Baltimore’s Harborplace would be transformed with soaring new conjoined towers with ground-level shops and restaurants, expanded public parks and a revamped waterfront promenade, under a much-anticipated plan to be unveiled Monday morning by the developer.
The firm re-imagining the aging retail pavilions at the Inner Harbor — MCB Real Estate — also will ask Baltimore officials and voters Monday to expand permitted uses at the new Harborplace to allow people to live and work there for the first time.
P. David Bramble and Peter Pinkard, MCB’s managing partners, plan to show the first set of proposed designs Monday morning at Harborplace’s Light Street pavilion, reflecting the developer’s vision and months of community input from across the city. They expect to be joined by Democratic Gov. Wes Moore and Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott, as well as other elected officials and business and community members.
“We have a once-in-a-generation chance to reset the trajectory of the city,” Bramble said in an interview, calling the onetime crown jewel of downtown renaissance the “heartbeat” of the city. “We want to give Baltimore a chance to reengage with this water again and get excited again about downtown. ... We think this plan and vision are bold enough to do that.”
Plans, which are subject to a lengthy public review process to win necessary approvals, represent an estimated private investment of about $500 million, Bramble said. The development team will continue to work on the financing, in particular for expanded public spaces, over the next few months while finalizing design with government agencies, said Alexandra M. Hughes, a spokeswoman for MCB.
The proposal includes the conjoined towers, one of 32 stories and one of 25 stories, about 900 apartment units, about 300,000 square feet of commercial space for retail, restaurants and offices, and a new park with an amphitheater. Public park space would be expanded in part by incorporating McKeldin Square and reconfiguring the intersection at Pratt and Light streets.
Bramble, a Baltimore native who struck a deal to acquire the mostly vacant pavilions out of receivership in April 2022, said he hopes to start work as soon as possible, starting with seeking approvals.
Bramble said it will take a mix of the currently allowed retail use as well as housing, office space and possibly hospitality to transform the site of the once-vibrant but now nearly vacant pavilions into a gathering spot that’s inviting, safe, waterfront-accessible and unique to Baltimore. Developers plan to demolish the existing two-story pavilions, which opened in 1980.
A set of companion bills are slated to be introduced Monday to the City Council to allow the residential development and other new uses, remove height restrictions and expand both private and public space along the Inner Harbor arc from the Baltimore Visitor Center to the World Trade Center. The bills include rezoning requests, amendments to the city’s urban renewal plan governing the Inner Harbor, and an amendment to the City Charter.
The charter amendment, which would require voter approval on a ballot next year, would expand the area of the city’s ground lease with the developer to 4.5 acres from the current 3.2 acres.
Removing height restrictions would allow developers to build tall structures in a way that will maximize and open up, rather than block, water view corridors, Bramble said.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity here to really revitalize the Inner Harbor,” said Democratic City Councilman Eric Costello, lead sponsor of the legislation. “The bills expand the permittable uses to allow the project to be economically viable.”
Costello argued that the project will not work unless the uses are expanded, including with limited residential.
“That’s not something that’s uncommon for projects of this scope and scale, not only across the United States, but across the world,” he said.
The planned housing will be mixed-income, as opposed to luxury, apartments and is “committed to meeting or exceeding any inclusionary housing requirements that the city has,” Costello said. “It’s good for public safety in terms of having people down there all the time.” The Inner Harbor is in his district.
The bills make no mention of any tax incentives for the project, such as tax increment financing, which Baltimore has used in recent decades to promote development and pay for city-owned infrastructure related to projects. Bramble has said MCB did not plan to pay for improvements that are in the public realm.
Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, said it has taken her some time to become accustomed to the notion of including housing at the harbor, which at the time of its original redevelopment decades ago was planned for public and nonprofit uses.
But Schwartz said she now believes residents, along with visitors and tourists, can help infuse the area with life and activity.
“I do believe people living at the harbor could add a dimension that is missing today,” Schwartz said. “I think the path that MCB is eyeing for the Inner Harbor could result in our being at the cutting edge ... in Baltimore being a leader in redeveloping waterfronts that were developed in the ‘80s and ‘90s, waterfronts that are now aging.”
Harborplace, which opened in 1980 as a fixture of the burgeoning Inner Harbor, has been passed among several owners in the past few years. A New York-based real estate firm bought the property for $98.5 million in 2012, but failed to invest much in the marketplace.
After it defaulted, a judge ordered the pavilions into receivership. An appraisal conducted last summer found the marketplace was leasing just 38% of its available space, and placed its market value at $45.8 million and its liquidation value at $27.5 million.
When his firm obtained the 156,000-square-foot waterfront property, Bramble attributed the development’s decline partially to years of out-of-town ownership and national chains eroding the pavilions’ character.
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MCB Real Estate’s most recent report on its community engagement says the Our Harborplace team has spoken with or heard input from thousands of residents from more than 80 neighborhoods. MCB announced a design team in July to start incorporating ideas.
Community members’ priorities have included having more access to the water and space for small, local businesses, Bramble said.
For those who have fond memories of Harborplace’s heyday, it might be difficult to think of an overhaul of the site, Schwartz said.
But, she noted, “cities are always changing and evolving,” including recent shifts in downtown areas in a post-pandemic era when more people work from home.
“The direction that MCB is going in is a very progressive one that could help us create a more modern Inner Harbor and downtown … not just new buildings, but a new way of thinking of spaces and how they’re used,” Schwartz said.
Bramble said he wouldn’t expect the project to immediately and single-handedly erase the urban ills plaguing Baltimore and downtowns across the U.S.
But he said he believes in Baltimore’s growth potential and is convinced that “if we don’t invest in our downtown core, we’re in huge trouble.”