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Baltimore should look to Birmingham for Inner Harbor inspiration | COMMENTARY

Recently, the quest for a safe alternative to indoor exercise found me walking along downtown Baltimore’s Inner Harbor waterfront. It was a pretty morning, with the sun sparkling on what should be a picturesque scene.

The harbor’s promenade failed to deliver the backdrop I was hoping for. Trash lapping at the water’s edge created a constant distraction. Empty, boarded-up retail stores served as a reminder of the current pandemic and protests over police brutality, as well as the failed nature of retail center once hailed as the city’s marquee tourist attraction. While a smattering of mostly young joggers provided the scene with a glimmer of hope, it wasn’t enough to make downtown Baltimore feel like the vibrant urban center it could be. I struggled to envision how the Inner Harbor could be re-imagined as a proud and lasting centerpiece of Baltimore.

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A few weeks later, I discovered — in a small southern city — an inspiring example of how one previously dilapidated and seemingly all-but-forgotten downtown center has been completely reclaimed as a thriving source of pride for its residents and of awe for visitors like me.

When I booked an Airbnb in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, I noted the location of the condominium: “overlooking popular Railroad Park.” That’s good, I thought. I like parks. What I didn’t realize is that this isn’t just any park.

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Unwinding at the condo’s outdoor pool after the numbing 12-hour drive there, I happened to look out across a brick wall to the other side of the street at Railroad Park. What I saw looked like a modern-day version of a Norman Rockwell painting: kids on bikes, teenagers on skateboards, men and women of all ages and colors jogging, dog walkers galore. The park was abuzz with all forms of humanity. I couldn’t wait to explore it the following morning with an early jog, my favorite way to see a new city up close.

The next day, as the sun started to peek above the horizon, I climbed a brief set of brick steps to an entrance in the park, which stretches more than two miles. My toughest decision that moment was which path to choose: crushed gravel, paved, windy or straight. I chose some of each, all lined with lush plants and blooming flowers. Several paths bordered small streams, ponds and other water features intentionally designed for sustainable filtration. Along the way I passed skateboard “bowls,” climbing walls, playgrounds. I marveled at the trash-free gem of a park and its gorgeous, well-maintained landscaping.

I learned that the acclaimed park, which opened in 2010, resulted from over a decade of planning and a combination of private and public funding. Contributions to the $25 million project came from the city of Birmingham (about $8 million), Jefferson County ($2.5 million), a federal grant ($2 million), funds raised by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham (about $8.7 million), and donations accrued by the Railroad Park Foundation, a nonprofit that operates and continues to raise money for the park.

Collectively, this private-public partnership transformed a vacant, weed-infested lot into what’s now hailed as Birmingham’s outdoor “living room,” complete with private security and off-site, 24-hour-a-day surveillance. When there isn’t a pandemic to consider, the park hosts a variety of events including large public concerts, group exercise classes, and family-friendly celebrations. What’s clear is that, while visitors are more than welcome, the park was built foremost with the residents of Birmingham in mind.

This may seem like a minor point. But when it comes to urban renewal, putting residents’ interests over tourists’ ever-evolving whims is a key decision — one that Baltimore seems to consistently disregard. Consider Baltimore’s $20 million Inner Harbor waterfront shopping plaza, which opened in 1980. At the time, it was highly anticipated and even copied in other U.S. cities, cited as “blazing a path to post-industrial resurgence, one paved in tourist dollars,” Ethan McLeod wrote in a January Bloomberg CityLab article. Now look at it.

For its next iteration to meet with long-term success, perhaps the city should think not of how to rake in quick tourist dollars, but of how to provide long-term satisfaction for residents. If Baltimore’s Inner Harbor isn’t somewhere locals want to congregate, the city can’t expect to lure tourists there, either.

Elizabeth Heubeck (eheubeck@gmail.com) is a Towson-based writer.

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