Some three decades ago, city leaders began realizing Baltimore and its waterfront had untapped potential to draw tourists en masse, paving the way for some of the biggest Inner Harbor attractions.
Between 1976 and 1981, the harbor saw the construction of the Maryland Science Center, the Baltimore Convention Center, the National Aquarium, the Hyatt Regency Hotel and Harborplace, a new style of festival marketplace. The green-roofed twin pavilions on Pratt Street and Light Street, heavy on eating places and impulse buys sold by local merchants, became a catalyst for the downtown Baltimore's urban renaissance.
"It turned Baltimore's image around, from being a backward, unknown and considered-second-rate city in the shadow of Philadelphia and Washington to a city worthy of attention," said Martin L. Millspaugh, who served as the first chief executive of the Charles Center Inner Harbor Management Co., which oversaw ambitious Inner Harbor redevelopment beginning in the mid-1960s. "Tourism became a major player."
Yesterday, the owner of Harborplace & The Gallery, a vertical mall and office project built across Pratt Street from the pavilions in 1987, put the properties up for sale. Also put on the market were South Street Seaport in Manhattan and Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, the inspiration for Harborplace. The owner, Chicago-based General Growth Properties, is under pressure to raise cash to pay off debt in hopes of avoiding bankruptcy.
Harborplace opened in 1980, along a shoreline where rotting wharves, abandoned warehouses and rail yards had been transformed into a city park with a promenade. That day in June, hundreds of people pressed against the glass outside the Hats in the Belfrey shop, waiting to get in, and a line snaked out the door at Phillips seafood restaurant. That night, fireworks erupted, and cannons roared.
The retail center joined the science center, which opened in 1976, and the convention center, which opened in 1979, at the harbor. The pavilions added the then-missing retail, which not only helped draw large crowds but encouraged private investors to ring the harbor with offices, hotels, shops and attractions.
"Harborplace was the catalyst that made all the other attractions come together," Millspaugh said. "That's what started attracting tourists for the first time."
But when Harborplace was first proposed by its original developer and owner, The Rouse Co., which General Growth acquired in 2004, it stirred controversy. Many residents preferred the waterfront park to any commercial use, recalled Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. The issue was approved by voter referendum in 1976.
"The GBC was very involved ... saying there's a need to have multiple uses to attract people so this could be a tourism destination," Fry said. "Harborplace has served as an example for many years of effective waterfront development, and many other projects have been patterned upon it. It's certainly been a significant part of the fabric of Baltimore."