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Harborplace: Safe but boring

If you haven't been to Harborplace lately, stop by. It's had some work done. And like many facelifts, the beauty of this one surely depends on the eye of the beholder.

Suburban mall rats will feel right at home. The Light Street pavilion features chain retailers like Urban Outfitter, chain restaurants like Hooters, and even a chain tourist attraction in Ripley's Believe It or Not "Odditorium" (one of 32 nationwide). Pratt Street's offerings also skew generic (featuring, e.g., one of 170 extant Cheesecake Factories), though many have smaller footprints.

Those who remember the "festival marketplace" that opened 32 years ago, therefore, may find their buzz completely killed. Sure, the place is shiny and wrinkle-free, but it lacks character. Charm has left the building(s).

Most importantly, the pavilions no longer do what they were built to do. Bob Embry, then Baltimore's housing commissioner, has best explained the city's motivation: "We decided [the harbor] needed something you couldn't find in the suburbs. Something you had to come here to get."

This was both wise and politically necessary. The ground on which the pavilions would be built was, by the late '70s, a public gathering spot. Once the old warehouses that formerly blocked access to the Inner Harbor had been removed, Baltimoreans reveled in the open space, a frequent site of fairs and other public events. Before the city could lease the land to the Rouse Co. for development, voters had to give their approval; 58 percent did so. Would they have gone along merely to create a Galleria de Suburbia, but within sight of water?

But maybe that's a stupid question. Times change; tastes evolve; businesses must adapt. If tourists and downtown condo dwellers love the place and are making cash registers ring and tax collectors smile, it's all good, right? Just people voting with their pocketbooks.

Except turnout in this market-based election seems light. Put aside the fact that Harborplace's owner, General Growth Properties, went bankrupt in 2009. Maybe that had nothing to do with its 2004 acquisition of this portion of its portfolio and everything to do with the popping of the real estate bubble two years earlier.

But when I talk to shopkeepers or servers (admittedly casual empiricism that is prone to error), I rarely hear upbeat assessments of the new Harborplace. None cite consistently brisk business (though they love Ravens home dates). Most say they're getting by — barely. A few describe the place as "dead" much of the time.

That characterization certainly applied when my wife and I dined there prior to a (meaningful!) September Orioles game that drew more than 25,000. We were two of a grand total of four customers at a restaurant that could seat over 40.

Perhaps traffic is down because of chatter that the Inner Harbor is unsafe. But this, as the mayor correctly noted at a recent press conference, simply doesn't square with the facts. In our pre-game stroll through Harborplace's largely empty corridors, we felt perfectly safe — just bored.

The pavilions simply contain way too much visual anesthetic and not enough that is interesting and fun. With all the big-footprint stores and restaurants — especially the misbegotten Odditorium — visitors get too many blank walls and dead spaces. Nothing to see (or buy) here, people; move along. Even if a waterfront mall is a good idea (not!), you simply can't fit a decent one into these buildings and compete successfully with the real thing sprawling across acres out in the 'burbs.

Which raises an important point: Blame for this misguided commercial strategy and poor design rests squarely with the private sector. This fiasco can't be laid at the feet of bungling bureaucrats or shortsighted pols. A profit-seeking enterprise, with every incentive to figure out what people like, deliver it, and then enjoy the resulting "ka-ching" noises, has simply blown it. What should be a money machine astride Baltimore's most magnetic attractions is underachieving, bottom line-wise.

This won't — can't — go on forever. Eventually, the green-eyeshade people at corporate will start asking some hard questions. To answer them, they might visit Lexington Market or Fells Point, see the crowds and hear the cash registers, and realize that Baltimoreans and tourists alike still value the things that made Harborplace popular back in the day: smaller, more diverse and unique shopping and dining experiences, provided as much as possible by entrepreneurs with local knowledge and flair.

And when they give that to us, I predict we'll come back in droves.

Stephen J.K. Walters is a professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland and a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise. His email is swalters@loyola.edu.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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