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As businesses close, Baltimore ponders Inner Harbor’s future: ‘The status quo is not going to work’

The two-story Barnes & Noble bookstore stood over Baltimore’s waterfront for more than two decades, a one-of-a-kind spot to browse, gather, work or sip coffee among thousands of book titles and CDs in a former steam-generating plant.

The store’s sudden closure in the Power Plant complex hit hard, followed by the closing of the restaurant Dick’s Last Resort. The blows keep coming for the Inner Harbor, already beset by store and restaurant closures, thinning crowds amid fears of city crime, and the financial woes of the owners of Harborplace.

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The coronavirus pandemic decimated demand for the harbor’s commercial establishments as most tourism and the city’s convention business ceased and many downtown office workers went home to work.

“It’s heartbreaking for those of us who put so much time and energy and commitment into building up the Inner Harbor,” said Laurie Schwarz, president of Baltimore’s Waterfront Partnership. “It’s unfortunate, but not surprising to see businesses closing at the harbor. They’re closing everywhere.”

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Shutdowns and lost sales during the coronavirus have led to an avalanche of business closures around the country, with retailers and restaurants especially hard hit. COVID-19 accelerated the shift to online shopping that was already hurting brick-and-mortar retail. Through mid-August, 29 national retailers filed for bankruptcy, according to professional services firm BDO USA, while Coresight Research predicts a quarter of the nation’s malls could close over the next three to five years.

In Baltimore, where the harbor once served as a model for urban renewal, stemming the decline will hinge on finding new ways to attract people and promoting the city’s unique qualities, experts say. But it’s likely little will happen until the economy has stabilized.

Urban destinations must offer authenticity and differentiate themselves, said Ed McMahon, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Urban Land Institute. Successful retail centers today tend to be outdoor facing, with local food and retail offerings and outdoor activities, recreation and programming.

Markets that feature local food vendors, artists and makers, and pop-up shops have been successful, as have parks featuring events, fitness activities, flea markets, fountains and cafes.

“T-shirts and mugs and crab memorabilia aren’t going to cut it anymore; you have to offer something unique that appeals to both tourists and locals,” McMahon said. “Until the pandemic is behind us, people will feel safer when they’re outdoors than indoors.”

Some, such as Schwarz, believe the aging 40-year-old Harborplace pavilions, originally developed by The Rouse Co. as a “festival marketplace” with food stalls and local merchants, have outlived their useful life.

She supports replacing them with alternative buildings or kiosks, once the economy stabilizes and when market demand exists. Any new construction, she said, should be paired with regular outdoor events like farmers markets featuring local artists and vendors.

The Inner Harbor is moving in that direction, she noted, with outdoor fitness classes and the redevelopment of Rash Field on the south side with playgrounds, athletic fields and gardens.

“I do think there’s something to the marketplace notion that could come back, not necessarily in the buildings that are there today,” she said. “Constantly changing offerings … would create new reasons for people to come to the harbor."

City Council President Brandon Scott envisions Black- and women-owned businesses setting up shop along the water. He wants tourists and local residents alike to enjoy crab cakes from a place like Lauraville’s Kocos Pub, or vegan food from a restaurant like Land of Kush in Midtown.

“Why would the harbor be where we’re just having chain after chain after chain?” said Scott, the Democratic nominee for mayor.

“Why would the harbor be where we’re just having chain after chain after chain?”


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Scott said it’s vital that a local owner take control of Harborplace, rather than out-of-towners like those who have previously managed it.

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David Cordish is CEO of The Cordish Cos., the Baltimore-based developer of the Power Plant and Power Plant Live.

“What made the Inner Harbor work for decades, and which in turn fueled the city’s overall growth, was best-in-class, regional attractions all within walking distance of each other,” Cordish said in an email. “The infrastructure of the Inner Harbor is now decades old and requires rejuvenation and reinvestment to become a major regional draw again.”

M.J. “Jay” Brodie, former head of the Baltimore Development Corp., recalled that Harborplace struck a chord when it opened in 1980 because it attracted Baltimore-area residents and downtown workers — and often their out-of-town guests — and that was decades before the arrival of the 40,000 people who now live within a mile of Light and Pratt streets.

Harborplace could be reshaped by a developer who understands Baltimore’s character, with city help, and fit into a re-imagined downtown, likely one with less conventional office and parking space and more moderately priced housing and the retail to serve that base.

“I haven’t given up on Harborplace,” Brodie said.

Restaurateur Ben Saba struggles to attract customers at his eatery, "Johnny Rockets," at Harborplace's Light Street Pavilion, struggling even before the novel coronavirus struck, is hit hard by the lack of customer flow Wed., September 30, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun Staff)
Restaurateur Ben Saba struggles to attract customers at his eatery, "Johnny Rockets," at Harborplace's Light Street Pavilion, struggling even before the novel coronavirus struck, is hit hard by the lack of customer flow Wed., September 30, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Reeling from years of rising vacancies and what some saw as mismanagement by distant owners, Harborplace was placed in court-appointed receivership in May 2019 after owner Ashkenazy Acquisitions Corp., a New York-based real estate company, defaulted on its loan for the property. The receiver is managing and leasing the property as a caretaker for the lender, but there’s little to no investment.

