When the twin pavilions with the green rooftops known as Harborplace were first built in 1980, they represented a renaissance of Baltimore’s once scruffy, industrial waterfront. The $18 million retail and restaurant complex turned Baltimore into a tourist destination, spurred years of further development downtown and became an iconic symbol of the city. Sadly, as other projects have sprouted up around it, lack of vision and investment has zapped the gleam from Harborplace, which is now literally dark, dank and outdated with a high number of vacancies. It was ahead of its time, but now time has passed it by.
Judge Gregory Sampson’s recent decision to appoint a receiver to take over management of Harborplace could pave the way for a sale to new owners — and perhaps provide the opportunity to reinvent the complex and make it more relevant to today’s retail environment.
We hope new owners will invest in the properties and make them the jewels they once were. There are plenty of examples of modern waterfront developments to turn to for ideas, such as the trendy new District Wharf in Washington, D.C. and The Waterfront Pittsburgh. Both centers feature eclectic local restaurants and other tenants in an open air concept rather than a stuffy indoor shopping area.
Many are weighing in on what a new Harborplace should look like. We have our own suggestions as well, some based on ideas from Ayers Saint Gross, the Baltimore design firm commissioned by the Waterfront Partnership and the Greater Baltimore Committee back in 2013 to study how to improve the entire Inner Harbor experience.
Make it an outdoor center: The days of the closed mall are long gone. While some upscale centers still manage to thrive under that old concept, others struggle. The smart centers, such as Hunt Valley Town Center, have converted to more inviting open air shopping where retailers have separate entrances that front the street. An economic feasibility study needs to be done to figure out whether the most cost effective way to do this at Harborplacle would be to tear it all down, as Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young suggested before backing off saying his comments were misconstrued. A partial tear-down and rebuild is also a possibility.
Any renovation should also create entrances on both sides of the street. Right now, there are no front entrances along Light Street, instead giving a view of dumpsters and loading docks. This closes off the pavilion from the city, making it look uninviting.
Make it a place for residents and tourists: Much has changed since 1980 when the downtown landscape was mostly office buildings. Apartment towers now surround the waterfront, and any new development needs to cater to the residents who occupy those buildings as well as the tourists. A resident isn’t going to frequent a Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum but will have a drink at lounge with live music or a restaurant with local flavor.
Bring more local businesses: The biggest criticism of the evolution of Harborplace is that it has become “anywhere America” with the same mix of national chain restaurants and retailers you can find in any shopping district in any city. Most people who visit a new place want to eat or shop somewhere they can’t go at home. Locals also like to go to their favorite neighborhood bar or eating spot. Just look at the success the city’s newest urban markets — Mt. Vernon Marketplace and R.House — have had. Both are jam packed with both local eateries and patrons. Harborplace’s first tenants were all local businesses, and it should return to those roots. We realize to make it economically feasible national chains will need to be part of the mix. Part of the reason that the local businesses didn’t survive were because the rents became too high. But as we have seen, if there are no tenants, developers don’t make money either.
Focus more on entertainment: People are investing more in experiences and less on stuff. That’s especially true of the younger generation that marketers and businesses covet. You won’t find many among Baltimore’s burgeoning millennial population hanging out in the Harborplace pavilions; they’re all playing sand volleyball on Rash Field. Give people something to do. Follow the path of indoor malls that are opening modern-day arcades and bowling alleys. Have pop-up spaces that feature a revolving array of activities — an escape room for one month, a paint and sip venue the next month.
Despite the problems with Harborplace, the Inner Harbor is still a popular and respected regional waterfront experience in travel circles. In many ways it has more to offer than when it first opened, from the Maryland Science Center to the National Aquarium. And several efforts have already offered more of an experience for visitors.
The Waterfront Partnership formed a Business Improvement District in 2007 to bolster the Inner Harbor experience. The group built and now manages Pierce’s Park near the water raised money to build the interactive Walter Sondheim fountain. They planted trees because people said they wanted more shade and brought back an ice rink after a decade. They hold events, such as outdoor fitness classes.
It’s easy for Harborplace to cast a shadow on those efforts. That doesn’t have to be the case with the right new owner. The pavilions celebrate 40 years in existence next year. What better time to make them a popular attraction again?
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