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Reimagining Harborplace: What do people want from Baltimore's iconic waterfront?

Baltimore residents talk about Baltimore's Harborplace as a tourist attraction. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore  Sun video)

The two low-slung pavilions filled with shops and restaurants were considered visionary when the Rouse Co. built them on parkland along Baltimore’s Inner Harbor nearly four decades ago. But over the years, Harborplace lost its luster and financial footing. Now there’s a debate about what should be done with the waterfront.

Suggestions range from bringing more entertainment venues to the buildings and sprucing them up to leveling one or both structures to create a larger gathering space. Some even propose attempting to restore a natural shoreline in what has been a working harbor for nearly three centuries.

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While the ideas differ radically, they all focus on the belief that the property, city-owned and privately leased, still ought to serve as a draw for visitors but had better appeal to local residents who work and now live in far greater numbers downtown and around the harbor.

“There’s a concept that locals don’t like to be where the tourists are, but tourists do like to be where locals are,” said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership. “So focus on the locals and you’ll likely get both locals and tourists.”

The nonprofit partnership hosts festivals, exercise classes and a seasonal ice rink on the waterfront around Harborplace and is redesigning the recreational space on Rash Field on the south shore.

Schwartz suggested local ownership of the pavilions would be a start. The property has been sold twice since the days of Rouse, a Columbia-based firm led by Jim Rouse, who envisioned Harborplace and other “festival marketplaces” around the country.

New York-based General Growth Properties bought Harborplace in 2004 but never found a mix to match changing consumer tastes. Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. spent $100 million in 2012 on the place, promising to refresh the pavilions and bring new tenants and energy to them. But the company defaulted on its $76 million mortgage. And in May a judge, citing The Baltimore Sun’s reporting on vacancies and conditions, put a receiver in control of the property to protect the interests of the lender.

What exactly that means for Harborplace isn’t clear. The firm could pay the debt and regain control, changing nothing beyond some recent long-awaited renovations to the Pratt Street pavilion. Or its long-term lease, ending in 2087, could be acquired by another company with its own plans.

The city’s development agency, Baltimore Development Corp., said lease provisions would remain in force under new owners and changes would require city approval.

Colin Tarbert, BDC's president and CEO, said city leaders share the public’s frustrations with the pace of redevelopment.

“While many people still visit Harborplace to shop and dine, we know the current ownership has not maximized its full potential,” he said. “We are currently in the process of setting up a meeting with the receiver so the city can share its concerns and discuss the future of Harborplace."

The Greater Baltimore Committee also plans to monitor the receivership process and make suggestions, said Donald C. Fry, president of the business group. He said changes will be controlled by the receiver and lenders, and perhaps a new owner, but he wants Harborplace to remain “an attraction and an attractive place” for residents, day-trippers and tourists.

Other residents and groups already have specific ideas, including Schwartz, who suggested “pop-up” shops and a more substantial budget for bands, magicians and other entertainment in the amphitheater between the pavilions to draw local residents’ continuing attention. She’d like the pavilions to be preserved but opened up so the water can be seen from the street.

A 2008 redevelopment plan from business leaders at the Downtown Partnership also calls for, among other things, pavilion modifications to make them more appealing from the street side.

Residents have long been concerned about those views and open spaces. A citywide referendum barely passed in 1978 allowing the 3.2 acres of public parkland to be developed into Harborplace.

Louise Alder fondly remembers Inner Harbor Park in the 1970s, when the then-Locust Point resident attended the City Fair, neighborhood and ethnic festivals and New Year’s Eve celebrations. She helped formed Citizens for the Preservation of the Inner Harbor when she heard of Rouse’s commercialization plans, but she and other residents and downtown business owners were unsuccessful in stopping the development or limiting it to one pavilion as called for in a city master plan.

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“The park was a huge jewel,” said Alder, 69. “When the city gave us that park, it was something we never had before. I went out almost every single night bike riding up on the promenade.”

Alder moved to Pennsylvania a decade ago and never set foot in the twin pavilions, which she now hopes will be leveled.

In a recent design competition, architects also envisioned more open space around the Inner Harbor.

A design by Kelly Danz and Amanda Ganginis depicted a single pavilion and a park promoting interaction with swimmable and fishable water.

It was among 13 finalists announced this month by competition organizers including AIA Baltimore. Dubbed Permeable Futures, the design by Danz and Ganginis would create a green corridor from Camden Yards to the harbor and include a beach, swimming pool, oyster retention area and boat docks.

“We tried to generate some ideas about what could happen in the Inner Harbor if it wasn’t based around commercialism, but if it was based around recreation,” Danz said. They retained one pavilion because “we didn’t want to erase the history of the Inner Harbor.”

They said some of the things would be easy to do.

