Baltimore developer P. David Bramble and his MCB Real Estate firm have struck a deal to acquire Harborplace, the struggling onetime centerpiece of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor redevelopment in the 1980s, out of receivership.
The deal, if approved by the Baltimore Circuit Court judge overseeing the receivership, would pave the way for what Bramble described as an extensive redevelopment effort to “completely re-imagine” the faded retail attraction and revitalize the city’s downtown waterfront.
Precisely what that transformation will look like hasn’t been determined yet, Bramble told The Baltimore Sun in an interview, and will be shaped through a “massive” and “comprehensive” community engagement and design process to assess what Bramble called “the front porch of Baltimore.”
“We want it to be local, we want it to be authentic, we want it to represent the best of Baltimore and we really want it to be a reflection of the whole city,” said Bramble, who along with partner Peter Pinkard, is managing partner of MCB.
Bramble described years of out-of-town ownership and an influx of national chains eroding Harborplace’s local character as leading causes of the once innovative development’s decline.
Bramble declined to describe financial terms of the deal, which would allow his company to take over property that has been controlled by a receiver, New Jersey-based IVL Group LLC, for nearly three years. A sales agreement between the receiver and Bramble’s firm, MCB Real Estate, is expected to be filed with the court in the coming days.
“This is a great outcome for Baltimore and its residents,” said Ian Lagowitz, the court-appointed receiver and principal at Trigild IVL Group. “We are excited that this sale will move forward with MCB.”
A Baltimore Circuit Court judge appointed IVL Group as receiver in May 2019, taking the twin pavilions out of the hands of former owner Ashkenazy Acquisitions Corp., a New York real estate firm that bought the property in 2012 for $98.5 million and later defaulted on the loan.
The iconic complex had foundered under Ashkenazy’s ownership, falling into disrepair and seeing an ongoing exodus of tenants that was exacerbated by the pandemic. Harborplace entered court-ordered receivership at the request of Deutsche Bank Trust Co. Americas after Ashkenazy failed to keep up on loan payments or pay a lawsuit judgment obtained by former Harborplace tenant Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. over conditions in the retail center.
Deutsche Bank Trust, the trustee for the mortgage holder, sought the receivership after Ashkenazy defaulted on its $76 million loan, saying in its court petition it was needed “help to ameliorate Harborplace’s unfortunate decline over the past several years.” Several longtime tenants, including Urban Outfitters, Five Guys, Noodles & Co., La Tasca, Edo Sushi, Lenny’s, Fire & Ice and The Fudgery, had moved out during long-delayed renovations to the pavilions.
Earlier this year, H&M, a clothing retailer that had anchored the complex for more than a decade, closed, leaving just a handful of tenants. Since the start of the pandemic, Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not Odditorium, Build-A-Bear workshop and Johnny Rockets diner also have closed.
“We basically haven’t had a landlord for several years,” said Daniel Beck, president and CEO of Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls, which opened its Harborplace location just as renovations promised by Ashkenazy were stalling. “This is a positive step for sure, but we don’t know a whole lot about it.”
He said the operator of the Harborplace Mason’s franchise decided to hang on during the pandemic slowdown, hoping a new owner would come in and invest. The receiver offered some rent modification relief. Now, though things are looking up, with warmer weather, the start of baseball, new convention bookings and the lifting of pandemic restrictions, Beck said.
“When we see nice weather, especially on a weekend, we’re doing some business there,” he said. “You can see the potential.”
Dennis Ofori, who has run Crystal Cove women’s accessories shop at Harborplace for two decades and also runs the Crystal Visions sunglasses kiosk, welcomed news of a local owner. His shops have been surviving, he said, thanks to larger anchors such as The Cheesecake Factory and It’Sugar.
“Now that someone local is coming in, I think that’s really good news for us,” he said.
Bramble said it’s too early to say whether redevelopment plans would include major changes — or outright demolition — to either of Harborplace’s pavilions or whether remaining tenants might be displaced by future work. That, Bramble said, hinges on community input and planning that won’t start until after the court approves the acquisition.
“There’s a long way before any of those questions can be answered in a concrete way,” Bramble said.
