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A new challenge at Harborplace

The Baltimore Sun

When Harborplace opened 26 years ago, Mayor William Donald Schaefer refused to accept the shower of accolades. Praise made him nervous. He feared complacency. He wanted to know what else was in the pipeline.

Pretty soon, he said, every city in America would have something shiny and new - newer and shinier than Baltimore's jewel.

He might have permitted himself just a moment of satisfaction, but of course he was right. In a quarter-century, something that seemed revolutionary then - the reinvention of harbors as tourist magnets - would be eclipsed. It was inevitable.

Today, there is concern that Harborplace could be slipping a little in its ability to draw visitors. Some nearby malls are doing better. Efforts to increase the traffic by adding kiosks outside the pavilions have not been welcomed with great enthusiasm.

I thought about Mr. Schaefer's warnings recently during a visit to Chicago's Millennium Park, a splendid display of parkland hedged about by a spectacular skyline of crisp geometrical shapes - corporate headquarters, for the most part - made sharper that day by the clearest of blue skies.

Within easy walking distance, the new park has an amphitheater for various performances and "Cloud Gate," which has been nicknamed "the Bean" - a rounded and oblong sculpture that shows pleasantly distorted images of passers-by.

Continuing and amplifying the idea that people must be the centerpiece of such places are two unusual, rectangular fountains, free-standing walls about 40 yards apart. They feature large color pictures of people's faces. Water cascades from the top of these panels constantly, and at intervals, the faces spout heavy streams of water, to the delight of children who change into swimsuits on the sidelines and rush giddily into the spray. Parents stand by with towels.

The place is full of life. You can buy a T-shirt or a souvenir, but the main attractions are the fountains and the Bean.

There's a restaurant or two inside the park and many others on nearby streets. The magnificent Art Institute of Chicago is nearby. Further along is the new Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears football team. People think of it as a space saucer because it looks like the new place was dropped gently into the old one.

Mayor Richard M. Daley's penchant for floral decoration of Chicago streets gives the city lots of color and freshness. You have a feeling that Chicago is managed by someone with a clear idea of what people enjoy.

Harborplace comes to mind in Chicago also because important figures in the development of Millennium Park are members of the Pritzker family, owners of the Hyatt hotel chain. The Hyatt came to Baltimore after Mr. Schaefer gave one of the Pritzker patriarchs a heavy dose of his salesmanship and charm. The company's green-eyeshade men reportedly had said no to Baltimore until Mr. Schaefer worked his magic. Oh, and there was a $10 million federal urban development action grant that may have made the numbers guys happy.

Today, Baltimore faces the same issues that Mr. Schaefer worried about 26 years ago. Other cities are more competitive. Mere waterside location is not nearly so new. So the stewards of development in Baltimore are advocating that something new must be added every year or so.

When he was mayor, Mr. Schaefer roamed the city looking for graffiti to erase, derelict cars to move and garbagemen who weren't doing their jobs. He was a one-man accountability force.

On occasion, he would issue commands not just to city department heads but also to managers of private businesses. He didn't like to see cigarette butts in the grates around tree wells downtown. He might inspect the bathrooms at public places such as Harborplace. If he didn't like what he saw, someone was on the carpet.

He was attending to the little things because he knew people noticed when they weren't taken care of.

Soon after the waterside buildings opened, thoughtful observers of cities said Baltimore had managed to reinvent Main Street. The new pavilions had become the face of the city. If there were a few teeth missing in the smile, you had a problem.

By now, 26 years after it was inaugurated, people are saying the face itself may need a lift.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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