Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The failed concept of Harborplace

Baltimore Business Journal editor in chief Joanna Sullivan rang the alarm bells in an editorial headlined "Ashkenazy, hurry up! Baltimore never needed a renovated Harborplace more than it does today", citing the construction fences that ringed the pavilions during the Christmas season, Opening Day and will likely still be there for Light City. A project which the missed several deadlines for the promised sprucing up of the tired Festival Marketplace that the pavilions once represented.
The Festival Market Place in Baltimore at Harborplace: Failing for some time

This raises the question whether the problem isn't bigger than Askenazy's attempted renovation and whether a critical look at what has long been considered Baltimore's crown jewel isn't in order.  For an answer we have to take a look at the original Festival Marketplace concept and what happened to it in other cities.

The concept has seen its better days long ago, it failed in many cities from the onset and wasn't overly convincing in its Baltimore's waterfront implementation either, except maybe the for very first years. The original idea was good, though, and the words in which Boston architect Benjamin Thompson described his design still ring right today, reminiscent, really,of the food-halls currently popping up all over the country.
“The natural pageantry of crowds and goods, of meat, fish and crops from the fields, of things made and things grown, all to be tasted, smelled, seen and touched, are the prime source of sensations, experience and amusement in the daily lives of whole populations” (Benjamin Thomson in 1971 in the Boston Sunday Globe about Faneuil Hall)
Westpark at the Inner Harbor: Baltimore's "living room" (Photo: Philipsen)
The problem, though, was built in from the beginning in the shape of chain stores lined up along interior corridors like in a mall. This creates an almost insolvable orientation conflict and an emphasis on inward looking stores that made the backs of the pavilions facing Pratt and Light Street unattractive while the fronts were made attractive not by the stores but by terraces. 28 years after the Faneuil Hall model Architecture critic Alexandra Lange wrote this about the concept in a 2009 essay in the Design Observer:
Once upon a time in the 1970s, the festival marketplace was a treat. Its co-inventor, architect Benjamin Thompson, wrote: “The natural pageantry of crowds and goods, of meat, fish and crops from the fields, of things made and things grown, all to be tasted, smelled, seen and touched, are the prime source of sensations, experience and amusement in the daily lives of whole populations — were and still are, in most nations except our own.” Faneuil Hall, which opened in Boston in 1976, was his riposte to dying urban downtowns and everywhere-the-same malls. It was supposed to be more than commerce. It was an everyday fair.  Developer James Rouse and Benjamin Thompson & Associates attempted to replicate Faneuil Hall’s success on similarly obsolete waterfronts in New York (South Street Seaport) and Baltimore (Harborplace). Baltimore worked, New York didn’t. 
Shop Architects, South Street Seaport reconstruction concept 2014 (SHOP)
Like Baltimore's Harborplace pavilions, South Street Seaport went from the Rouse Company to General Growth Properties (GGP), a mall manager who soon ran into financial trouble and offloaded its Festival acquisitions. In New York that meant that an ambitious plan by SHOP architects to reboot the Seaport was on hold, prompting the famed New York based architecture critic Paul Goldberger  to place an op-ed in the New York Times in which heaped scathing criticism on New York's Festival Marketplace:
[with the original concept] Manhattanites would at last have something that linked their modern lives with the seafaring days of their city’s nativity.
That was the promise; in reality, we got a disappointing hodgepodge. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s the city acquiesced to the Rouse Corporation’s “festival marketplace” concept and filled the beautiful old buildings with chain stores. The South Street Seaport Museum moldered. Actual New Yorkers rarely came. Instead, tourists wandered aimlessly through the bland stores. 
Fish Market at the working  port of Portland, ME
But then the Howard Hughes company became the new owner of  New York's Seaport on Pier 17 and picked up SHOP's design concepts for a 21st-century rethink of Pier 17 which is now is nearing its completion. The $785 million Seaport District redevelopment will include seven buildings on several city blocks and mix hospitality, retail, entertainment, and cultural venues. Full completion is expected by 2020. The Architectural Record gives the new design a positive review in its current issue:
"SHoP’s design represents a more expansive and inclusive approach than that of its predecessor to the challenge of integrating into the historic area and urban fabric....Pier 17’s design is a sophisticated take on the industrial buildings that once filled the area. Given Pier 17’s outward-looking design, its upscale tenants, and its emphasis on being a good neighbor, it looks likely to be a draw for even jaded Manhattanites—if they can make their way through the throngs of tourists who are sure to show up.
Design concepts for pavilions as presented in 2015 (M2G2)
Alexandra Lange who wrote her critique based on the then unbuilt SHOp proposal was much less intrigued:
the proposal [is]  really just a festival marketplace rebranded and rebooted. There are odd angles and radical materials and allusions to ship’s rigging, but it is still an outdoor mall. [...] connections of SHoP’s architecture to known New York, the porthole lattice on the tower; the “floating structures” of the boutique hotel, whose wooden sides evoke a boat; the steel cables from which these buildings are to be hung, an echo of the Brooklyn Bridge suspenders [are] deeply hokey in a postmodern way, in which everything new must be justified by the old, despite the fact that the buildings couldn’t be more up-to-date. The new plan pretends to be a new neighborhood while really trying to create a fancier, more contemporary tourist trap. 
In Baltimore General Growth didn't even develop any kind of inspired new ideas before the current owner Ashkenazy bought the properties from GGP. A radical re-think about Harborplace and its role in Baltimore took never place, even though, just as in New York, the area is now surrounded by many residents not only in the flourishing neighborhoods of Federal Hill, Sharp Leadenhall and Otterbein but the burgeoning new "neighborhood" of downtown with its thousands of new apartments. As such,  Harborplace shouldn't be only a destination for tourists which are increasingly bored by the cookie-cutter Marketplace which has nearly identical incarnations even in smaller towns such as Norfolk, VA.

