Consultants Awarded Black Hats and White Hats

Nathaniel Owings and Edward Donnelly (from the battle lines of baltimore)

White hat awarded to Architect Nathaniel Owings (left) of Skidmore Owings and Merrill for saving Federal Hill and the Inner Harbor; black hat awarded to Edward Donnelly (right) of Greiner engineering for (alleged) bribery and the courtroom lynching of the attorney representing Leakin Park advocates. 

Consultants awarded Black Hats and White Hats for their work on Baltimore’s highway plans

Consultants in 2023 – how will your work look in 50 years? In a presentation to the Baltimore Chapter of Lambda Alpha International, Evans Paull put Baltimore’s highway planners to this test: how did their 1960-1975 vintage plans stand up to the test of time? And, what happened when the consultants were going one way and their clients/overseers were going the other? Did they stick to their guns? Exhibiting incredible bravery, in my view, three of the consultants below defied their clients and overseers, with results that we now acknowledge with white hats, only because there is no medal of valor for consultants. 

Moses’ 1944 Franklin Expressway

Robert Moses’ “Negro Removal” plan.  Moses, brought to Baltimore in 1944 as a consultant, proposed that the Franklin Expressway would rake its way through the Blackest and poorest areas of East and West Baltimore. Moses hangs himself by his own words: “The more [of these] neighborhoods that are ‘wiped out,’ the healthier Baltimore will be in the long run… We do not propose to tear down familiar and cherished landmarks which cannot be replaced.… Nothing which we propose to remove will constitute any loss to Baltimore.” Moses’ plan for the Franklin-Mulberry corridor was constructed (1973 to 1979) and became the infamous and embarrassingly unconnected Highway to Nowhere. Black hat awarded.

(See also: “The Highway to Nowhere, explained, but inexplicable.”)

“A bunch of thugs… evil, evil people.” Quoting from the book, “Greiner Company wears the blackest hat in the Road Wars saga. Greiner authored the disastrous 10-D plan [harbor crossing at Federal Hill], which we have dubbed the ‘future investment prevention program’ [because of its destructive impact on future waterfront redevelopment]. Greiner then continued promoting that plan even though the city had adopted 3-A [Ft. McHenry harbor crossing]; they spied on their fellow consultants at Urban Design Concept Team (UDCT); they (allegedly) bribed both Agnew (as governor and later as vice president) and County Executive Anderson, recouping their bribery investments many times over in cost overruns… but the clincher for black hat status was the manner in which they forced George Nilson off the VOLPE v. Volpe [Leakin Park legal] case… Stew Wechsler, one of the leaders of the highway protesters, called Greiner “a bunch of thugs… evil, evil people.”

Misnomer. Blair Associates’ 1962 “Socio-Economic Assessment” of the impacts of the Greiner’s 10-D plan is neither “a social assessment” nor “an economic assessment.” The report simply counts the number of standard and substandard housing units and groups them by district (not neighborhoods).

For Harlem Park (Highway to Nowhere), their report (quoting from Stop the Road) “does not even inventory the 62 businesses and 120 jobs lost or the two displaced elementary schools.  However, it does take a distinctly upbeat tack by turning to the visual benefits of the highway: ‘the Franklin-Mulberry corridor would provide a pleasant approach into the city and would have little adverse visual effects on surrounding areas.’”

For the middle class African American neighborhood of Rosemont (highway alignment pictured at left), Stop the Road states, “The concern that the highway bisected the neighborhood was dismissed, because the current and previous studies ‘indicate that there is no feasible alternative.’” That conclusion was later proven to be 100 percent wrong, as the Urban Design Concept Team did recommend (and the city eventually adopted) a bypass around Rosemont.  

Blair Associates gains black hat status.

Vacant houses in Fell’s Point, 1973

Working Class Historic. At the other end of the spectrum, clearly in the White Hat corner, we have Robert Kerr of the Urban Design Group, who was hired by the city in an attempt to discredit the historic designation of Fell’s Point. However, Kerr instead backed the designation. Excerpt from Stop the Road: “Kerr found that, of 354 structures, 76 percent were of “primary,” “exceptional,” or “major” consequence for preservation. Kerr finely articulated the case for preservation of Fell’s Point as a representation of working-class life, saying, ‘Who is to say that there is less dramatic and human value in the record of the manner in which the average citizen or artisan or mechanic lived out his life than in the artifacts, objects and setting associated with the great events and moments of human history?’”

(See also previous Fell’s Point-related blogposts: “Incredible pictures, Fell’s Point then and now,” “Did beer save Fell’s Point?” and “Bob Eney and Fells Point, a juncture that may have saved a community.”)

