Thursday, June 6, 2019

Why Tearing Down HarborPlace Is a Good Idea

The Inner Harbor famously put Baltimore on the map back in the 1980s and was the poster child of what was then called the "Baltimore Renaissance". HarborPlace was envisioned as Baltimore's "living room", not as a tourist attraction. The two "Festival Marketplace" pavilions were the brainchild of the Rouse company and the entire conversion of a smelly, derelict and forgotten once working waterfront into an area to celebrate water was imitated the world over, from Sidney to Norfolk.
An aerial picture after urban renewal and before the re-build. 

Now, 40 years later, the Festival Marketplace, once a symbol of urban renewal in more than 40 cities in America is dead. Many of those later venues have already been torn down (South Street Seaport, New York) or reinvented (downtown Lexington, KY). Baltimore's two pavilions stand seemingly unchanged. But they have been ailing for years and the latest owner, Ashkanazy was as unable to turn the decline around as general Growth before, in spite of a large remodeling concept announced in 2015 and only partly completed in 2019. Now the owner defaulted on its loans and lost the property in a complicated process of receivership which nobody seems to fully understand. Baltimore's new Mayor, Jack Young boldly stated that he would like to see the aging Harborplace pavilions "torn down and redone."

Young's idea of tearing down those pavilions is a good one; the idea of rebuilding the area to resemble "National Harbor" not so much. Let's explain why.
The Festival Market Place, still attractive from the outside, empty
on the inside

Back when Baltimore's Inner Harbor was re-invented for enjoyment, the shoreline was pretty much a blank slate, in part, because urban renewal was quite demolition happy. The pavilions created a sense of place in the flatlands that were all around along Pratt and Light Street. But Baltimoreans had begun to like their largely wide open event space and almost defeated the idea of HarborPlac in a referendum.

Today, Wallace Robert Todd's Inner Harbor 1964 masterplan which guided much of the Inner Harbor development (except for the freeway bridges) is mostly realized. With the 404 Light Street tower the outer "frame" around the water is almost complete (except for the surface lot on Pratt, once was the News American building, it is still a parking lot). Pratt Street is well underway towards becoming the envisioned urban boulevard, even though it is choking on traffic on too many lanes. The role of the pavilions changed dramatically, not only from a retail persepctive but also in terms of urban design and place-making.

The two pavilions always blocked the the view of the water and presented their backs to two major streets, but today this unfriendly "attitude" towards the street and downtown is seen much more critical.  Ashanazi's plans tried to make this visual blockage and "back of house side" more attractive. But any such attempt runs into systemic problems: Access, service, trash and all the unattractive stuff has to be somewhere. (Unless you put it underground as on the World Trade center, where it famously drowned when the water rose as it tends to do more often now). From a retail perspective, the pavilions suffer from having morphed from "markets" (with an actual fish-monger and a showy ice cream and fudge maker) to inward looking little malls the ubiquitous national chain stores, not good in a time when malls die at a record pace.
ASG rendering of a connected McKeldin Plaza: The pavilions stayed in this
vision. (Ayers Saint Gross)

So tearing down at least one of the two pavilions is a great idea. It would solve the issue of an unattractive backside and would open up the view to the water and Baltimore's flagship, the Constellation. Ideally both pavilions would disappear, but then one has to consider that people still want to have shelter, shade, protected outdoor seating areas, want to eat, use the bathroom and buy tickets for the attractions. All that could be consolidated in the Pratt Street pavilion. Reduced to its bones and much more open it would reamain recognizable but serve a new function. This one pavilion would accommodate all that junk that sits around in little and not so little booths (think: the ugly Constellation building). As a result the Inner Harbor would gain breathing space, feel much more airy and create extend to the tall buildings across Pratt and Light Streets which form "the frame", connect to downtown and have plenty of space for whatever retail would still work down there.

Of course, while Mayor Young is thinking big, he should also close the traffic dogleg that separates the McKeldin Plaza from Harborplace and replace the demolished former McKeldin Fountain with something attractive. Maybe a memorable sculpture like at National Harbor? (Otherwise, National Harbor with all its predictable chains is a pale imitation of the Inner Harbor, copying it back here would be the peak of irony.
The Inner Harbor as playground for the neighborhoods today

The point of the exercise would be to return HarborPlace to something that Jim Rouse had envisioned all along: A commons for Baltimore, a place where residents feel like they own it. Once that is true, visitors will like it too. (Just like the Boston Commons). It was a mistake to privatize the Inner Harbor and leave it to tourists with Bubba Gump, Ripley's and a bunch of cheesy chain stores that anyone can see everywhere.

Instead, here is an opportunity to recapture the Harbor for the people of Baltimore and make it truly authentic with a true focus on the water as a theme (bring back fisher boats and fish-markets). Every city needs a commons, just as every home has a living room or kitchen which serves as the place where the family gathers, no matter how nice the bedrooms. The often used pseudo dichotomy between downtown and the neighborhoods is a false choice. All neighborhoods need a space to share and that has always been downtown. No reason to change that only because people now live downtown as well. (A good thing!).
The space itself was the attraction: Inner Harbor 1973

If the Inner Harbor would work as the playground and living room for all, there would also be much less of a desire for youth to go there to chase tourists. So yes, Mayor Young, remain bold and go for demolition. Take the land back as a public domain and end the reign of private developers controlling the city's commons.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

related articles on Community Architect:
The failed concept of Harborplace (April 2018)

Ashkanazi "removes the identity of these sheds" (Nov 2015)

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