With Harborplace in receivership, there is much wringing of hands and furrowing of brows as to what should be done for this jewel of the Inner Harbor. There is a solution for what. It’s a simple one. And a drastic one.
Instead of finding new owners, new management, new ideas, just tear it down.
That might seem like apostasy as these two buildings have always had an almost sacred place in the story of Baltimore’s downtown renaissance, deservedly so. But now they have down their job, and it’s time to move on.
Some history is in order. Though their presence and importance now seem like a no-brainers, Harborplace was actually a controversial proposal. The beginnings of the Inner Harbor re-development had removed various dilapidated structures and turned the area into a pleasant urban park. The Maryland Science Center was there and the USS Constellation, but mainly it was open space.
Many wanted it to stay that way — so many that they signed petitions and put the question of building Harborplace onto a ballot as a referendum. My knee-jerk stance was always pro-park, and I debated with friends which way to vote. I could see both sides, but eventually decided that downtowns were essentially for commerce and voted in favor.
There was another aspect of Baltimore you might not remember from pre-Harborplace days: After about 5:30 p.m., the downtown was deserted. Once the workday was over, tumbleweed could easily have blown down Light Street.
There are still times that I find myself caught in traffic at 10 p.m. on Pratt Street and shake my head in amazement at the transformation, remembering those deserted days, how they contrast with the bustling busy-ness of Baltimore’s central business district today.
There are many reasons this happened — from dollar houses to Fells Point bars — but there is no doubt that Harborplace was both a cornerstone and a catalyst. I loved it. I ate many meals there. I shopped there. I hung out there. It was great. I was glad I voted for it.
But now it is a victim of its own success. The people who come to downtown Baltimore have many options at any time of the day or night — from the National Aquarium and Power Plant Live area to the Visionary Arts Museum to a wide variety of restaurants and other entertainment.
Indeed, the central commercial area has made an unexpected move to the east as that part of the Inner Harbor is now the happening place, both as a destination and as a gateway to Little Italy, Fells Point and Canton, which have all benefited from the four decades of downtown revival.
Harborplace did exactly what it was supposed to do. It brought people downtown. We don’t need it to do that anymore. Add to this the fact that almost all retail is in crisis due to online shopping and you have what is essentially an outmoded business model.
What should happen? Let’s go back to the thinking behind that pre-Harborplace referendum. There was a good case made then for a beautiful urban park surrounding the Inner Harbor. You can make an even better case for it now. Baltimore’s downtown didn’t have any hustle and bustle before Harborplace; now it has plenty of it. What is needed is a place to escape that. And tearing down Harborplace would provide it.
That’s not to say that commerce should be banned. It would still be the place for harbor cruises to depart and for tourists to get oriented. The USS Constellation would still be there as would the Maryland Science Center. I could see some simple seasonal outdoor food service as is found in many parks, perhaps pop-up shops.
It would be good to look at Harborplace as we do our athletic heroes. When people like Brooks Robinson and Ray Lewis came to the end of their time in uniform and left the Orioles and Ravens, no one said they were failures. No, their great careers were celebrated, their accomplishments highlighted and appreciated.
So it should be with Harborplace. It had a great run, almost 40 years. And it did what it was supposed to do. Indeed it did that better than almost anyone who remembers that deserted downtown imagined it could. Its demolition should be a big thank-you party as we turn the page and start a new chapter for Baltimore.
Michael Hill was a reporter at The Evening Sun and The Sun from 1973 to 2008. He’s on Twitter @amhill.