On America's birthday, a few lucky Inner Harbor visitors got to witness the birth of a new public space on Baltimore's shoreline.
What was most remarkable about the event was the spontaneous manner in which it unfolded, during the Fourth of July fireworks show Monday night.
But after the first widespread use of this prominent new perch, which is still technically under construction, it's not likely to be the city's best-kept secret much longer.
"We were the first ones to bum-rush this place," boasted Edward Escandon, a Fells Point resident who led the crowd that broke through a construction fence to get there. "What a sweet spot."
"The setting is magnificent," agreed Malcolm Christhilf, an art professor from Erie, Pa. "Even unfinished, it has a magic all its own."
The vantage point they discovered is a hitherto off-limits section of shoreline within the Inner Harbor East renewal area.
Bounded by Fleet Street on the north, Central Avenue on the east, and the harbor's edge to the south and west, the 20-acre parcel has been a checkerboard of parking lots and industrial plots that drew few visitors.
Baltimore businessman John Paterakis and the Gilbane Building Co. of Providence, R.I., in joint venture with the city, are transforming it into a $350 million community with housing, offices, a hotel, shops and restaurants.
Since 1992, construction crews have been building $18 million worth of roads, bulkheads and other infrastructure needed to prepare the land for the private development. The strategy has been to kick off the development effort by providing public access all along the shoreline.
"We want people to go there and be part of the waterfront experience," explained Russ Lindquist, senior development manager for Gilbane. "We want to turn it into a destination. That's how the full potential of the harbor will be realized."
Last Monday was the first fireworks display since many of the Inner Harbor East improvements have taken shape, and hundreds flocked to the area, lawn chairs and coolers in tow. A 200-slip marina also was in use for the first time.
But one of the most desirable spots remained off-limits. The southwest tip of the Paterakis-Gilbane property, where Pier 7 used to jut out, offers panoramic views back to the center city and out to Canton. It is surrounded by a chain-link fence intended to secure the construction site of the area's first building, a three-story "marina house" that will contain changing rooms and lockers for boaters, a store, and a 150-seat restaurant.
At the base of this building, due to open this year, is a semi-circular wooden deck that marks the point where the Inner Harbor meets the Outer Harbor.
Standing at this juncture is like being on the prow of a ship.
In the beginning, just a few people in the holiday crowd breached the chain-link fence around the construction site. Then others discovered a hole in the fence and crawled through it. Before long, nearly 50 gate-crashers, including a Shar-pei named Theo, were standing on the forbidden deck.
They were the first to experience this new corner of the city -- one never before accessible to the public, but soon to be open to all.
Mr. Lindquist said he's not surprised to hear about the deck's unscheduled initiation.
"It was intended to be an observation point, and people were observing," he said. "That's the whole idea . . . . It's going to be a popular place."
Developers of the Inner Harbor East parcel have received tentative approval to use a $1.485 million Urban Development Action Grant to help construct a $10 million apartment complex at Albemarle and Lancaster streets -- the developers' first residences.
Baltimore's Architectural Review Board was scheduled today to see preliminary plans by Design Collective of Baltimore.
If additional financing can be secured in time, construction of the nine-story, 100-unit building would start by early 1995 and be complete by early 1996.