Waterfront project put city on the map


From the time the sun rose in the ridiculously blue sky to the time it set, allowing party lights to sparkle and dance in the gently lapping dark water, the scene on July 2, 1980, in Baltimore's Inner Harbor was nothing if not cinematic.

The Baltimore Symphony sliced into the summer evening with the rousing opening chords of "The 1812 Overture" just as fireworks erupted and thousands of people, who'd assembled at the water's edge to celebrate something new, turned their heads to the night sky.

Surreal. That's how even the most cynical recall that day, the opening of Harborplace. Who made off with their humble Baltimore and left this showpiece behind?

Here were two green-roofed pavilions, filled with shops and eateries. Here were crowds, hordes actually, moving among them with money to spend. And here, strangest of all, was the embryo of a sentiment that maybe -- just maybe -- there was something to this Baltimore renaissance.

When "The End" finally rolled on that celluloid-ready scene, Wayne Brokke was spent. It was 2 a.m. and the proud proprietor of a brand new Harborplace restaurant was only now packing up.

He emptied the day's earnings from the register into a paper grocery bag because he had misplaced the combination to the new safe and turned out the lights. On deserted downtown streets, he walked home, hugging a bag with $8,000 in cash.

At his Otterbein doorstep, he noticed that someone had propped a record album -- the soundtrack to The Muppet Movie -- with instructions to listen to the first song. In a post-adrenaline haze, he plunked it onto his turntable, sat down on his steps, and listened as Kermit, of all vocalists, sang a sweetly sappy song about rainbows, dreamers and searching for something better.

He cried. Out of joy, exhaustion, relief and pride.

"It was a dream for all of us who were there," Brokke says now. Like a movie.

'Welcome to Baltimore'

If ever there was magic, any Hollywood-worthy moments at those twin pavilions, one would be hard-pressed to find them now, so many years since that summer opening day.

Harborplace turns 25 tomorrow. Today, dignitaries will mark the occasion with a parade and platitudes. Cheers to 25 years as the city's surest tourist magnet. Cheers to the one of the nation's top-grossing outlets for the Cheesecake Factory and Hooters. Cheers to success.

Harborplace, now, is iconic, not breath-taking. It's an Inner Harbor tour stop. The pavilions wrap Pratt and Light streets like a reassuring hug and light up like beacons, telling visitors, "You're here, welcome to Baltimore."

The reason people will celebrate Harboplace this weekend is not so much for what it is -- though the attraction is in the midst of an overhaul that might shock those who haven't been there in a few years. It's for what it means.

Almost since its inception, Harborplace has been a symbol of Baltimore's potential. Before it, as Bruce Alexander, a retired executive of Rouse, the company that developed Harborplace, likes to say, "You should have seen what was not there."

And afterward, "Boom," says Martin Millspaugh, who helped guide the early Inner Harbor development. "The place exploded."

In quick order came the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the waterfront's first hotel -- the Hyatt. Later, the Power Plant, many more hotels, the American Visionary Art Museum ...

And today, the crush of tourist, corporate and residential development ringing the waterline feeds $60 million a year in taxes to the city.

Harborplace, most figure, kicked all of that into gear.

Yet while the blocks within shouting distance of the water thrived, Harborplace's magic touch never reached the vast majority of Baltimore's ailing neighborhoods. Its rush of tourists rarely ventured past its heavily trafficked promenades. "None of it solves a lot of the city's base problems. It doesn't fix schools, or solve crime or clean up the alleys," Millspaugh says. "But it does very well for this corner."

A dying city

If ever a city needed a happy ending and a shot of confidence, it was Baltimore in the 1950s. And the story of how Harborplace came to be, particularly when retold by the men and women who were there and watched it unfold, sounds like something that should start with a "once upon a time."

Like, once upon a time, a city was dying.

Residents fleeing to the suburbs. Offices emptying. Stores going under. A waterfront ignored.

Taking the part of knights on white horses were Baltimore businessmen desperate to turn things around.

Their scheme was not only brazen but dead risky: Convince the government to give them millions of dollars to build new things in a town people were turning their backs on.

Though hardly a soul had touched the city's rotting harbor in years, the corporate pioneers and planners they hired knew Baltimore's water could be its salvation.

"Right there at the threshold to downtown," Millspaugh says. "We felt that was where the city started, that was the soul of the city. But you couldn't see it."

By the mid-1970s they'd turned the Inner Harbor into a laid-back urban park, with grassy fields, the towering World Trade Center office building, and attractions like the Maryland Science Center, paddleboat rides, and a picturesque former warship, the Constellation.

In 1976, the same year a "festival marketplace" in Boston called Fanueil Hall was turning heads, tall ships from around the world docked at the harbor to mark the bicentennial. People traveled from other states to see them.

Inner Harbor planners sat up and took notice. For years they'd labored to create a playground for Baltimoreans. Maybe that wasn't the goal.

"That's when we realized," remembers Millspaugh, "that maybe -- maybe -- we could attract a tourist or two."

