Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Spooky at HarborPlace

In 2011 I wrote an article titled "Perpetual Halloween at the Inner Harbor". Back then I was referring to the "carnivalization" of the Inner Harbor with its sometimes already gaudy attractions. Some concepts in a recent idea competition tried to top this with rides and a Ferris Wheel. Of course, there is already "Believe it or Not", the Ripley pavilion with the decorations  of a spooky carnival ride.
Perpetual Halloween at HarborPlace?

Eight years later, HarborPlace has become truly spooky. The halls of the pavilions are eerily empty, boarded stores, just ghosts of the past haunting the halls. The uncertainties of the retail world at large have gripped the retail microcosm of the Inner Harbor.

From "Festival MarketPlace to chain stores, to gaudy attractions, HarborPlace went through a steady spiral of stupefication and decline. And this isn't just an elitist intellectual take of a Birkenstock sandal wearing muesli-eater that looks down on what the masses want. The masses have spoken, and they don't want HarborPlace any longer.

Reproduced the world over, the mini-mall on the water's edge has now run its course, it is deflated, tired and obsolete. It's state mirrors its big sisters, the failing big malls and festival market-places across the nation. Most of them are sad shadows of their glorious past, withered by online shopping, cool new urban places and a younger generation in search of authenticity and tired of generic consumption.
Jim Rouse on the cover of TIME

With the luster off a clearer view emerges of what was wrong with the famed Inner Harbor redevelopment all along: It makes obvious that the successful conversion of the once working waterfront was only a thin veneer of glitz surrounded by roadways on steroids separating it from downtown and the nearby neighborhoods. Neither the historic communities of Little Italy and Federal Hill nor the retrofitted rehab community of Otterbein engage with the Harbor, neither functionally nor visually. In the case of Federal Hill this is mostly due to geography and the steep park side blocking direct connections. But with Otterbein and Little Italy the separation is merely manmade: 7 or more lanes of highway and the ungainly broadsides of Scarlett Place and Harbor Court.

Massive buildings of the kind that the original 1964 Wallace McHarg masterplan tried to avoid, block neighborhoods off. They slipped through during a time when developers began to safely ignore carefully crafted planning documents, namely the Harbor Masterplan of Wallace Roberts, Todd. Contrary to urban lore, plans to make the harbor an attractive recreational waterfront date back to at least 1951, much further back than the era of Mayor Schaefer and developer Jim Rouse which get most of the credit today.
1951 rendering by Edward S. Black (Beggar or Chooser?)
To me, the most significant area of downtown Baltimore for potential development from the standpoint of civic design and fine architectural setting, is the inner harbor area I have been inspired by the possibilities of this area from the very time I arrived in Baltimore to become the Director of Planning eight years ago.11 …the entire Inner Harbor can be surrounded by beautiful buildings with a fine, direct relationship to the water itself. Properly planned, waterfront-orientated hotels, office buildings, restaurants, and clubs can produce a much higher taxable base and much better use of the land than is now the case. If we can add cultural and recreational facilities, possibly some of them using the water, we can make Baltimore a city which its citizens can point to with pride as truly one of the most exciting cities in the world. Baltimore Planning Director Arthur D. McVoy (1956

A maybe more egregious flaw is that HarborPlace's programming became increasingly tourist oriented. "Cities are fun", the Time Magazine had proclaimed on a title page showing HarborPlace developer Jim Rouse. But the inventor of the "festival marketplace" didn't have a cheap waterfront carnival of the kind we see in Coney Island or Ocean City in mind. The focus on visitors alineted the locals who began staying away.
Vacancy in the once lively pavilions. The ghosts of failing retail
(Photo: Khadija Smith)

The current calamity of the failing pavilions languishing in receivership cannot be solved without some drastic reversals. Plans to rethink the Inner Harbor are plentiful. One careful has to separate the good ideas from the bad ones. Cooper Robertson's plan of 2003 took up the issue of the wide highways that replace the once planned overhead freeways between I-95 and I-83. It was that plan which suggested to close the traffic "dogleg" between Light and Calvert Streets which Ayers Saint Gross repeated in "Harbor 2.0".

Both firms ran into the buzzaw of traffic engineering concerns. Now with a Mayor who is a man of neighborhoods, an ardent proponent of "complete streets" as the chair of the transportation committee in the City Council, and a new Director of DOT trying to clean up the failed department, it is time to finally connect the Inner Harbor to its city by giving the barrier roadways a series of "road-diets" until they become connectors instead of dividers. A good time to test a closure of the "dogleg" roadway would be "Light City".
An architectural sin added later, now fenced off (Photo: Khadija Smith)

Central Baltimore is the city's fastest growing neighborhood, but it is woefully short of open space: The Inner Harbor must become again the area's premier park, for which it was beloved in the early stages of its transformation. This would benefit the residents of Little Italy, Harbor East, Federal Hill, Otterbein and the new neighborhood that used to be downtown.

The latest Rash Field redevelopment plan is a good start after it thankfully dropped the idea of an underground garage (also a Cooper Robertson idea). The failed pavilions need to go and make room for carefully designed open space which connects the island that used to be the McKeldin Plaza with its walkable fountain designed by Mr. Todd. As has been proved from New York to Seattle, well designed central parkland can add so much value, that the loss of those two mostly vacant pavilions should cause no heartburn at all.
When HarborPlace was a blank slate in 1957
Most importantly, perhaps, HarborPlace needs to return to water based themes that reflect its history, boats, boat tours, ferries and maybe a fish market. Also the fantastic 5 mile Baltimore waterfront promenade needs to get its spot as a top attraction. It also has fallen into state of being forgotten, just like HarborPlace.
With just a few fixes, it could easily be Baltimore's largest attraction, not just for visitors but for every community within walking distance of this wonderful amenity from Locust Point all the way to Brewers Hill.
Wrestling Harborplace out of private hands and back into the public domaine where it belongs shouldn't be overly expensive. The Waterfront Partnership just needs all the support it can get to expand the renewal of Rash Field all the way to Pier Six.

The spooky harbor may be fine for Halloween. But only a day later this week Baltimore is gearing up for its annual Light City, this year combined with the Book Festival. Light City, the Book festival, tall ships and a refurbished Rash Field need to be assets for all of Baltimore. Harborplace once thought to be an asset has now turned into a liability. This isn't good for anybody, not even for neighborhoods far away from the water.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

If you are interested in discussing this matter or the issues of Baltimore neighborhoods with me and a panel of experts, come this Saturday to the Book Festival event.

Investment, Disinvestment and Neighborhood Change in Baltimore

 · Hosted by Strong City Baltimore
  • Saturday at 2 PM – 3 PM

  • World Trade Center Baltimore, Observation level
    Baltimore, Maryland
    As part of our 50th anniversary celebration, Strong City presents a discussion panel on “Investment, Disinvestment, and Neighborhood Change in Baltimore” at Brilliant Baltimore - union of two marquee events: Baltimore Book Festival and Light City. Panelists include Dr. Marisela Gomez, author of “Race, Class, Power, and Organizing in East Baltimore”; Klaus Philipsen, author of “Baltimore: Reinventing a Legacy City”; Professor Betsy Nix, editor of “Baltimore ‘68”; and Lisa Snowden-McCray, editor of the Baltimore Beat. Moderator is China Boak Terrell, Executive Director of American Communities Trust.

    Held at the Inspire Stage – Top of the World Observation Level, World Trade Center.

  • Tickets

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