professionally operated public transit services all around. The streets were much cleaner than the Baltimore I had seen an hour and a half before. I conducted my business and, on a lark, took the Camden line back to get to the Metro.

On the light rail from Camden Station (MARC, so it was nicely maintained) to Lexington Market, I got to see one dirtball fare-jumper get arrested and children screaming and fighting out of control on the train. Then I got off the train, walked up a hill past the dozens of of flattened soda cups and fast food bags in seemingly the positions as 9 hours before, entered the un-air conditioned and fetid tomb of Lexington Market Metro, replete with broken escalators and broken lighting, and waited for my train. In DC at rush hour, the trains run every 2 minutes. But at Lex Market, I got to observe the beauty of the accreted grime caked to the pebble walls of the station.

I got to see a advertising sign for the Transit Police - "dignity, honor, service" - framed within an aluminum poster frame that seemingly had not enjoyed so much as a washcloth in years. Some dignity and some honor. Plus, I wondered - why was this advertisement there? There was no phone number, no website, no "join us." It was self-congratulations for self-congratulations sake, framed in a dark unclean frame.

As the train emerged from the portal south of Cold Spring Lane, one gets to see the Baltimore that 25 years of development promises from the Metro failed to deliver. It's still a sad, impoverished stretch where almost nothing has changed.

When I got out at Owings Mills, I saw a sign stating that there was no access to the Mall from the Metro parking lot. In DC, the shopping centers are proud to announce that they are near public transit - White Flint, Pentagon City, Mazza Gallerie, Prince George's Plaza, Wheaton Mall, Springfield Mall - all are pleased to be near the Metro. And a sensible transit plan would have a pedestrian bridge over the creek separating the mall parking lot from the Metro parking lot. It would make sense; they are so close. But the mall does not want to "modify its profile" i.e. be associated with Baltimore transit riders, in any way. So instead, a bus running infrequently does a pickup slower than a 40 year-old man could walk it, were 50,000 dollars thrown into a simple bridge.

Struever should be more worried about what Baltimore is than about slugging a honest critic from another city. The city slaps you in the face and screams "loser" - to identify itself and to identify you as a loser for being there, in so many correctable ways. Struever has used Baltimore to make a lot of money; good for him. What is he doing to improve the infrastructure of the city so that it won't be the underachiever F student of the Eastern Seaboard for the next 50 years?

F. Pants McFadden said...

Mr. Godfrey, as I am assuming you did not read it, the New York Times article was about the effect of a slowdown in the housing market is having on development in Baltimore, housing and otherwise. I believe Streuver's point (I cannot confirm, I was not there) is that the Times article made it seem as though, since the housing bubble ceased to expand, Baltimore has recessed into some sort of decay and disrepair, as we all wait on the street corner with our hands out begging for change. Now, from the tone of your vitriolic post, I assume you would agree with this picture. However, let me tell you, from a lifelong Baltimore resident, it is not true.

First, I take issue with your odd transition from a blog post about a developer's reaction to an article on residential and commercial development into a rant on public transportation. Now, I must agree with you on this - the Baltimore public transportation system needs work. A great deal of work. But you go beyond a critique of the system. Crying children? Yeah, that happens on public transit. Maybe not in Northwest DC, but here and everywhere else it does. You bemaon the framing of the Transit Police poster, but it seems as if they readily responded to a fare jumper. I'm sorry you had to see him arrested. Again, that does happen in real life. If you lived here (as I again assume you do not), I would suggest that perhaps you get involed with groups like TRAC ( or CPHA ( that advocate for transit riders on these issues and bring attention to the much-needed reforms of the transit system instead of sniping as you pass through.