When Ashkenazy finally submitted their modest proposals, Baltimore's Design Review Panel UDARP was split in its opinions about the redesign of the Pavilions as presented by the Seattle based retail design firm MG2 in 2015.  David Rubin was "very positive about this" but the other panelists, Richard Burns, Gary Bowden and David Haresign were much less impressed. Even the generally rather accommodating Planning Director Tom Stosur bemoaned elements that are "to heavy", "keep the lightness", he admonished. The architects responded  that they needed "to strike a balance" between respecting the pavilion design and modern retailers expectations. In other words, the chain stores and the interior line-up reminiscent of a mall remained as the drivers, the concept hasn't become any more convincing. Quite the opposite, malls are failing all across the country.
Cramped: Bookfestival at the Harbor (photo: Philipsen)

What could a radically re-invented Inner Harbor look like? A good "living room" for all the new surrounding residents and for visitors alike. It would include places to eat, certainly; it should include ample space to see tall ships, board water taxis and the water cruises all, a genuine water-oriented activities that feels cramped and crowded today. It should include also plenty of room for the festivals and events such as the Christmas market, Light City or the Book Fair for crowds to gather, for bands to play and for people to watch each other. All those events feel cramped as well in today's configuration, especially since the City seems unable to deliver on the promise of a connected McKeldin Plaza. In a time where bakers and butchers have a come-back, those should be there as well as a real fish market, ideally with the working boats docking right next to the stalls as in Portland Maine. Maybe a beer garden. Essentially what is needed the most, after the buildings surrounding the harbor have become ever bigger and taller, is a space to decompress. Less commercial and more civic. A waterfront park, really.

More civic, less commercial (photo: Philipsen)
None of those critical Baltimore design reviewers are still on the refurbished UDARP panel.  Three years later the pavilions are still on the same path they were in 2015. A modest refurbishment that will look even more corporate.

What will be revealed will be a far cry from Thompson's "natural pageantry of crowds and goods, of meat, fish and crops from the fields, of things made and things grown, all to be tasted, smelled, seen and touched."

For better or worse, it will also be a far cry from the reboot SHOP Architects are trying to do on Pier 17 in New York.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related on Community Architect:

Ashkanazi "removes the identity of these sheds"

1 comment:

  1. I also liked the piece in Arch Record about the Pike Place Market expansion by Miller Hull. Its interesting to see Pike Place and NY Seaport, both of which the Inner Harbor was considered superior to just a few decades ago, move forward with nationally recognized renovations. Is it too much to ask for the city to take a strong stand and enforce something great at the Inner Harbor? I fear the city council and mayor are too distracted by other issues to think more creatively about one of our most successful spaces. Certainly, they would be criticized at spending significant time and effort on such a project.