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The Future of Baltimore's Harborplace

Business & Developmentby Peder Schaefer8:55 pmNov 30, 20230

Technical difficulties delay Harborplace vote, but don’t stop at-times bitter testimony

Baltimore’s Planing Commission takes up the David Bramble’s plan for a massive apartment and retail complex at the city’s waterfront, with several complaining the project is moving too fast

Above: Speaking at today’s hearing on Baltimore’s Harborplace, Charles Kuning displays a map from the 1980s. (Peder Schaefer)

Baltimore’s Planning Commission was poised today to act on an issue that has generated furious civic debate – three bills to change the zoning and street design at the city’s Harborplace waterfront to accommodate a developer’s sweeping makeover plan.

Amid technical difficulties with the meeting livestream, however, they opted not to vote on the measures.

The vote was delayed at the request of bill sponsor Eric Costello, who said constituents were texting him with complaints about not being able to watch the meeting remotely.

But the snafu didn’t stop the panel from hearing testimony, including passionate denunciation from some of a plan that cedes unprecedented control of the beloved-but-bedraggled  public area to developer P. David Bramble’s MCB Real Estate.

“In my view, it’s a disastrous proposal, both because of how the proposal is being crammed down the throats of residents of the Inner Harbor and its total lack of respect for this sacred public space,” said David F. Tufaro, a developer and longtime Baltimore resident.

Tufaro questioned the process behind the plan, testifying that a development of such magnitude should start from the bottom up, rather than top-down.

“I think the process is seriously compromised,” he said. “For a 100-year plan, you don’t condense it to a few meetings and a few people.”

Behind the “bold vision” of Harborplace, a shift from people’s park to private development (11/4/23)

Bramble defended his project, which includes two tall residential towers, arguing that only a plan that blends housing with commercial and retail uses has a chance to succeed economically and revive Baltimore’s struggling business core.

“Just as great waterfront cities around the world are reinventing themselves, it’s time for Baltimore to do the same,” Bramble said. “The rest of the city will suffer massively if we don’t figure out a way to revitalize our downtown.”

On hand to echo Bramble’s message was another local developer, Christopher Mfume.

“We are at an inflection point with the future of our city,” Mfume said. “I am here to talk about the need for bold, new ideas and keeping an open mind.”

Wiping Away a Legacy

The commission will be making a recommendation to the City Council on bills that would allow the residential development and eliminate height, mass and use restrictions on land Bramble’s company is leasing from the city.

The legislation would pave the way for a development proposing changes to the tourist waterfront on a massive scale, quadrupling the square footage of Harborplace’s commercial space along Pratt Street and allowing two tall apartment towerss between Light Street and the waterfront.

The measures include an amendment to the city’s urban renewal plan governing the Inner Harbor, and an amendment to the City Charter that would require voter approval on a ballot next year.

Some who came to testify chose not to, when they learned another hearing may be scheduled on December 21. Others, like city resident Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, stuck around to make their voices heard.

Like Tufaro, Shapiro said officials needed to slow down the process, or risk destroying the decades of planning that had gone into the existing space.

“What is being proposed here today would wipe away that legacy,” she said.

Some community members even showed up with props.

Charles Kuning came with a planning map from the 1980s that gave context to the surrounding downtown area.

He spoke about his memories of the Harborplace area and said retail was needed to be a more central part of the plan, as it was in the development’s early days.

“There’s a way of bringing modern retail into the Harborplace model, but regenerating the excitement that was there before,” Kuning said, saying a better mix of small businesses would draw visitors.

“We want people from the suburbs to get to know the city, so they stop paying attention to a toxic media narrative.”

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