Left as is, the harbor still holds appeal, even if some perceive safety problems. Reports downtown of assaults and thefts, particularly of cellphones, have concerned tenants. And the sometimes raucous gatherings of teens near the harbor have sparked conflict between those who see bored youth being racially profiled and others who see a threat.

Jill Klein used to come to the Inner Harbor more when she was younger and once worked in a restaurant there. She sat recently on a bench during her lunch break and watched the water taxis. The 52-year-old from Rosedale said she doesn’t think residents come out at night because “people are just weary.”

Cindy Rothermel, however, visited recently from Fleetwood, Pa., to go to the National Aquarium with her husband and found Harborplace to be “unique.”

“I've been to Massachusetts and Philly, but I like it here better," said the 48-year-old, who hadn’t been to Baltimore since elementary school.

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Arnita Bridges, 68, came from Randallstown with Lee Bridges, 63, and normally makes a monthly trek with family to get lunch. She is from Baltimore and finds the harbor more “fancy” now, which she welcomes.

Focus on the locals and you’ll likely get both locals and tourists.


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Still, Brittany Goetsch, a 30-year-old who moved to Mount Vernon two years ago, said the harbor holds little for residents and wished there were more “restaurants with Baltimore local flair.”

Those that are there “are more catered to tourists.”

Some local observers say luring residents might take drastic measures.

“They served a certain purpose, but the time has come to let them go,” local architect Klaus Philipsen said of the pavilions.

Other cities have recognized this, he said, pointing to complete redevelopment of a New York City festival marketplace and repurposing of another in Lexington, Ky.

He said tourists have no incentive to cross busy streets to leave the harbor. People working and living downtown don’t have a reason to go to the waterfront. He suggested narrowing the streets and re-creating a “living room” for Baltimore.

“Every good city has a commons, places people go when there is an event or they want to demonstrate or have fun on a Sunday,” Philipsen said. “Baltimore has neighborhood gathering spaces but not one central place.”

Tourists, however, remain a powerful economic engine few in Baltimore want to ignore. About 26 million people visited the city in 2017 and spent $5.7 billion on food, beverages and recreational activities, according to the tourism agency Visit Baltimore. The city and state collected about $717 million in visitor-related taxes.

Michael J. Berne, president of MJB Consulting, said tourists provide some insulation from “industry disruption” because they impulse shop even if the same stores are near home. He said Ashkenazy’s Rivercenter Mall in downtown San Antonio performs well with a slate of national chains.

However, generic retail mixes are “missed opportunities” for cities to showcase themselves, he said.

“Yes, visitors will generally take what is given to them — they do not have much of a choice,” Berne said. “But if they are given something uniquely local, they will take that, too, and perhaps leave town with a more distinct impression that they will then relay to friends and family back home, i.e. that all-important ‘word-of-mouth.’ ”

The high rents of high-profile centers could require subsidies for small local businesses, he said. That would require a new developer, Berne said, “with ample and very patient capital, and with both the desire and the sensibility to create something magical.”

“Does such a person exist?” he said. “Given the city's history as the proving grounds for some of this nation's greatest urban redevelopers, I would imagine that it does.”

Redeveloping and rebranding Harborplace could succeed, said Mark Millman, CEO of Owings Mills-based retail recruitment firm Millman Search Group.

“It’s a prime spot for entertainment, mixed with hospitality and retail,” Millman said. “That’s what you have to do in the retail world. Make it new and exciting.”

Millman promoted one of its clients as the developer: the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., which he says has a “track record of turning lemons into lemonade.”

Cordish built the Power Plant complex next door to Harborplace that is anchored by a Barnes & Noble and the local restaurant Phillip’s Seafood, which moved from Harborplace. Retailers have failed there, too, but Cordish says millions visit the property a year.

The company also has a national portfolio of entertainment and retail-based properties that includes the Waterside District in Norfolk, Va., where the company invested $40 million in the Rouse-developed festival marketplace on the Elizabeth River in 2017 aiming to attract visitors and residents. There is a food hall that includes locally owned eateries, as well as live music, festivals and events.

“Of course, we are interested,” Cordish said of Harborplace in an email. “It’s what we do around the country, and Harborplace is at our front door. The threshold question is, is this really a sale or will it be an arrangement with existing debtor? Frequently, the latter is the case. As soon as it’s determined that in fact there will be a NEW owner, a sale, we will jump in with both feet.”

For now, Harborplace tenants say they remain open for business. Dan Beck, president of Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls, which opened in March in the Pratt Street pavilion next to the Cheesecake Factory, said the biggest challenge has been the perception the receiver closed the doors.

“We think that there’s potential down there,” Beck said, “and somebody can come in and take over and lease the space and hopefully bring it back to where it once was.

“We still believe in the Inner Harbor.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Juliana Kim contributed to this article.

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