Harborplace, which was 48% leased as of the end of February, reported total operating revenue of $494,626 in the first two months of the year and a loss of $195,393, according to the most recent receiver’s report filed with the court.
The state now values the two pavilions at about $23.5 million for tax purposes.
“Today, we start a new chapter for Harborplace,” Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott said. “Dave has my full support and the support of my entire administration as we breathe new life into this Baltimore landmark. I’ve had the city solicitor working with him since the beginning of the receivership process and I remain committed to seeing this to fruition.”
Asked whether the city will provide financial assistance with development, Scott’s spokesman James Bentley said “the mayor is committed to restoring the Harborplace as a landmark for residents and visitors alike and will consider any requests for assistance.”
State Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers included more than $60 million for infrastructure projects around the Inner Harbor and other investments — including the expansion of the Rash Field Park and improvements to the public promenade — in the state budget in anticipation of a major Harborplace redevelopment effort.
“I’m excited about this developer because he [Bramble] grew up in Baltimore, lives in the city, is a graduate of City College,” McIntosh said. “His entire life is invested in this city and that’s exactly who we need transforming the Inner Harbor.”
“In the 1970s, another son of West Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer, had a vision for what this part of Baltimore could be with some investment and hard work,” said Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. “I could not be more pleased that David has taken on this challenge to fulfill the promise of Harborplace for generations of Baltimoreans to come.”
Bramble, a Baltimore native and Madison Park resident, has built a growing portfolio in recent years that includes a number of developments in Baltimore and nationally. His company is behind the Yard 56 project in Greektown, which tapped the first federal opportunity zone investment to the city, and acquired a portion of Clipper Mill and the Rotunda development. At Northwood Plaza Shopping Center near Morgan State University, which MCB is redeveloping as Northwood Commons, German grocer Lidl has signed on to open its first Baltimore store this year.
Harborplace drew national attention when it first opened to acclaim and a rush of visitors in 1980. The retail complex, built by The Rouse Co., served as a major attraction in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and helped inspire a wave of similar waterfront redevelopment projects in cities across the country.
But Harborplace has been in a long-term slide for more than a decade, reeling from rising vacancies, deteriorating buildings and what some saw as mismanagement by a series of owners. Phillips Seafood, one of the original tenants, left in 2011.
Bramble pinned Harborplace’s struggles on a combination of a failure to adapt to changing times, neglect from past owners and a loss of the local ties.
“When it opened, it was a massive success: It was cool, it was local, it was authentic,” Bramble said, “and over time, when it got into the hands of people who weren’t connected to Baltimore, it ended up with things that you could get … in any airport in the country or any shopping mall.”
Bramble envisions re-imagining the “built environment” of Harborplace — which he called “a disaster” — in a way that capitalizes on the appeal of the waterfront near a key downtown intersection. He sees a successful project as a boost to downtown’s traditional commercial district, which has struggled as businesses have moved out, some relocating to newer Harbor East and Harbor Point developments east of the Inner Harbor.
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“People want that connection to the water,” he said. “Our job is to fix the built environment, to come up with a re-imagining of the built environment that reconnects it all and gets us all really excited about the Central Business District again in Baltimore.”
Several leading voices in Baltimore’s business community welcomed the news Tuesday.
Bramble, who grew up and lives in Baltimore and already has invested in many parts of the city, is the right person to be taking on the challenge and opportunity of Harborplace redevelopment, said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore.
“It’s the right time for a local developer, and David is so of Baltimore,” she said. “I’m so gleeful to hear that David really sees it as a larger picture of re-imagining the Inner Harbor, ... hopefully creating an economic renaissance of the Inner Harbor in a spirit that recognizes the importance of Harborplace to Baltimore.”
Greater Baltimore Committee CEO Donald C. Fry said his group has called for “locally based developers or investors who understand Baltimore’s heritage, diversity and current needs” to redevelop Harborplace since the market landed in receivership.
“It is great news that what was once Baltimore’s international calling card will emerge from a prolonged receivership and have the potential to once again be an anchor downtown and the center of activity for the city’s residents and visitors,” Fry said in a statement.
Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.