Baltimore officials said the owners of Harborplace are moving closer to renovating the signature Inner Harbor properties, which have faded since their celebrated opening more than 30 years ago into a collection of stores dominated by chain restaurants, souvenir sellers and vendors of cold desserts.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he expects Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. to be able to meet a three-year deadline for the upgrades that was part of a lease extension signed in 2012. New York-based Ashkenazy owns the pavilions, while the city owns the land and leases it to the mall owner.
"The Ashkenazy group are moving in the right direction and I'm pretty happy with that," said Young, one of the city officials who met with the company last week in Las Vegas at a major real estate convention. "They're committed."
Ashkenazy, which also owns the Village of Cross Keys in North Baltimore, purchased the pavilions in 2012 for nearly $100 million. At the time, many hoped that improvements would be forthcoming.
Harborplace General Manager Fred Edeson wrote in an email that it is "way too early" to discuss plans for capital investments at the site.
"Capital projects are in the early development stages," Edeson wrote.
Ashkenazy, which was marketing the property to retailers at the Las Vegas convention, will not discuss leasing publicly until a deal is complete, he wrote.
Young said Ashkenazy is considering a mix of high-end and local tenants to fill the space, which was 93 percent leased at the time of the purchase.
District 10 City Councilman Carl Stokes said renovations could include replacing windows, knocking out walls and creating a more appealing front on Pratt Street.
"They have real plans," Stokes said.
The 2012 agreement with the city, signed under the previous owner, called for replacing the awnings and upgrading the lighting, as well as more significant efforts such as landscaping along Pratt and Light streets.
The previous owner, General Growth Properties, a major mall operator with a portfolio that includes Towson Town Center, sold the property after emerging from bankruptcy in 2010. Harborplace never had a positive net cash flow during their tenure, which started in 2004, according to city records.
"It's really an important piece of the puzzle, what goes on in that few acres," said Steve Walters, a professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland, whose book "Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream" will be published in August.
Walters said the pavilions once served as the city's "town square," but the property needs investment to be able to draw people from other parts of the city such as Hampden, Canton and Harbor East.
City officials and private groups unveiled their own long-term vision for "Inner Harbor 2.0" in November. The General Assembly signed off on $2 million in funding, while a six-year capital improvement plan approved by the Planning Commission in February calls for $2.25 million to $3.5 million each year.
The Inner Harbor 2.0 plan also calls for raising the grade level of the amphitheater to address rising sea levels and floods, such as those that occurred during the heavy rains earlier this year. Waterfront Partnership President Laurie Schwartz said that work requires coordination with Ashkenazy.
"We don't want to go ahead with changing the grade level at the amphitheater and the Harborplace pavilions until Ashkenazy has their plans well-prepared or further along and we can all work on that area together," she said.
The first Inner Harbor 2.0 funds will go to replacing lights and underground electrical wiring worn down by age and exposure to salt water, as well as planning for a parking garage located under a new Rash Field, Schwartz said. The garage, which be created in the space generated by the drop between Key Highway and the water, could cost $20 million, with the new park another $12 million to $20 million, she said.
The Downtown Partnership also is working on an overhaul of the landscaping on Pratt Street.
Schwartz said that feedback from surveys suggests residents want to see a mix of local tenants and national retailers at Harborplace.
"My overall goal would just be to see new energy and an updated look for Harborplace because it's a bit outdated and needs a major investment like the harbor," she said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun