City leaders unveiled an ambitious long-term plan for the Inner Harbor Wednesday designed to restore pizazz to a vital area that's beginning to show its age.
The "Inner Harbor 2.0" plan calls for constructing a pedestrian bridge to connect Harbor East with Federal Hill, turning Rash Field into a grassy park and squaring Light Street to link McKeldin Plaza to the harbor amphitheater. Other elements include a kayak launch, bike share program and urban beach, featuring a floating swimming pool.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the plan would create a "greener and softer" Inner Harbor that, like the original development, worked as well for tourists as for local residents.
"Maybe it was for tourism but as a young person, I thought it was for me," she said about the original development. "With Inner Harbor 2.0, we're getting back to that feeling."
The Inner Harbor, some of which turns 40 this year, needs upgrades to its crumbling brick promenades, deteriorating bulkheads and unreliable light fixtures, said Laurie Schwartz, the president of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, which funded the plan along with the Greater Baltimore Committee. It also needs updates to remain a draw for local residents and the millions of people who visit the Inner Harbor each year, she said.
"It's past due time for us to take the next big look," said city planning director Thomas Stosur.
In 2012, about 14 million tourists came to the Inner Harbor, according to an analysis for Waterfront Partnership by the New York-based real estate and economic advisory services firm HR&A. The study found that the activity of visitors and 3,000 workers at Inner Harbor businesses helped generate $2.3 billion in economic activity for the region.
"The widespread perception and the long-held understanding that the Inner Harbor is central to Baltimore and the state of Maryland's economy is in fact true," HR&A principal Stockton Williams said. "As the magnet and primary attraction for so many people who come to visit Baltimore from out of town, it's critical not only that it remain … a well-maintained destination, but that it evolve and that it continue to offer new opportunities for out-of-town visitors."
The plan, which could take as many as 30 years or more to implement, does not carry a price tag. The designers acknowledged that their proposals would not be inexpensive.
Since 2003, the Greater Baltimore Committee has urged the city to focus attention on the Inner Harbor. Assorted problems, including overflowing trash cans and overgrown grass, detracted from the space, the group said.
Ideas in Wednesday's plan echo concepts unveiled in 2011, when the GBC issued a series of design recommendations at the same time that the city invited proposals for new harbor attractions.
Previous efforts were hampered by poor timing, said Schwartz, adding this is the first time the ideas have been tied together into a comprehensive vision.
"Each of them by themselves were interesting, but didn't add up to a comprehensive and common vision, so that's one of the pieces that we really wanted to achieve … to take the best of all these plans, knit them together and have a common vision between stakeholders, private entities and city government so we could all work together toward the same goals," she said.
Projects included in the new master plan range from "low-hanging fruit" that could be in place as early as next September, such as installing matching lights, benches and trash cans, to more difficult, long-range proposals.
For example, the designers recommend rerouting Light Street toward Pratt to create a "Grand Entrance" to the harbor. Such a realignment would alter commutes for those heading north on Calvert Street and east on Pratt Street.
That proposal depends on the outcome of a city transportation study, Schwartz said.
"That's a heavy lift for sure," said Adam Gross, design principal at Ayers Saint Gross, which worked on the GBC's 2011 proposal and designed the new master plan.
The pedestrian bridge, an idea put forward in 2011 to create a walking loop around the harbor, also would require formal study. In the meantime, the plan proposes a new, free water taxi route to connect the two sides of the harbor.
"Probably the biggest immediate opportunity that could have one of the greatest impacts is to redo the Rash Field areas," Stosur said. "Right now, that is a place that a lot of people kind of walk by to get somewhere else. It's not a place that, maybe unless you're a volleyball player, that really is something that stops and grabs you."
The plan calls for transforming Rash Field into a grassy park with gardens, playgrounds and performance space. The city has asked the Board of Estimates to support $65,000 from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development for a study of the specific economic, technical and financial aspects of the field's redesign, which would include an underground parking garage.
Designers said they have deliberately created something that can be carried out in increments, with funding coming piecemeal.
"Money is always a consideration, but at the same time, I think you … have to set out a vision for what you want it to be," said Donald C. Fry, the GBC's president and CEO. "If you can set that vision and find the political will and also the support and excitement about these projects from the private sector and the public, there are ways to find [funding]."
On Oct. 3, Rawlings-Blake asked Gov. Martin O'Malley to include $3 million in each of the next three years for Inner Harbor improvements as part of the state's capital budget. A spokeswoman for the governor confirmed the request but said it is too early to comment on the budget, which is still in development.
Schwartz said the group has also submitted proposals to be included in the city's capital improvement plan and has started to look at grants and approach private entities about the projects.
"There are a whole host of different funding sources that we are identifying," she said. "I've seen a lot of interest."
During the planning process, the group met with private interests along the harbor, including Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., which bought Harborplace last year for nearly $100 million. A Waterfront Partnership survey of residents found that people wanted to see more locally owned restaurants.
The plan is focused on the public space, said Schwartz, adding that "affecting retail mix is a tough one."
"We are hopeful that the owners of Harborplace will be coming in with a redevelopment plan within the coming months," she said.
Rawlings-Blake also pointed to the role that the owners of private buildings along the waterfront, particularly Harborplace, have to play in revitalizing the area.
"Harborplace is a linchpin in making the transformation," she said.
Development of this plan, the product of more than 200 meetings, started in February. Backers said it would likely take decades for all aspects of the plan to come to fruition.
"What is going to be necessary is for there to be full enthusiasm and support from the citizenry, from the neighborhoods around the harbor, the political leaders and the business leaders … to say this is important," Gross said.
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