Sunday, September 18, 2016

First Impressions of HarborPoint

The Dutch have to wrestle new land from the sea. Baltimoreans get it from old industrial sites. The latest example: Harbor Point which older residents may remember as the site of the Baltimore plant of Allied Signal, a big chromium plant that was shuttered in the late eighties and had no public site for at least a hundred years.

Without much fanfare Baltimore just added a few new streets to its map. It took 27 years of planning to figure out how life should unfold on the peninsula after the chromium plant came down. No less than three planned unit development (PUD) plans were conceived  and adopted, the first when even neighboring Harbor East was mostly still a plan on paper, the latest allowing 3 million square feet of development.

the new plaza in front of the Exelon building is now nearly complete
Now for the first time in a century, anybody who wants to can walk, bike, or even drive onto the peninsula. So far one can visit a restaurant, shop, park or simply take in an entirely new view of Baltimore's Inner Harbor and downtown. The first residents are already moving into the luxury apartments that were added to the Exelon Tower in a late revision of plans. The employees of the energy giant that bought Constellation which had bought BGE will relocate here during the next few weeks.

"You will see a real rapid increase in traffic', says Charlie Bind of Beatty Development, estimating that there would be about 1000 people on site by Christmas. Many of them, though are coming from the nearby Constellation building on Pratt Street and don't add new demand on area roadways. Bind also stated that the promenade around the perimeter of the site will open to the public at the end of October, the first benches and trees are already in place.
The Allied Signal Chrome works ca 1980 (photo: Mark Layton)
HarborPoint's buildings are erected on top of a clay and membrane cap that contains the hexavalent chromium contaminated soil beneath it. Only piles to support the buildings were allowed to penetrate the cap and were carefully sealed again. Everything else including utilities runs under a gigantic concrete podium that is currently only partly completed.  Streets, plazas and building entrances are all above that concrete podium which lifts the public spaces in the development area quite a bit above the level of the surrounding areas. The promenade will be directly on the cap and landscaped berms will mask the height difference between the waterfront walk and the podium. Eeventually there will be about 1000 parking spaces under the podium and an additional 2,000 parking spaces in garages that will be wrapped by development.
Aerial of Allied Signal with downtown in the background

Due to these grade differences Harborpoint will not  integrate into the city fabric as easily as Harbor East, even though Dock and Wills Streets are extensions of the Street grid and Central Avenue will be extended to the site with a bridge soon be constructed,

Access and circulation are difficult on a peninsula anyway, especially when the surrounding road network is already hopelessly overburdened. Much of the success of Harborpoint will depend on a robust menu of options that avoid car usage by employees, residents and shoppers on the site. The expanded water taxi is supposed to offer a stop at the south-shore on a reconstructed pier that is not yet in place. The Circulator offers pretty good access but its budget woes make cuts likely. Beatty Development has an agreement with Horseshoe Casino to offer their huge garage for daytime usage by commuters coming in from the B-W Parkway and plans to run a bus shuttle from there to Exelon.

During a recent presentation of the HarborPoint project to the transit advocacy group Transit Choices members of the group made several suggestions for reducing car traffic, including a transportation management plan, incentives for transit tickets and a robust live where you work program. It was also suggested that Beatty development could support the Circulator and fund a public route diversion to Horseshoe instead of installing yet another private shuttle.
Uphill on Dock Street  (photo: Philipsen)

The architects of Elkus Manfredi paid careful attention to the design of the public spaces. That became already apparent in the design review meetings with  UDARP and panel members made many additional good suggestions. From the  Initial impressions of the first phase it is hard to judge, whether reality will eventually match the nicely rendered plans.

Harbor East didn't have any of the current urbanity and bustling street life when only the Sylvan Learning Center had been completed or even when the Marriott had been added. It took many years before the backside of the hotel and its parking garage where hidden by the developments that followed and sufficient retail brought people in that walked the streets.

Currently Exelons structured garage is pretty dominant, even though cars are far better concealer than on any other garage in Baltimore. in 2013 UDARP had also engaged in lengthy discussions about how the three masses of the Exelon complex meet the ground, how the added apartments would be differentiated and how weel the cars would be screened behind the wire mesh. There were zinc clad frames that were to articulate structure and even mullion details were discussed. Now looking at the completed Exelon tower, its tinted glass is pretty menacing monolithic. The Legg Mason building and its Four Seasons twin across City Dock look by comparison more attractive and the overall mass more elegantly sculpted, provided that one can accept a full glass facade. For those who like brick, the perch from Harborpoint reveals that Harbor East is full of brick buildings and many of them are quite mediocre.
Shopping on HarborPoint (photo: Philipsen)

 Harborpoint won't have as much retail as Harbor East and an anchor like Whole Foods that was so instrumental on getting Harbor East going is not in sight for HarborPoint. The hope may be that these two areas will eventually work in tandem.

The HarborPoint peninsula will heavily depend on its 6 acre signature park for branding identity and as an attraction. The park is not yet in the works. The spectacular views from the promenade, however will soon be free for anybody walking along the water's edge. Thanks to its important position between downtown and popular Fells Point, HarbporPoint's  will close a strategic gap in the promenade which will ensure a steady stream of folks coming by and possibly also coming through this newest bit of Baltimore.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA.
HarborPoint and Harbor East (both Beatty Development) have been used as an argument for and against tax increment financing (TIF) in the recent discussion about Port Covington.


below a photo gallery:

The Inner Harbor seen from Federal Hill in 1903

The Allied Site after it was cleared and capped with the Morgan Stanley
Building just off the cap (Photo: Honeywell)

Current condition as seen from Harbor East (Beatty Development)
Earlier rendering of build-out (Beatty Development)

The bridge abutment (the concrete wall) for the future Central Ave bridge show how high the streets
on the cap and podium are  (photo: Philipsen)

the future arrival point of Central Avenue on the peninsula  (photo: Philipsen)

Dock Street, a new address for luxury apartments  (photo: Philipsen)

The southwest corner of the site will be a 6 acre park but is still used as a surface parking lot
 (photo: Philipsen)

Mullions and zinc clad bands are very subtle modulations of a large bulk of dark materials  (photo: Philipsen)

The above ground parking garage for Exelon dominates Dock and Will Street to date  (photo: Philipsen)

Beginnings of the promenade: benches, planters and small trees

The Legg Mason and Four Seasons Towers, less dark, well sculpted  (photo: Philipsen)

Wills Street apartments on HarborPoint under construction

A view across the new plaza in front of the Exelon Building looking west with the Harbor Court tower to the west
 (photo: Philipsen)
Uneasy neighbor: The Living Classroom, different time, different scale, different grade
 (photo: Philipsen)

the view from HarborpPoints reveals a lot of rather predictable brick, sandstone architecture in Harbor East
 (photo: Philipsen) 

Under the plaza: The parking and infrastructure podium  (photo: Philipsen)

A promising sign: Bicycles outside the Morgan Stanley office building