Baltimore Sun

Spruced-up Harborplace gives a better view of city

When the twin pavilions at Harborplace opened 24 years ago this month, it was impossible to know how many cities and architects around the world would try to copy their success.

Now a week doesn't go by without a call or e-mail from developers, municipal groups or students asking about the project in nearly iconic terms, its marketers say. Baltimore's Inner Harbor has become a classic model for urban redevelopment.

And it continues to evolve.

While Harborplace still glitters from a distance, closer to home some of the shine has worn off in recent years. There were a growing number of retail vacancies in the pavilions and some public areas have been showing their age.

Since 2002, Rouse has spent millions answering that challenge by upgrading the two retail and dining areas where many visitors to Baltimore form their first impressions of the city.

An expanded harbor vista now greets visitors to the Light Street Pavilion and a similar makeover is in the works for the Pratt Street Pavilion. Rouse hopes to feature nightlife in the Pratt Street building, while Light Street will continue to be home to more tourist-oriented food and retail outlets.

"What Harborplace was always about was how to connect the fun of Baltimore with the waterfront," said Kent S. Digby, vice president and general manager of Harborplace and the Gallery, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rouse Co. "This building has always done it better than any of the others. It's always brought the essence of Baltimore to where the locals and tourists see it, feel it and touch it."

The Light Street Pavilion renovation included new flooring and paint, updated store fronts and a remodeled food court. Color has been added to what were once essentially monotone graphics in gray and white.

The plan is to next revamp the Pratt Street Pavilion so that the second floor is exclusively food rather than a mix of food and retail.

"What makes Baltimore unique as a destination is we're constantly changing," said Nancy Hinds, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "I think it's great that they're changing and trying something new. It will be like a brand new attraction that people go to."

The food court in the Light Street Pavilion had become dated, and its seating needed to be improved, Digby said. Remodeling, which began in January 2003, is 95 percent complete. The food court offers a wider view of the harbor that previously was blocked by multiple kiosks.

"The view from the second floor of Light Street is a collage of the Inner Harbor," Digby said.

Typically, the original food tenants occupied a couple of hundred square feet each. But as people's food tastes have changed, those tenants have needed to adjust.

'Need more size'

Today's more extensive menus require more space, with the typical tenant now using between 300 and 1,100 square feet.

"You need more size, more capabilities," Digby said. "Instead of being a fryer and a hood, now they're mini, full-blown restaurants."

The Haagen Dazs ice cream store is one example of the upscale decor, featuring a store designed in cherry and stainless steel, with Corian countertops. The low-voltage accent lights alone cost about $15,000, Digby said. The ice cream tubs are positioned lower, making it easier for customers - including children - to see into them to make their selections.

"One of the reasons we remodel is new technology, new thinking," Digby said.

The building - recently criticized for having too many vacancies - is coming alive with new tenants such as the Candy Crate Company, which opened in March. It features popular candies from eras past.

"This building is supposed to be and always has been about fun," Digby said.

After all, it was next door, at the Fudgery, that the Baltimore native and hip hop artist who recorded "Thong Song," Sisqo, was discovered.

That's the Fudgery with the No. 1 sales volume in the country, Digby boasts. And that store is not the only national chain whose Baltimore location is its top seller. The same goes for the nearby Discovery store - one of 68 in the country, Digby said.

Baltimore's Hooters location also is the top grossing of its 110 company restaurant/bars in the country, Digby said. It is slated for remodeling in late fall.

Three vacancies remained in the Light Street Pavilion at recent count, with three each also in the Pratt Street Pavilion and in the Gallery, he said.

"We've put 18 new operations in order in this building this year," Digby said. "We've renovated another six. By this time next year, 100 percent of the building will be renovated. It's cleaner than it's ever been. It's treated with reverence, as if it has some historical value to it."

Across the promenade, at the Pratt Street Pavilion, the goal is to add to the diversity of food offerings with such restaurants as a Spanish tapas bar or a Thai restaurant that could open as soon as next spring.

Stay open later

With existing and new restaurant tenants populating the second floor, the plan is for the building to take on a date-night and mature atmosphere - just a short walk away from David Cordish's Power Plant Live development, which focuses on the younger crowd.

The Light Street Pavilion restaurants will be able to stay open as late as the liquor license laws allow, creating a new atmosphere in that building. Opening the view to the harbor as was done at Light Street should add to the appeal, Digby said.

"You build that cluster together and once you do that, you have that attraction," Digby said.