Best 'theme' for the Inner Harbor: the water

Jim Rouse's "festival market place" concept for the Inner Harbor, with retail pavilions and entertainment venues, brought with it the retail industry's pattern of re-branding and call for entertaining with ever new "attractions." This put the harbor into competition not only with malls but also with amusement parks and beach venues — essentially defining it as a place of entertainment and amusement.

Maybe it is time to challenge this paradigm. Should really great locations have to reinvent themselves constantly? Shouldn't truly great urban places strive for more permanence?


The initial concept of the Baltimore Inner Harbor encouraged economic investment around the harbor complemented by the original attractions of the Science Center and the National Aquarium in the center. They were followed by two conversions of the power plant and the Columbus Center, and finally significant expansions of the original attractions. A sleek visitors' center rounded out the mix.

What followed has not always been so well planned: restaurant barges, kiosks and ticket buildings, at times detracting from attractions such as the newly restored Constellation. Now the Baltimore Development Corporation has issued requests for "new attractions." The proposals have been in since April, and the BDC got what it asked for: Ferris wheels, zip lines, trackless trolleys and the like.


Those ideas stand in stark contrast to the photo of the active port the BDC used in its request for proposals, and in contrast with the original concept of seeing the harbor as an attraction for residents and employees of business as well.

The photo might suggest another option — admittedly, one of many — as to what could be the theme and defining pattern for the Inner Harbor. The very early stages of the "renaissance," when the rotten warehouses along Light and Pratt streets had given way to open water and visiting tall ships, were all about opening up the waterfront, removing filth and decay to serve the people of Baltimore. It was also about jobs and about urban renewal. The 15 million annual tourists eventually visiting the Inner Harbor were not even in the dreams of the early visionaries.

But tourists came, indeed, and in overwhelming numbers. Now, the BDC only mentions visitors — not residents — in its request for proposals.

The proposals submitted by the Greater Baltimore Committee and Ayers Saint Gross architects are of a higher quality and should be commended for elevating the current Inner Harbor discussion. The proposed pedestrian bridge linking Rash Field and Harbor East would certainly be a functional attraction, allowing connectivity and water views without stepping on a boat. The bridge would open up to let taller ships pass through, and that could be an attraction in itself. However, it also has the potential to further reduce the scale of the already small body of water that we call Inner Harbor.

Some of the proposals for Rash Field would maintain the idea of a useful but passive open space on the busy edges along the water — certainly a space that should be encouraged to be used by residents and visitors alike. But maybe it is time to remember the early approach of the harbor renewal: its careful planning, its commerce, its economic development and the celebration of water and ships.

The Port of Baltimore is a source of pride for this city, region and state, and a huge economic engine that makes us different from Nashville or Pittsburgh. The port is serious business, with huge ships, portal cranes, tug boats, jobs and maritime activity. It is the No. 1 East Cost port for roll-on, roll-off "bulk" goods and ranks second or third for automobile shipping. True, it is not a place to send the tourists, and most residents have probably not been among the portal cranes either. Because the working port is removed from the public eye, it makes such a good theme for the Inner Harbor.

Why not "theme" the Inner Harbor with its most obvious possible concept: as Baltimore's global and historic gateway, portal to the cities to which we used to maintain passenger shipping lines (such as Bremen and Liverpool) or the other big port cities such as Shanghai, Rotterdam, Singapore, Hamburg? Why not celebrate trade and immigration? (After all, Baltimore was the second-largest port of entry after Ellis Island — remember Barry Levinson's "Avalon"?) Why not celebrate the exchange and openness that always has characterized seafaring nations and cities?

The World Trade Center could live up to its name and house exhibits and information about shipping, trade and other distant ports in addition to its observation floor and generic offices. The "shipping" theme could be expanded to include America's first railroad, the B&O, originating in Baltimore, tying port and rail venues together.


Worse than partly obscuring the Constellation with its own ticket and vending building, we have also crowded and obscured the water itself with all the piers, marinas, paddle boat corrals, floating restaurant barges and entertainment and amusement clutter — so pervasive that it takes away the feel of being on the water and replaces it with a carnival atmosphere.

Look in front of the power plant building, reincarnated twice with generic urban chain restaurants such as the Hard Rock Cafe. Yes, there is a nice body of water between the Aquarium and the power plant building, but one can barely see it from Pratt Street because a broad, heavy pedestrian bridge cuts across so low. Wouldn't it be great if the stern or bow of a big ship would loom right here at Pratt Street? Or at least a tug boat? Something that says port, harbor, ships and marine economy and that would balance that gigantic neon guitar? And yes, right behind the power plant, there is also water — and another opportunity for a bigger ship.

Think of Portland, Maine, and its harbor with fishing boats, a fish market and authentic fish restaurants as defining elements of its waterfront. Wouldn't a fish market between the power plant and the Columbus Center be a useful attraction for residents and visitors alike? It would also moderate a bit the Pier V hotel, which does not look like an urban waterfront facility, not to mention the tired Pier Six concert pavilion surrounded by a sea of parking and the overwhelming six-story garage right on the waterfront. What does all this say about the character of the harbor, our port, or our city?

Our proud history in trade, shipping, immigration, railroading and now cruises is fragmented all over the city, and not yet told in a comprehensive way. We could open a new chapter for Baltimore's crown jewel: away from urban amusement parks, away from the short-lived fashion focus of malls and retail, and toward the information city of the 21st century, a city that once again can become an economic engine, a place of innovation, a Mecca of business and exchange, a hub and a great place for all its citizens to live and work.

What better model for this vision than our own history as a shipping port and railroad city, as the entry point for tens of thousands of immigrants and as the shipping point for millions of tons of goods to and from the entire eastern half of the nation? What better place to do this than the Inner Harbor? And what better topic to "theme" the Inner Harbor than its own authentic story?

Gilbert Thomas, AIA, and Klaus Philipsen, FAIA, are co-chairmen of the Urban Design Committee AIA Baltimore.