Wednesday, November 2, 2022

What should David Bramble do with HarborPlace?

The implosion of Harborplace

A few years ago when the HarborPlace pavilions showed some signs of getting tired, few people thought it would take more than what then operator Ashkenazy proposed in UDAAP session #216 on November 12, 2015:  An architectural face-lift  for the two pavilions and a few new tenants. The discussion at the time revolved around a few renderings by the architects MG2 showing steel frames, rooftop signs and new wood paneling.

MG2 Architects UDAAP presentation rendering 2015 (MG2)

Fast forward seven years, and it is possible that the pavilions will be razed entirely. No longer is the debate simply about dressing up the pavilions but whether they should be replaced with new structures, or even highrises. 

In 42 years the pavilions went from being the icons of Baltimore's waterfront renaissance to being tossed like disposable diapers. This is long in the life of retail structures but nothing in the life of a legacy city such as Baltimore. The Gallery Mall across the street didn't even make it to 35 years. That good cities have much more permanence than retail begs the question, whether it was ever smart to tie the future of the Inner Harbor to the vagaries of retail, or asked even more broadly: Is it smart to privatize "the urban commons" in this way. (In this case, the City owns the land, the buildings are private). There are good arguments for a public waterfront that encompasses more than just a 20' strip of promenade.

How Harborplace get into this rapid downward spiral of decline and obsolescence? Wasn't architect Benjamin Thompson's "festival market place" future proof enough though it had been tested in Boston's Faneuil Hall and repeated all over the country? 

The national failure of the Marketplace Festival Hall

In light of a radical reorientation of the national retail landscape retail in general faces strong headwinds everywhere, especially the festival market places that had been so fashionable as urban renewal tool all across the nation. They went from being the seeds and incubators of downtown revivals to being an albatross around the neck. As one example, we will take a look at New York's South Street Seaport mall which opened in 1985 as another Rouse Marketplace Festival Hall designed by Ben Thompson. It, too, went on the skids, just faster.

The Festival Market Place "Pier 17" at South Street Seaport, NY
(Photo: Curbed)

Just like Baltimore's HarborPlace it transferred  to General Growth Properties (GGP) after the Rouse company's bankruptcy. GGP didn't pay too much attention to the once bustling waterfront destination, and New York City's development agency didn't either. Just in Baltimore the city didn't force the new owners to live up to standards. When GGP also went bankrupt, South Street Seaport was bought by the Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC). It shut the mall down for good in 2013 after hurricane Sandy gave the ailing complex on Pier 17 its last blow. That is one year after GGP had offloaded HarborPlace to Ashkenazy. Immediately Hughes developed big plans for South Street Seaport which didn't leave much standing of the original Rouse/Thompson design. For their endeavor they hire the "starchitects" of with SHoP their designers which had strong opinions about the Thompson design:

"Pier 17 was meant to create a city environment in which one doesn’t engage with the city,” Mr. Pasquarelli said. “It was meant to safely harness tourists and visitors through a historic district and funnel them into a three-story, enclosed shopping mall.” (Gregg Pasquarelli, SHoP Principal)

The similarities and differences between HarborPlace and South Street Seaport

What the SHoP architect said about Thompson's Pier 17 in New York could be said about Thompson's Baltimore pavilions as well, except that Baltimore at the time was considered to be much less dangerous than New York and that Baltimore's mall had only two stories. In Baltimore there was no hurricane Sandy that presented a death blow to the already weakened and ailing South Street pavilion. Baltimore's 2015 Freddie Grey unrest presented a slower storm of its own decisive effects on Baltimore tourism. In the ensuing and necessary debates about equity, it was becoming almost frivolous to think about the Inner Harbor which sits inside the "white L". 

So there is a different timeline: Just a year before South Street Seaport was shuttered, Ashkenzy had bought HarborPlace for $98.5 million, apparently seeing a bright future. That the new owner was incapable of stemming tenant loss or coming up with a retail strategy became alreay apparent in 2013, long before the 2015 unrest. In 2019 Ashenazy's property went into foreclosure after failing to pay its mortgage. 

Baltimore Light Street pavilion (Photo: Philipsen)

It may be important to note that the failure of the pavilions is less one of the architecture and more one of the use or, more specifically, how use was badly managed and deteriorated over time. 

When we look at physical redevelopment, Southstreet Seaport in New York can be a warning sign as well. 