I think your choice of comparing Baltimore to Northwest DC is quite telling. Do you know the difference there? Money. Northwest has loads of it. If you'd like to see what DC would be like without the stream of federal funds, spend a little time in Southeast DC, if you can stomach litter at times as early, or even earlier than 8:45am (just out of curiosity, at what time is it appropriate to have trash on the street?). To be certain, the federal government has ensured that the quadrant of the District that is most often traveled by government officials, foreign visitors, and otherwise rich people is tidy, well-lit, and services are punctual. It's a little like Disney World. And for that, its great. But do not be fooled into thinking that all of DC is like that.

The saddest part of all is that I can't really disagree with many of the facts. The buses are late, the Lexington Market metro is a mess, and children do cry. But what is important, and what you miss in your mean-spirited and ill-informed attacks is that this city, despite its failings, is a vibrant city that is growing and changing every day. I can't expect a passer-through to see how much progress has been made, and I certainly can't expect you to understand how or why the Baltimoreans love this place like they do. We are used to elitist foreigners looking down their nose at Baltimore. But if you don't want to know about the city, then we don't want you. Go on down the road to DC (good luck affording a place to live in that clean neighborhood you love), or head back to the suburbs. This is a real city, with real problems that we struggle with every day. Those of us here are here to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, like you.

As to the actual blog post and request for comments, I understand why Struever addressed the article so many times, and I think he has a valid point. The Times did make it seem like Baltimore was on the verge of collapsing into the Inferno if home sales don't increase. While I think that a homebuying or economic slowdown will cause problems, given the ambitious number of projects planned for the near future, its not some sort of death knell. If he over-reacted, I can understand that.

Anonymous said...

The Lex Market Metro station is the ugly stepchild of the system. Most of the other stations are in prety good shape. Owings Mills is in the beginnings of a rather large transit oriented town center project as well.I have traveled to alot of cities and would say overall Baltimore's downtown is just as or cleaner than most thanks to the various clean and safe teams etc.

Bruce Godfrey said...

Mr./Mrs. McFadden: I lived in Baltimore for many years, in law school in the shadow of Murphy Homes, in Fells Point (not the pretty side, the rough side) when I was in solo practice; with my wife for 5 years in an apartment complex in Cheswolde.

The decision to move to Reisterstown was motivated by a number of factors, including the birth of our son, our desire not to pay twice as much in property taxes for half the service quality and our desire not to walk around the heroin needles that drive-by junkies would occasionally toss into the parking lot near our house. But I used to use the Baltimore Metro fairly frequently - the quickest way to my parents' home when I was in college and law school - and its state of disrepair now shocks the conscience. It would shock Tijuana's conscience.

Actually where I boarded in Washington was in Northeast Washington, not Northwest. Having used the Metro in Washington routinely for years, I can confirm that the system works just fine in Southeast at Anacostia and in Washington's poorer neighborhoods and its neighborhoods like Deanwood, Brookland and Congress Heights that are neither wealthy nor disasters.

Yes, Washington has some money, though it cannot tax the wages of its largely non-resident work force. Baltimore cannot tax non-residents either but at least the state can do so and it does, funnelling a grossly disproportionate amount of taxes from suburban wage-earners suburban money into the City. Unlike Washington which cannot tax the federal government, Baltimore can and does tax its largest industries - brutally, through the highest personal property tax in the state by a factor of about 2.5.

DC's Metrorail receives a subsidy of only about 8 cents per passenger mile according to transit watchdogs, though its bus system receives a good deal more per mile; Baltimore's system is about 50% subsidized overall and still looks like a horror flick.

Charles Center looked little better than Lexington Market as regards trash but at least it was reasonably well lit.

As for Mr. Struever, he is free to punch out no one but is free to want to punch out anyone whom his ire fancies. He should be angry about facts, not publicity. As a 38-year-old lifetime resident of Maryland and long-time transit advocate, I have grown absolutely weary of this city that does not respect itself but demands respect from others. It's time to call an "F" an "F", not pretending it's a "B+". The recent election is an excellent case in point; the miserable turnout for the Democratic primary, i.e. the election de facto, reflects a general recognition by City voters that it makes no difference who runs the City, it will remain the same.

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