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Designing to Stay: How to Keep Residents in Downtown Baltimore

August 21st, 2014 by

Baltimore is in the middle of an extraordinary transformation. In addition to the new, gleaming offices and hotels that now dot the city’s skyline, we have renovated or recently constructed thousands of residential apartments, most of which are one and two bedroom units that fall in the mid-to-upper end of the market spectrum. These new apartment buildings, however wonderfully designed, exacerbate a longstanding problem in Baltimore, wherein twenty-somethings without children move into town, have a great time living in the wonderful diverse environment of our city, and then move out to the county once their first child comes along.

In many ways, the design and development community in Baltimore has done an extraordinary job of creating an enticing and welcoming environment to attract new residents to our fair city. We have moved beyond the original developments on our waterfront to introduce new housing into many neighborhoods of varying scales, amenities, and histories.

Marks Thomas / The Lenore

However, I must ask whether we are planning for a broad enough range of housing options. Can folks who start out in these neighborhoods really stay and establish roots? Or are we constructing monocultures of building types that force residents to move away because the communities they love cannot accommodate their evolving needs?

“I loved living in my little Fells Point rowhouse, but when I got married and decided to start a family, I knew I needed more space — and bought a house across the city line in Baltimore County,” shares Karen Kahl, an engineer who works in downtown Baltimore. “I miss being able to walk to everything and living so close to where I work.”

Kahl’s story, not at all uncommon, underscores a need to do more.

Designing for everyone
It is quite exciting to observe the growing level of interest in city living, and clearly the development community is responding to current market demand. But I have to wonder if this emphasis on a single form of housing is ultimately in the city’s (and developer’s) best interests? Often, the toughest challenge is initially attracting people to the city — and getting over the deeply rooted fears and prejudices against the city commonly held by suburbanites.

But the challenge in Baltimore isn’t attracting young people to live in the city — it’s figuring out how to entice them to stay. Once here, it should be much easier to encourage these new residents to take the next step in their lives while living in the city — assuming that attractive options to meet the needs of these next steps exist.

pier-6

Some developers have caught on to this and are consciously planning to help their tenants make this transition by providing the types of housing that meet their tenant’s progressing needs. However, many are still focusing on a singular type of housing, and not looking to the opportunities that a broader, more expansive vision of city living presents.

Planning for the long-term viability of a vibrant urban life requires us to offer a range of housing options for the wide variety of people who want to live in the city. Young and old, rich and poor, singles, couples, and families all need a place to live that meets their needs. So, as we continue to actively engage in designing the future of Baltimore, how do we ‘design to stay’?