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James Rouse Jr.: A contrary view for Baltimore’s Harborplace | COMMENTARY

A crowd arrives for the opening of Harborplace in July 1980.
A crowd arrives for the opening of Harborplace in July 1980. (File photo)

In the ongoing discussion about what should be done with Harborplace, the prevailing view seems to be that one or both of its pavilions should be torn down. I would like to offer a contrary point of view. I believe that with the right ownership, Harborplace could become again the magnet it was for tourists and residents alike, a glowing attraction for Baltimore’s renaissance.

The problem with Harborplace has been created by the last two owners, whose only vision appeared to be the dollar sign, and who had no sense of Baltimore as a community.

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What kind of developer chases out its key anchor tenant, Phillips, and forces them to move down the street while bringing in Ripley’s Believe It or Not? This kind of lack of vision is why Harborplace is now in receivership.

My father’s original vision for Harborplace — modeled after his experiences growing up in Easton, Maryland, and his love for the old North Avenue market — was to have a market, where individual vendors sold a variety of foodstuffs, as well as having small individually owned retailers. Harborplace initially had purveyors of individual shops selling meat, seafood, produce, flowers, cheese, gourmet foods and so on. The problem was, residents didn’t want to come downtown for their groceries, and tourists didn’t need groceries. So gradually these purveyors were replaced with food-to-go sellers.

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But now the resident base exists downtown to make his original vision both possible and needed. Look at the success of the Farmers’ Market and Bazaar held under the Jones Falls Expressway on Sundays. But why should farm fresh goods be available to downtown residents only on Sunday? A regular marketplace with local vendors could be the center of activity and community here, as it is elsewhere around the world.

The retail element should be directed toward products made in Maryland, not national retail vendors which are in every mall in the country. Opportunities should especially be provided for entrepreneurs from East and West Baltimore to open businesses in this new city center.

In its first year, Harborplace attracted 21 million visitors. It was imitated around the world. Harborplace could be that type of attraction again, given the right — preferably local — developer. Do we really want to tear this opportunity down for a park?

The amphitheater, which Tony Hawkins, who originally managed Harborplace for the Rouse Company, made into an attraction for residents and visitors alike, could be reinvigorated into that kind of incubator of local talent and the magnet it once was.

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Yes, the pavilions block your view of the harbor from Pratt and Light streets. But there are plenty of harbor views on both ends of Harborplace, from Rash Field, Federal Hill and the incredible promenade that can take you from the Museum of Industry to Canton.

This city needs the vitality of a marketplace at its core, not a park. Feet on the street is the answer to downtown’s crime problems. We need a revitalized attraction to bring people back downtown.

Before Harborplace became a reality, city residents narrowly voted, in a referendum, to allow for its development, rejecting a park in its place. The businesses in Little Italy led the opposition to Harborplace at the time, saying its six proposed restaurants would destroy their businesses. A year after Harborplace opened, however, overall business in Little Italy had doubled. A revitalized Harborplace once again could help downtown Baltimore thrive. Do we really want to go back and make the mistake we avoided in 1978 and now make Harborplace a park?

My father always believed if you set out to meet the needs of the community, in the end you will make a profit, not the other way around. The last two developers at Harborplace put profit first and foremost, and now you see the sorry result. The city needs to be doing everything it can to attract the right kind of developer to Harborplace and help them make a deal to get Harborplace out of bankruptcy and back to being a magnet for Baltimore.

James W. Rouse Jr. (jimmy123rouse@gmail.com) is the son of the developer of Harborplace and the owner and proprietor of Louie’s Bookstore Cafe from 1981 to 1998.

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