You could tell exactly where you were even with your eyes closed. Twin sensations placed the location beyond debate. The first was the undulating of the car as it bounced and sometimes slipped along the slick metal railroad tracks that dominated Light Street. (The lack of seatbelts made the effect all the more interesting.) The other sensation was the unmistakable aroma of spice processing. When the McCormick plant was in full swing, cinnamon, nutmeg or some other fragrance of a far-off land would fill the air like a soothing, heaven-sent elixir for the senses.
This was the Inner Harbor before it was ever imagined as a tourist destination.
The McCormick headquarters building was also known for its seventh-floor teahouse and replica of a 16th century English village, but its aromatic presence was by far its chief source of fame. Although spice processing continued for a time at Light Street after the company had moved its executive offices to Hunt Valley, McCormick soon sold the plant and joined the list of manufacturers now departed from downtown. The 1920s building was razed in 1989 to make way for new development, but after more than 20 years the site remains a surface parking lot and is presently the subject of an auction scheduled for January. This is a part of the vision for the Inner Harbor that has never come to fruition.
When the concept of turning the city's waterfront into a recreational and economic-development asset was first conceived, an important aspect of the plan was the spillover effect that it was hoped would result for the center of downtown. A significant amount of that has, of course, come to pass. Pratt and Light streets can be downright resort-like on a warm evening, with throngs of people filling the hotels, condominiums and restaurants in a spectacle that one could have hardly even imagined a generation ago. There are twin sports palaces, a convention center, a renowned aquarium, a science center and other venues for spending the recreational dollar. And the discovery of the waterfront as a desirable venue made possible the entirely new area of town known as Harbor East.
But the parking lot that occupies the former McCormick site is a reminder that a significant portion of the Inner Harbor's potential remains unfulfilled. It is evidence that, in the absence of vision and effort, the engine of Inner Harbor revitalization sometimes finds it hard to even cross the street, let alone uplift an entire downtown. It is an affliction shared by another surface lot, on the site of the former News American building on Pratt Street. Both sit directly opposite the Harborplace pavilions, and yet, after many years, neither has found an owner with the capital and initiative to move forward with a project befitting their strategic location. There have been some ambitious plans for each, but they have proven to be all plans and no action.
Walk a couple of blocks north of the harbor on Light Street, and you will find the site of the former Southern Hotel, where another surface parking lot occupies a space where owners had grand plans for development. Turn right on Baltimore Street, and you pass a string of vacant storefronts. New hotels on Redwood Street, rather than being able to offer their guests a lively streetscape, are surrounded by vacant buildings along Calvert, Lombard and Water streets just a block from the harbor. A large restaurant space at the corner of Pratt and Light sits vacant, dark and uninviting.
Attempts to spruce up this area included replacing the paving with dingy grey blocks, which, along with the removal of trees, plantings and benches, convey an atmosphere of outright dreariness. This area has recently been witness to a late-night shooting, and more of the same can be expected as long as the streets portray an image of neglect rather than vibrancy. The nature of the activities in any given area is often the product of the environment that that the area offers.
There are several projects downtown that have been hindered by the current economic crisis. But much of the moribund area just north of the Inner Harbor has been in this state since the harbor was first revitalized. Something more than an economic cycle leaves this area resistant to the impact of the harbor's rebirth.
It is time that we make a decision as a community as to whether a healthy and vibrant downtown is worth significant investment and effort. When I was a college intern at City Hall in the early 1970s, there was a palpable faith in the fundamental concept that the viability of the downtown area was the linchpin to the health of the entire city and region. The commitment of the business and political communities to this belief was the foundation for the Charles Center redevelopment in the 1960s, and the catalyst for the ultimate renewal of the Inner Harbor.
Cities are desirable because they are the traditional centers of employment, investment opportunities, commercial and retail business, social activities and culture. They also serve as the crossroads of the region and a unifying symbol by which a community identifies its uniqueness. In that sense, allowing the downtown core to stagnate is surrendering the heart of who we are.
The McCormick site engenders memories of a bygone era. But it should be regarded as a call to action to complete unfinished business. Past results are evidence of what our city is capable of when it comes together with a focused vision and faith in its own potential.
Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.