Judging from the reported rush of developers to produce new apartments and the surge of office and hotel construction, Baltimore is seeing what looks like a new renaissance — fueled by two generations of urban dwellers who have come on the scene since the renaissance of 1960-80, when the city was re-invented by the "crown jewel" of the Inner Harbor.
The new movement appears to be a reversal of the historic flight to the suburbs — accompanied by a rise in the city's multi-billion dollar tourist business, which seems to have reached a peak at the Bicentennial Celebration of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Coincidentally, the public sector is seeing a new alignment of the players leading the city's economic development program — in the mayor's office, the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) and the Commission on Historic and Architectural Preservation. As the new head of BDC, former City Councilman William H. Cole, has summed it all up, saying "it feels like Baltimore is sitting on the launching pad."
The most unexpected news has been the successful conversion of major office and industrial buildings into apartments. Many young professionals and older, empty-nesters are reported to be choosing to buy or rent a place downtown, where they can live, work and play in the neighborhood and leave their cars at home — or get rid of them entirely.
The office-building conversions are accompanied by plans for new apartment towers — in the Inner Harbor, Charles Center, Harbor Point and the West Side. The Downtown Partnership reports that 1,000 apartments are under construction or redevelopment, with a pipeline of 4,000 more units on the way.
It is now an accepted planning doctrine that new apartment and office projects need to be enhanced by retail and eating establishments; so many new sites under development are listed as mixed-use projects enriching Station North, Canton Crossing, Brewers Hill and Locust Point, while similar clusters are emerging in Fells Point, South Baltimore, Clipper Mill, Remington and other neighborhoods.
The office market is given a boost by three private executive decisions — calling for T. Rowe Price to sign a new 10-year lease, Pandora Americas to move its North America headquarters to Pratt Street, and MAIF's headquarters moving to Locust Point. Meanwhile, new players such as Under Armour and Caves Valley are seeing the city as an opportunity for development.
Tourism received a welcome boost this summer when the international tourism group, FODOR Travel, ranked Baltimore among the 15 best waterfront cities in the world, a list that includes only two other U.S. cities: San Francisco and New Orleans. This coincided with the opening of the city's Horseshoe Casino, a stone's throw from the busy sports stadiums and a short walk from the Inner Harbor.
Crowds continue to flock to the Waterfront Promenade, where the city has increased the overall attraction by installing wireless Internet service (WiFi). The Bicentennial of the Star-Spangled Banner was celebrated with a week-long series of spectacular events bringing an attendance of more than 1 million people — a replay of the visit of the tall ships that kicked off the birth of the tourism industry in 1976.
Two updates of the Inner Harbor Master Plan, in 2003 and 2013, have stimulated city and state funding for deferred maintenance and new or upgraded attractions. The National Aquarium is preparing a "Living Seashore" exhibit on Pier 3; a photogenic water wheel is removing trash flowing in from the Jones Falls, and an electric boat is being added to the Charm City Circulator ferry between Pier 6 and Federal Hill.
Not surprisingly, the local hotel industry appears to be reaching a peak, beating both the regional and national occupancy rates, with half a dozen premium-priced new boutique hotels opening or under construction in 2014.
Icing on the cake is provided by a panoply of sports adding new attendance numbers, with the Orioles winning big, the Preakness drawing record crowds, and Baltimore hosting the Army-Navy Game and the tournaments of national collegiate lacrosse and the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Finally, in the background there are other big ideas, such as the Greater Baltimore Committee's proposal for a colossal new Baltimore Arena, the 50-acre Westport New Town on the Middle Branch; and the build-out of Harbor Point. How and when they will be realized remains to be seen, but the signs are optimistic.
Martin L. Millspaugh is an international planning consultant who headed the non-profit corporation that managed the Charles Center and Inner Harbor development for the city. His email is email@example.com.
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