Inner Harbor reborn [Editorial]

Despite all the changes that have come to Baltimore since the Harborplace pavilions opened more than 30 years ago, the Inner Harbor remains the city's crown jewel. Neither the opening of the best baseball stadium in America nor the rise of Harbor East has dethroned it as Baltimore's identifying feature, the one that is bound to be shown on TV every time a blimp is hovering over a Ravens game.

Nonetheless, there remains no doubt that it can be improved. Some parts, after these decades, have become careworn. Others have never lived up to their potential. The connection between the Inner Harbor and the city that surrounds it is in some respects fractured. It is less our civic gathering place than a playground for tourists.

But the "Inner Harbor 2.0" plan the city unveiled last week goes a long way toward addressing those shortcomings and missed opportunities. Based on a proposal advanced by the Greater Baltimore Committee two years ago and designed by Ayers Saint Gross architects, the plan would maximize the space in a way that could make it feel as fresh as it was when it was first developed.

The most ingenious idea in the plan is a proposed pedestrian bridge between the corner of Rash Field near the Rusty Scupper restaurant and Pier 5 across the harbor. From a functional point of view, it ties the harbor together in a way it never has been. Aesthetically, it has the potential to be a marvel. The view from the center — either toward the Harborplace pavilions and city's skyline or toward the Domino Sugars sign, Harbor East, the port and the Key Bridge — would be stunning. You can bet it would instantly vault to the top of the list for Baltimore marriage proposal sites. The chief challenge for the structure — designing it in such a way as to allow sailboats and tallships to continue moving in and out of the harbor — would become one of its most arresting features. The plan's designers envision a drawbridge, but not the traditional kind that opens up and down. Instead, they propose one that opens outward like a gate. Seeing it in action would be a tourist attraction in its own right.

The redesign of Rash Field falls into the category of correcting a missed opportunity. The area along the harbor's south edge, which has been home over the years to a hodgepodge of attractions including sand volleyball courts and a trapeze school, has tended to represent more of a barrier than an invitation. Not only would the plan provide it with a more permanent identity — including a park, playground, sculpture garden, outdoor cafes, kayak launch and floating swimming pool — but it would also provide better transitions between the Inner Harbor and the American Visionary Art Museum, Federal Hill Park and the adjoining neighborhoods. Construction of an underground parking garage would lift the park area to a roughly even grade with Key Highway. It would become South Baltimore's front lawn.

Similarly, the idea of realigning the traffic patterns at the intersection of Light and Pratt streets to connect McKeldin Plaza with Harborplace would eliminate an awkward barrier for pedestrians. The current configuration is unquestionably better for cars, and it feels like it. The city is conducting a transportation study to gauge the impact of the realignment. It's safe to assume right now that it would reduce traffic flow, particularly for northbound cars. But within reason, we should be willing to accept some inconvenience for commuter traffic in exchange for a more inviting Inner Harbor.

The big question, of course, is where the money is going to come from. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has asked for some minimal funding in the state's capital budget, but even if she gets it, the money won't come close to funding a plan like this. And the city itself is in no position to make major capital investments in the Inner Harbor. Its resources need to be focused on rebuilding schools and clearing blight from distressed neighborhoods.

The answer is going to have to come largely from private sector funding. Foundations may be interested in helping, particularly with some of the environmental initiatives in the plan. But what's going to make this possible is for the business interests who benefit from the Inner Harbor to step up. Downtown property owners have been complaining bitterly in recent years about city-subsidized competition from glittering new Harbor East, and their concerns are only going to grow if and when the Harbor Point project is fully developed and creates a new focal point on the water. This is their opportunity to seize the initiative. They need to work with the city to develop a mechanism to finance this plan, for their good and the good of Baltimore.

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