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The Future of Baltimore's Harborplace

Commentaryby M.J. "Jay" Brodie12:05 pmFeb 15, 20240

It’s time for a pause and reflection, says former BDC head M.J. “Jay” Brodie

Harborplace deserves better than apartment towers that look more like downtown Houston than waterfront Baltimore, says Brodie, a key figure in its creation 44 years ago. [OP-ED]

Above: Baltimore’s Harborplace under construction, 1979.

Before you are opportunity and challenges that will determine the future of our city.

The opportunity is to renew the center of the Inner Harbor, once an internationally acclaimed model of urban planning and architectural design.

As one example, my late friend and colleague Neville Quarry, charged with the revitalization of Sydney Australia’s Darling Harbor, brought his associates here for a week of in-depth study of Baltimore’s accomplishment at Harborplace.

The Rouse Company’s twin pavilions, conceived by Jim Rouse, Matt DeVito and Bruce Alexander under the excellent management of Tony Hawkins, were the centerpiece of the Inner Harbor.

Sadly, subsequent owners and managers failed to understand the Baltimore market, and vacancies and deterioration followed.

Now with MCB Real Estate’s acquisition of Harborplace out of receivership, a new chapter can be written.

The challenges are real: Climate change and flooding, the changing retail market, competition from Harbor East and Harbor Point, Covid and its impact on commercial real estate, plus the emergence of a substantial downtown residential population.

But is it really time to say “goodbye” to Harborplace’s pavilions? To my knowledge, there has not been a public report of possibilities of rehabilitation, alteration and/or additions.

Assuming instead a cleared site, what then?

The MCB proposal is not simply to replace Harborplace. It is to repeal a significant portion of the Inner Harbor Urban Renewal Plan, authored by the nationally respected planning firm Wallace McHarg Roberts & Todd after reviewing several alternative concepts.

Shouldn’t we expect a similar professional and creative effort as the basis for today’s architectural design?

My answer is “ absolutely yes.”

I believe that the lack of such foundational professional work explains, in large part, the two negative reviews by the city’s Urban Design and Architectural Advisory Panel (UDAAP).

We are fortunate to have MCB, under the local leadership of P. David Bramble, making major development investments in our city.

I have visited their other projects and respect the attention to scale and detail and how well they fit in to the neighborhoods.

But MCB’s Inner Harbor designs show no such sensitivity to Baltimore’s scale or other unique qualities.

Rather, the designs suggest the high-rise aspects of Houston, Dallas or Atlanta arbitrarily injected into our most sensitive Inner Harbor setting.

Make no mistake: this is a-once-in-a-lifetime project. It should be evaluated not on how fast it can be done, but how well.

Taking more time, particularly in a coming period of declining interest rates, should not be a hindrance. If the cost of additional planning and urban design studies is a factor, the Greater Baltimore Committee should be asked to assist, as they have done in the past.

It’s time for a pause and reflection.

Our collective determination must center on making sure that we pass our city onto future generations “stronger, better and more beautiful,” as the ancient Athenians vowed in their oath of citizenship.

• M.J. “Jay” Brodie is former president of the Baltimore Development Corporation and former commissioner of the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development.

Others Opposed

In addition to Jay Brodie, a number of other prominent Baltimoreans are calling on the Scott administration to leave the height restrictions in place and undertake a more deliberative approach to reimagining Harborplace.

The following list was provided to The Brew by the Inner Harbor Coalition, a grassroots group opposed to the current rush to approve the MCB proposal:

• Former Councilmembers George W. Della Jr., Jody Landers, Rochelle “Rikki” Spector and Carl Stokes.

• Former Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano.

• Architects and planners David Benn, Steve Ziger, Leon Bridges, Adam Gross and Janet Marie Smith.

• Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of American Visionary Art Museum.

• Economists Anirban Basu and Stephen J.K. Walters.

• Democratic mayoral candidates Thiru Vignarajah and Bob Wallace.

• Jimmy and Ted Rouse, sons of Jim Rouse, founder of Harborplace and Columbia, MD.

• Anthony T. “Tony” Hawkins, first general manager of Harborplace.

• Former Harborplace vendors Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, Teporah Bilezikian, Wayne Brocci and Georgia Martin.

• Developers David Tufaro, Bill Struever and Martin P. “Marty” Azola.

• Community attorney John C. Murphy.

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