Figure 3. Owings and UDCT –
Lancaster Street rendering

Architect Nathaniel Owings (partner Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, SOM) and the Urban Design Concept Team (UDCT, 1967 – 1970) manage to gain both white hats and black hats.

Highway as revitalization tool??? Owings’ and UDCT’s stellar work in moving the central section south from Federal Hill to the Ft. McHenry alignment (see below) needs to be tempered by their abject failure to propose an alternate alignment for the elevated expressway that would have ruined Fell’s Point. Owings was quoted as saying, “It’s a questionable historic area… It isn’t all that good. You can get sentimental. We can do a better job with reconstruction.”

One UDCT report outrageously contends that “construction of an interstate highway presents unique opportunities for revitalizing the area so as to accomplish two major objectives: enhancing the physical, social, and economic conditions of area residents; and improving Fell’s Point’s position as a distinctive and viable part of the City of Baltimore.”377F Quoting from Stop the Road, “This folly is revealed in UDCT’s renderings of the Fell’s Point segment depicting exciting urban life happily coexisting cheek by jowl with the expressway.”

Their Lancaster Street view (at left) pictured lively urban ambiance right next to the six-lane highway.

(Highway as revitalization, continued) Owings’ and UDCT’s Thames Street rendering (Figure 4) is even more appalling. Quoting from Stop the Road, “The obvious deceptions start with the incredible disappearing highway—only the supporting pillars are rendered. There is complete disregard for the dark, unwelcoming, noisy, exhaust-filled space below. ‘Tourists shopping’ under the highway? Then the ultimate fantasy—the space under the expressway at Broadway is dubbed the ‘Town Center.’ No, that is not a joke.”

Figure 4. Owings and UDCT – Thames Street,
lively uses under the highway?

The Ft. McHenry coup d’état. However, Owings and UDCT rescue their reputations and earn a star-spangled white hat for their astonishing work to save Federal Hill and the Inner Harbor. The team worked steadfastly against the interests and preferences of their clients and for the long-term benefit of Baltimore. Owings essentially engineered a coup d’état when his plan for the Ft. McHenry harbor crossing (under the 3-A system, at left) was adopted despite his entire oversight group favoring the harbor crossing at Federal Hill. UDCT staffer Stew Bryant earned his white stripes by (as his overseers succinctly phrased it) “aiding and abetting the enemy.” Owings and SOM took extreme heat, endured a $600,000 delay in reimbursements, but they won the battle for the soul of Baltimore. This is a story that you just have to read to believe that it actually happened.

(See also: Federal Hill excerpts)

Figure 5. The highway as proposed to slice through Leakin Park

More consultant rebellion at Leakin Park. We have now described two consulting groups that worked against the wishes and interests of their clients/overseers (Robert Kerr, and Nathaniel Owings/UDCT, both earning white hats for their valiant efforts). However, there is one more: enter Robert Giles whose “Assessment of Leakin Park” was supposed to be a technical analysis, essentially cataloguing the impacts of the highway on the park. However, Giles used the opportunity created by this assignment to write a scathing report, saying bluntly (quoting from Stop the Road): “that the highway through the park was a monumentally bad idea… Giles spends the first eight pages expounding on the sanctity of such parks and admonishing highway officials for even considering destructive highway plans.86F Giles extolls the benefits of parks, as if he needs to instruct the ill-informed about the places where Man:

(1) can find conditions scaled to be compatible with his human potential; (2) avoid density stress; (3) feel safe from…air pollution, radiation, noise pollution, and water shortage; (4) experience diversity that is freeing of mind and spirit; and (5) gain the physical necessities for life…”

Needless to say, the Giles report was not helpful to the road builders in their efforts to gain environmental clearance for the highway through the park.

White hat enthusiastically awarded!!!
(See also: Saving Leakin Park)

Self-reflection: I spent nine years of my career as a consultant. In the consulting world many, perhaps most clients are not truly interested in an “independent analysis” – consultants that demonstrate too much independence may find the marketplace for their services shrinking. With this in mind, I cannot say with any certainty that I would have had the same strength, fortitude, and resolve that Messrs. Kerr, Owings, Bryant, and Giles demonstrated when they went against the wishes of their clients.

The press and independent opinion: I have advanced a related theory: that the press essentially gave cover to both employees and contractors who worked against the interests of their supervisors and overseers. The press was knee deep in every highway controversy, and columnists like the Sun’s James Dilts were clearly in the anti-expressway camp. Every time the road planners tried to control those who had “gone off the reservation,” the press would expose and castigate the overseers as oppressors. See also blogpost, “James Dilts and the Clear Light of Day.”