Taking a risk

It's hard to say how many lightbulbs went off in how many Baltimore heads when James W. Rouse's festival marketplace phenomenon hit in Boston.

Robert C. Embry Jr.'s for one. The city's housing commissioner traveled to Boston to see whether the historic marketplace concept could work in Baltimore.

"We decided [the harbor] needed something you couldn't find in the suburbs," said Embry, now president of the Abell Foundation. "Something you had to come here to get."

He ran into Rouse, a Maryland native, at a "Twelfth Night" party and asked about getting one of those Faneuil Halls.

"He said, 'Where?'" recalls Embry. "I told him the Power Plant and he said, 'No, it's got to be at Pratt and Light.'

And so began the short but tumultuous prelude to Harborplace's opening day.

"It was a really risky thing at the time, we were never really sure if anyone would come," said Mathias J. DeVito, president and CEO of the Rouse Co. from 1973 to 1984.

Few people, he said, were able to look at Boston, then at Baltimore, and see the connection. They'd say, "Baltimore is just a downtown that happens to be on water," DeVito remembers. "It was very difficult to get financing, it was very difficult to get people to believe, it was very difficult to get tenants."

Which is to say nothing of how hard it would be to win over Baltimore voters.

Passionate opponents collected thousands of signatures to force the $18 million Harborplace plan to referendum. Supporters put a competing question onto the ballot.

State Sen. George Della, then a city councilman working hard for the opposition, still recalls an angry phone call one night from then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, one of the development's most outspoken advocates. "Get off my Rouse! Get off my Rouse!" Schaefer yelled into the phone.

Some opponents spent the past 25 years proudly avoiding those two pavilions. Della, grudgingly, admits the development has had its moments, has done the harbor good.

Others, however, shower Harborplace with infinitely more credit.

It paved the way for millions more in Inner Harbor investment. It gave a has-been town a positive national face. It restored civic pride to a city that had grown too used to loss.

"It would be hard to underestimate Harborplace in the revitalization of downtown Baltimore," says Michael D. Beyard, a senior resident at Washington's Urban Land Institute. "This was the turning point."

Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, the group that formed decades ago to save the city, says Harborplace has become Baltimore's calling card, the image the city wants to impart to strangers.

When the networks broadcast a Baltimore sporting event, chances are they'll cut to a harbor scene before a commercial.

In 1981, just a year after the grand opening, Time magazine ran a cover story on Rouse's resuscitation of Baltimore. The boldly displayed headline? "CITIES ARE FUN!"

How do you value publicity like that? "That initial impression," Fry says, "makes investors, tourists or people thinking about relocating to think of Baltimore as an attractive location."

Harborplace made Baltimore a destination and it freshened its image. But its feel-good effect hardly cured the city's ills.

Baltimore was losing population before Harborplace and continued to after it, Embry says. Crime, drugs, failing schools, abandoned neighborhoods -- all plagues that magazine stories and fudge-buying tourists couldn't fix.

But, optimists say, Harborplace gave the city courage to hope.

To Gary Oster, a Baltimore-area native and Renaissance Harborplace Hotel general manager until 1996, the pavilions seemed to be whispering their hometown a message: "We can do it."

Looking to future

Kent Digby, Harborplace's general manager, is walking fast through the Pratt Street pavilion, navigating dust-coated floors and stepping carefully over boards and tarps.

Since his company, General Growth Properties, took over Rouse's portfolio two years ago, Digby has plotted to pump new life into the aging attraction.

Rouse, too, believed in turning over Harborplace's merchants like a rotisserie so visitors constantly met new sights. The rejects, Baltimoreans lament, showcased hometown charm.

But charm doesn't make money. National chains such as the Cheesecake Factory, California Pizza Kitchen and Hooters do.

While tourists didn't seem to mind, harder-to-please locals stayed away. Digby aims to lure them back with sushi, tapas and better views.

He's amplifying the discreet signage, re-tooling the valet parking and peeling orange and blue lettering from the windows so light can shine in.

Digby guesses Rouse would appreciate his baby's evolution.

DeVito, trying to be diplomatic, says Rouse's vision wasn't quite so mall-like.

One of many stars

No one goes to Harborplace anymore, Embry says. The destination is the Inner Harbor. They'll stop at Harborplace while they're there.

Over the past 25 years, the center of gravity has shifted on Harborplace. It's no longer the sun around which all revolves, it's merely a star, one of many orbiting the harbor.

"That's the paradox of success," Beyard says. "It's been so successful, now it's not the only thing there. It's lost its central place of importance."

Wayne Brokke strolled the pavilions this weekend. He closed his restaurant after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, no longer able to afford the pricey rent.

"I don't think a single thing in the last 25 years has had more impact than those two pavilions," he says. "And it still really is the jewel in the crown. It's just that the stone has gotten smaller."

To see a Harborplace photo gallery, go to baltimoresun.com/harborplace.

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