City leaders hope that by this time next year they'll have returned from Annapolis with funds to put toward making the Inner Harbor what its original designers intended it to be — "a playground for Baltimoreans."
"The city has changed so much since the original development of the Inner Harbor," said Laurie Schwartz, executive director of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore Inc., a nonprofit that manages and advocates for the city's waterfront.
It's time to evaluate the Inner Harbor and decide what needs to be done to sustain it as a vibrant part of the city, she said. Enhancements should be made so the area can accommodate a growing downtown population and continue to serve tourists, Schwartz said.
The Waterfront Partnership and the Greater Baltimore Committee are embarking on a comprehensive study of the Inner Harbor, the first portion of which opened 40 years ago. The organizations, operating with the blessing of City Hall, have hired Baltimore-based design firm Ayers Saint Gross to identify the Inner Harbor's shortcomings and provide a prioritized list of improvement recommendations by this fall.
"We want to be visionary but also realistic," said Adam Gross, an Ayers Saint Gross principal. The firm intends to provide a "road map" of incremental, financially viable steps to update the Inner Harbor in a uniform way, he said. The map could be followed for years as pieces of the plan are implemented, he said.
The study will examine not just the waterfront between Federal Hill and the Power Plant building, Schwartz said, but will reach down Key Highway toward Locust Point and past Harbor East into Fells Point.
"We're trying to stimulate one vision for the harbor," said Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee.
Last month, Ayers Saint Gross, the Waterfront Partnership and the GBC, a nonprofit geared toward improving the region's competitiveness, began meeting with Inner Harbor anchors, including the Maryland Science Center and the National Aquarium, neighborhood organizations and business owners to solicit ideas.
The Cordish Cos., the developer of Power Plant Live, and Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., the New York company that acquired the Harborplace pavilions last year, also have been consulted, Gross said, as have outside architectural and landscape designers.
"We're listening and soliciting lots and lots of views," Schwartz said. "It's in all of our interests to keep the harbor vital and active."
An online survey that allows anyone to provide their thoughts on the Inner Harbor's design and function will be available soon through the Waterfront Partnership's website, Schwartz said.
This month, the planning group met with the directors of the Waterfront Center, a Washington nonprofit that studies global waterfront development, to learn about trends in waterfront accessibility and sustainability, she said.
"We really set the standard ... for urban waterfront development," said Tom Stosur, Baltimore's director of planning.
Baltimore's Inner Harbor was among the first post-industrial waterfront renewal projects and inspired waterfront redevelopment worldwide.
Martin Millspaugh, who oversaw the development of the Inner Harbor from the mid-1960s into the 1980s, has said it originally was envisioned as "a playground for Baltimoreans." He and other leaders of the Inner Harbor development consulted with dozens of cities around the globe, including Sydney, Australia, that were looking to re-create the feel of Baltimore's waterfront.
But the Inner Harbor has lost its edge to newer developments and should be refreshed, Stosur said. "We need an action plan to implement great new ideas."
One of the trouble spots that will be examined is Rash Field, the open space at the bottom of Federal Hill and just east of the Science Center. It was supposed to be high school athletic fields, but instead it has become a blank slate. This weekend, for instance, it is being used for tryouts for the television show "American Ninja Warriors," and huge metal structures have been erected across the plain.
"We don't want to lose the opportunity for flexibility," Schwartz said. But when the land is not in use by a large group or organization, it should be appropriate for public recreation, she said.
Two years ago, Ayers Saint Gross presented ideas to the GBC for the build-out of Rash Field, including adding a pedestrian bridge to connect it to the other side of the harbor. Although those ideas might reappear, everyone involved says they are going into the study with an open mind.
Among the areas that likely will be addressed by the study are: improved pedestrian access to the Inner Harbor promenade, particularly from McKeldin Square; beautification of the street side of the Harborplace pavilions; the addition of green space between the aquarium and the World Trade Center; and ensuring that the walkway along the water is continuous for seven miles.
"What we hope to do is create more opportunity for recreational use of open space" and improve the connections between the Inner Harbor's hubs, Schwartz said. They will be looking for more opportunities to add free, public amenities like the Walter Sondheim Fountain and Pierce's Park, which were installed in recent years, she said.
It also will examine the use of public art along the waterfront, ways to incorporate the harbor's history and unifying what is now an "incredibly diverse and disjointed set of street furniture," Stosur said.
Fry said the study will likely touch on the waterfront's governance and whether a single entity should be responsible for coordinating happenings on and around the harbor.
The city already is undertaking a study of Inner Harbor infrastructure, Schwartz said; the Ayers Saint Gross report will focus on its appearance and usability.
The Ayers Saint Gross study, which will cost $120,000, is being funded by the Waterfront Partnership and the Greater Baltimore Committee, Schwartz said. It will be entered into the Planning Department's formal process of consideration and adoption, including review by the Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel, she said.
Public funding, including from the Maryland capital budget, will be sought for some projects identified in the study, Schwartz said. Money also will likely will come from foundations and private businesses, and a bond issue could be put on the ballot, she said.
The expense will be worth it because of the economic return that the city and state receive from a thriving Inner Harbor, Fry said.