Slow renovation of Baltimore's Harborplace may be nearing an end

When Harborplace sold for nearly $100 million in 2012, a land lease with the city gave the new owner three years to overhaul the iconic downtown waterfront marketplace.

Six years later, construction that finally started in late 2016 grinds slowly on, but an end of the work may be in sight for the Pratt Street Pavilion. The renovations that closed off chunks of the property are wrapping up and the dated structure is expected to re-emerge this spring with a fresh look and new tenants.

The work will transform the pavilion’s 1980s-era appearance, eliminating the awnings and its interior mall-like layout, and giving the exterior a sleeker look with more windows and signage. The goal is to reestablish Harborplace as a destination for tourists and locals alike.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said he was told this week that work is progressing and store openings will occur in the next few months.

“It’s a positive step in the right direction after more than a year of construction,” Fowler said. “We’ve all been frustrated by how long it’s taking.”

Stephanie Mineo, senior vice president with New York-based Ashkenazy Aquisition Corp,. which bought Harborplace in 2012, said she was unavailable for comment this week.

According to the Harborplace website and Fowler, Banana Republic, which had closed in 2016 in the nearby The Gallery at Harborplace, will move to the Pratt pavilion in May, while newly signed tenants Build-A-Bear and Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls are “coming soon.” Specialty candy retailer It’Sugar, announced this week that it will re-open an expanded and renovated store in the Pratt pavilion April 13, moving from a temporary home for the past year and a half in the Light Street Pavilion.

When the construction started in 2016, Ashkenazy had promised completed renovations and new stores by last spring or summer, the height of the city’s tourism season. It later said before the holidays.

Mayor Catherine Pugh’s office referred questions about the project to the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s economic development arm. A spokeswoman for the BDC said officials have been in constant communication with Ashkenazy.

“While the pace of redevelopment and renovation is frustrating, we realize that there are market forces and changes in retail that impact properties like Harborplace,” said Susan Yum, the BDC spokeswoman, in an email.

City officials and the developer hope to reinvent Harborplace as the city has struggled with increased crime in recent years as well as perceptions about lack of safety downtown, which have made it more difficult to attract tourists and suburban residents to the Inner Harbor. (A drop-off in crime this year could offer some help.)

At the same time, the retail sector nationwide is experiencing a seismic shift as more shopping moves online and stores close by the thousands.

To succeed in the current retail climate, Harborplace will need to attract tenants that appeal to millennial consumers, such as new food and entertainment concepts, and to market itself aggressively, said Mark Millman, president and CEO of Millman Search Group, a retail consulting and executive search firm. Food and entertainment experiences have become the hook to attract people to something they can’t replicate online, he said.

“Food is the new fashion in retail leasing,” Millman said. “Those are the deals that are getting done, where millennials will shop.”

Harborplace, a groundbreaking “festival marketplace” concept when it opened in 1980, was the vision of Columbia founder James W. Rouse and credited with helping spur a downtown renaissance along the waterfront in the early 1980s. The center was later owned by Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which purchased the Rouse Co. in 2004 and struggled to find the right mix of tenants to draw both tourists and local residents.

New tenants have come in, including anchor Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium in 2012 and food stall Philly Pretzel Factory last year, both in the Light Street pavilion, while others have left. Apparel retailer Urban Outfitters, an anchor since spring 2007, closed in January.

Fowler said he was told Ashkenazy has “substantial” interest from national retailers for the large Urban Outfitters space, including one strong lead, and that “pop up” shops will fill the space temporarily.

“We’ve been through a couple of tough years, so it’s encouraging to hear from a national developer that we might be turning a corner,” Fowler said. “Harborplace is literally the center of downtown, and it’s our historic retail anchor. It needs to thrive in order for other parts to thrive. Thankfully, there has been a lot of development activity over the last couple of years.”

A fully leased Harborplace would in turn help downtown attract more retail, a sector where the city has lagged other cities’ downtowns, he said.

Dennis Ofori, who has run women’s accessories shop Crystal Cove on the first level of the Pratt pavilion for 16 years, said his sales have suffered during the long renovations. But he’s hopeful about better days ahead. Now most of his business comes from tourists. He’s hoping new shops will draw more local residents as well.

“We believe with the changes, it’s going to enhance the property and bring more people downtown, which will bring more sales to everybody,” Ofori said. “We believe once the renovations are done, that things will turn around. … This is the first major change in the Pratt Street Pavilion, so we’ll see.”

It’Sugar, which offers hundreds of confections and novelties such as a five pound Gummy Bear, said its new location doubles the size of its store to 3,800 square feet and will have entrances both on Pratt Street and on the waterfront. That type of store layout is anticipated for Banana Republic and Build a Bear as well.

“Our stores cater to people of all ages looking for a place to leave their troubles behind and immerse themselves in a playground of candy, humor, and unique gifts,” said Jeff Rubin, It’Sugar’s CEO and founder, in the company’s announcement.

The pavilions currently house a mix of restaurants, such as Tir Na Nog Irish Restaurant & Pub, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., The Cheesecake Factory, Five Guys Burgers & Fries and Johnny Rockets, apparel store H&M and specialty shops such as Crabby Jack’s General Store and Life in Charm City.

Harborplace benefits from a prime location on the water, but “it has lost its luster, Millman said.

“They will need to do something to bring it back to its former glory as one of the leading destinations and attraction in the country,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do.”

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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