“The status quo is not going to work for Harborplace,” said Baltimore City Councilman Eric Costello, whose district includes the Inner Harbor.

Anchors have since left the festival marketplace, including apparel retailer Banana Republic and Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium, and before them Urban Outfitters, Five Guys, Noodles & Co., M & S Grill, La Tasca, Edo Sushi, Lenny’s, Fire & Ice and The Fudgery.

It’s become increasingly difficult for remaining merchants to hang on, especially without conventions and sports events drawing visitors.

“The situation is pretty bad,” said Daniel Beck, president and CEO of Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls, which has run a franchised stall in Harborplace’s Pratt Street pavilion since March 2019. “It’s been in receivership, so people keep moving out. The maintenance isn’t kept up.

“How long does this go on? … It’s going to be a disaster until there’s a resolution.

“Our hope was that something would happen and this would be resolved, and someone would be proactive about leasing,” Beck said. “We really thought we’d be farther down the road by now.”

Ben Saba, owner of Johnny Rockets on the lower level of the Light Street pavilion, blames Ashkenazy for a lack of investment and for removing a once-bustling food court area near his restaurant. Since then, all the interior tenants have moved out, Saba said, leaving only his burgers and shakes eatery and an ice cream stand. Remaining pavilion tenants, such as Hooters, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and fast fashion retailer H&M, (which said Thursday it is closing 250 stores) have exterior entrances only, and bring in no foot traffic.

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Johnny Rockets’ sales had already plummeted by half before the pandemic. After closing from March through June on the governor’s orders, the eatery now pulls in only about a fifth of normal sales, Saba said. He laid off two managers and a general manager, leaving himself, a cook and a part-time server.

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“We are not doing well at all,” Saba said. “The city and mayor should sit down and decide what they want to do with this mall. They have to come with some kind of plan. Right now I am hurting.”

McMahon said Baltimore should promote its advantages, such as the walkway that stretches around the harbor, the mix of uses and neighborhoods around the waterfront, and the relative affordability of housing compared with larger cities.

Despite the current troubles, he said, “I do think the Inner Harbor of Baltimore is one of the great success stories of Baltimore.”

Restaurateur Dan Beck at Mason's Famous Lobster Rolls in the Pratt Street Pavilion, struggling even before the novel coronavirus struck, is hit hard by the lack of customer flow Wed., September 30, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun Staff)
Restaurateur Dan Beck at Mason's Famous Lobster Rolls in the Pratt Street Pavilion, struggling even before the novel coronavirus struck, is hit hard by the lack of customer flow Wed., September 30, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Anchored by attractions such as the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center, the Inner Harbor benefited from new apartments, hotels, offices, restaurants and shops that sprouted around it. At the same time, however, more competition in the city and beyond as well as an influx of national chains diminished Harborplace’s uniqueness. Now, the need to avoid crowds is further hurting retail.

Business has been down at It’s Sugar in Harborplace’s Pratt Street pavilion. The shop specializes in sweets, novelty gifts, and giant candy, and counts on the tourism trade that never materialized because of the pandemic. Downtown hotels were only about 35% occupied in July, August and September, according to Visit Baltimore, and the Baltimore Convention Center, which had been serving as a field hospital and testing site since early in the pandemic, remains closed otherwise.

“Our business depends on the convention center and tourism that that was not here,” said Molly Fieser, manager of It’s Sugar. “Hotels are not in full swing. That’s what’s hurting us the most."

Inner Harbor retailers have struggled too as office workers have stayed home to do their jobs remotely, said Terri Harrington, senior vice president at MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate, also a member of the Downtown Partnership’s board of directors. She estimated that foot traffic is about 20% of what it had been before the pandemic.

“You’ve got some businesses that are back [with] only a percentage of employees,” Harrington said. “Some businesses have not come back at all, and they’re waiting for a vaccine to be developed."

That uncertainty has left Inner Harbor retailers without their usual stream of customers. In the Power Plant, besides Barnes & Noble and Dick’s Last Resort, Potbelly Sandwich Shop has done so temporarily.

A spokesman for Barnes & Noble, which closed Aug. 29, had said the Baltimore location’s “exceptionally large and architecturally beautiful” design “now make it extraordinarily expensive to both run and to maintain." The retailer continues to operate stores in White Marsh and Pikesville.

Dick’s Last Resort closed with a broadside against the city, as an executive at the company that owns it called downtown Baltimore a “hellhole dumpster fire of violence and danger,” where "nobody in their right mind would operate a business.”

A Cordish Cos. spokeswoman said the company offered significant rent concessions to both Dick’s and Barnes & Noble.

A plan for downtown should include “big new ideas and attractions to go along with revitalized public space” and would require city, state and private-sector coordination, Cordish said in an email.

“We stand ready to be a part of this effort if called upon,” he said, noting that his company has helped attract new business to the Inner Harbor through Spark, a collaborative workspace it created at Power Plant Live. “We’re committed to more but are only one piece of the puzzle.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Talia Richman and Nathan Ruiz contributed to this artcle.

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