The future owner of Harborplace in downtown Baltimore will have a hand in deciding how tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money are spent fixing up the area immediately surrounding the aging pavilions on the city’s waterfront.
David Bramble and his firm, MCB Real Estate, want to redevelop Harborplace — the mostly vacant twin pavilions in the Inner Harbor — and build a 40-story tower on a parking lot across Pratt Street. Both projects likely would receive a boost from $67.5 million of taxpayer money set aside by the Maryland legislature for the Inner Harbor.
The mayor announced in April that Bramble and MCB had agreed to buy Harborplace. The mall-like mix of stores and restaurants has been losing money for years under an out-of-state owner. Turning around the sinking Harborplace — considered an iconic part of the Inner Harbor — is seen as key to attracting people and businesses to downtown.
Baltimore officials celebrated the news that Bramble, a local developer, had agreed to buy and redevelop Harborplace. A few weeks later, they gathered again as state lawmakers announced $166 million in funding to renovate the Inner Harbor and its attractions and boost downtown Baltimore.
While $98.5 million of that is earmarked for other institutions and relocating 3,000 state workers downtown from State Center in West Baltimore, the remaining $67.5 million was set aside for making over the Inner Harbor promenade. MCB spent $70,000 on four lobbyists from Harris Jones & Malone to lobby for that money, according to disclosure forms the lobbyists filed with the state ethics commission, and Bramble will have a major role in deciding how it is spent.
Bramble declined to comment for this story.
The money is going as a grant to an arm of the Waterfront Partnership, a nonprofit that recently oversaw the $16.8 million renovation of Rash Field Park. The 3.2-acre park on the south side of the Inner Harbor features a playground, nature area, volleyball courts, skate park and more.
“We are working hand-in-hand with MCB,” said Laurie Schwartz, executive director of the Waterfront Partnership. “We really view this as launching the second renaissance of the Inner Harbor. David Bramble has a big vision for Harborplace and for the Inner Harbor, not just the two pavilions.”
Schwartz said the $67.5 million in grant money will not go toward the redevelopment of Harborplace, which is located within the promenade.
“It’s intended for the public spaces around Harborplace,” Schwartz said. “And along the Inner Harbor promenade, the brick pathway that leads into the Inner Harbor between the two Harborplace pavilions and along the water’s edge.”
According to lobbying records, the Waterfront Partnership also spent $9,500 on lobbyist Pete Hammen to specifically advocate for the Inner Harbor in the budget bill. As outlined in that bill, the $67.5 million to fix up the promenade will be split into three tranches, with $7.5 million coming this fiscal year and $30 million pre-authorized for each of the next two fiscal years.
Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat and president of the state Senate, said the legislature could cancel that funding in upcoming legislative sessions if it’s not satisfied that’s still the right use for the money. He also said the Maryland Board of Public Words ultimately will have some oversight of how the money is spent. The Waterfront Partnership will need the approval of the board — which consists of the governor, state comptroller and state treasurer — to release the funds.
The promenade is city-owned property, but Ferguson said the Waterfront Partnership will be able to spend the money more efficiently and quickly than the city. He expects the promenade will actually need far more than $67.5 million to be properly renovated, especially because it is the main bulwark against flooding downtown.
“The costs associated with the resiliency for the promenade are going to be astronomical, and this is a massive undertaking,” Ferguson said, adding that the city and state likely will seek out federal money, too. “If we don’t invest in its rehabilitation, we’re going to be in trouble.”
Fixing up the aging promenade is also key to spurring new development downtown, he said.
“When there is the overhead view of Sunday Night Football [in] Baltimore, what is shown is that: Harborplace, Inner Harbor, public assets that are there,” Ferguson said. “It is our city’s cultural image for the downtown and I think there’s no city that has a failing downtown and a thriving uptown. It just doesn’t work.”
New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisitions Corp. bought Harborplace a decade ago for about $100 million and promised major renovations to the pavilions. But the firm defaulted on a $76 million loan, plunging Harborplace into receivership in 2019. Recently filed court documents indicate the sale to MCB and Bramble is being finalized, though they did not include a sales price.
An appraisal conducted this summer pegged the market value of Harborplace at $45.8 million and its liquidation value at $27.5 million. At the time of the appraisal, Harborplace was leasing just 38% of the more than 156,000 square feet available. To get the most value out of Harborplace, the appraisal recommended demolishing the current pavilions and building mixed-use towers that include apartments.
Nicole King, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said she was heartened to hear Bramble was taking on the redevelopment of Harborplace. She herself regularly runs along the Inner Harbor and called it a gem.
But King also was concerned about the lobbying that took place to get the money and urged transparency on how it is spent.
Bramble has not announced what his plans are for Harborplace, though he already has committed to holding public events to gather community feedback on its redevelopment.
“There needs to be transparency,” King said. “There also needs to be community input on what’s going forward in the Inner Harbor because, as a historian, we look to the past, and while the Inner Harbor was a model for lots of things, it wasn’t sustainable in the long term.”
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The Inner Harbor went through a massive redevelopment in the 1970s, including the construction of Harborplace. King said that investment was supposed to “trickle down” and benefit neighborhoods across the city, but it never did.
“The key thing is making sure that the harbor is still accessible and open to the public, and that there’s public transit options that function and work well to get people there,” King said of this latest round of redevelopment. “The right way to do this is certainly to invest in the harbor where it is open to the public and have public review of all of these spending bills where the public money is going to be used.”
King pointed to a 2021 report titled “Reimagining the Harbor as a Hub,” written by two UMBC colleagues. The report recommended the city create a task force to chart a path for the Inner Harbor.
One of the authors, Joby Taylor, said Baltimore has a “generational opportunity” to re-imagine its downtown. This moment should include historically marginalized groups and should not be rushed, he said. Both Taylor and King praised the ongoing “Baltimore by Baltimore” series, a monthly music and maker festival put on by the Waterfront Partnership.
“Process matters,” Taylor said. “For this, you need a really extensive and inclusive process that uses events like ‘Baltimore by Baltimore’ to generate engagement and ideas and belonging.”
Low-cost, temporary ideas like transit-fare holidays or a car-free day at the Inner Harbor could ignite the public’s imagination of what is possible, he said.
“We shouldn’t rush to get the plans carved in stone too fast,” Taylor said. “We should let our collective imaginations work a while.”
An earlier version of this article used a former title for Nicole King. King is an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The Sun regrets the error.