Hughes quickly settled on a complete overhaul including the demolition of the festival hall on Pier 17 and centered its redevelopment on a nearly 500 foot tall residential tower, causing a firestorm of opposition. Amidst the turmoil HHC accepted to work with a Seaport Working Group, which developed guidelines and principles for the redevelopment. HHC eventually scrapped the tower and accepted the Seaport Museum as an anchor. At the end SHoP Architects developed new mall  in a four-story glass-clad building with restaurants, bars, fashion and art exhibits, a 17,000 sf ESPN studio, and a 1.5-acre rooftop that can be used by the public or rented as an events venue, emphasizing open space at the bottom and top of the structure, rather than within an atrium and around a series of balconies. The complex opened in 2018. It can glow in the dark through an innovative, programmable LED lighting scheme.

SHoP Architects redevlopment of Pier 17 in NYC (SHoP)

The New York reconstruction is sitting on a pier, from an urban design perspective a very different setting than the angled pavilions in Baltimore that were created as a low level "frame" at the shoreline, SITTING like the foothills in front of the mountain which consists of the larger buildings forming an outer frame along Pratt and Light Street. Already envisioned in Wallace Roberts Todd's original Harbor Masterplan of 1967, some highrises, such as the USF&G tower or the World Trade Center, would pierce as solitaires the height limits of the frame. The tower now standing on the former McCormick site is the latest addition to the ensemble of towers and fits into the original concept. Should Bramble harbor tower dreams in lieu of the pavilions like HHC in New York, its hard to see how it could fit and would probably create a similar uproar as HHC's tower suggestion did in New York. 

At the verge of a re-incarnation

None less than the Mayor himself  announced the latest chapter of HarborPlace in his State of the City speech on April 5, 2022: Baltimore's fastest growing development firm, MCB Real Estate is the one to pick up the pieces. Since then the matter is hashed out in bankruptcy court while speculation about what could happen next is rampant. 

David Bramble, CEO of MCB  keeps mum about what he wants to do until the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed in his purchase agreement. He confirmed this again for this article. He promises a listening session and public input as soon as there is court approval, a process that will be led by Adam Genn who used to work for Weller Development.. MCB is expected to finalize the deal with IVL, the receiver of the Ashkenazy property soon. 

McKeldin Plaza: Blah after the demolition of the original fountain
(Photo: Philipsen)

The BBJ reported that the appraised value now is less than half of what Ashkenazy. The liquidation value was listed even lower, $27.5 million, only 28% of the 2012 purchase price. This looks like a bargain and would suggest that the City could have bought it, too. Those $27 million would be just a bit more than half of what is envisioned for upgrading Druid Park Lake. For a private investor, though, the question will always be what is the use that promises a healthy return on investment?

Those who recognize the rapid ascent of MCB or simply care about the Inner Harbor are making the pilgrimage to Bramble's office at Clipper Mill to submit their ideas for reuse of the pavilions or for ways to move what was once the incarnation of Baltimore's renaissance into the 21st century. 

Bramble himself called HarborPlace Baltimore's front porch", a somewhat awkward image considering that nobody could ever tell exactly what was front and what back on those pavilions which face Baltimore's main boulevards (Light and Pratt Street) but also the water.  From what I hear the pilgims come away with the impression that Bramble has little appetite for maintaining the pavilions in any shape. He is thinking bigger. How much bigger?

Rendering of what could happen on 300 East Pratt Street, another
MCB site. (HKS Architects)

Thinking big isn't necessarily a Baltimore thing, but here at HarborPlace thinking big is now necessary after all the old luster is gone. And big shouldn't be confused with large. Big should mean comprehensively casting a wide net that considers the region, the city and specifically the larger setting at the Inner Harbor:

  • The current pavilions are not only underperforming, they have fallen into a state of catastrophic failures dragging down the entire retail scene in the area. The vacancy rate is now around 75%
  • the new Constellation museum, ticket center and water taxi terminal right across from the Partt Street pavilion just opened even though the Constellation is now in the dry-dock and the water taxi is hardly running at all
  • The historic walkable fountain at McKeldin Plaza was hastily demolished with no proper new plan in place. A lame transitional design is now in place, the biggest problem, the insular location between a sea of traffic lanes remains unresolved. 
  • Most elements of the Harbor Vision Harbor 2.0 prepared by ASG Architects in 2013 remained unfulfilled except for the MRA designed Rash Field which is a wild success as a neighborhood destination. 
  • Bramble's MCB also owns the News American site on Pratt Street which has been a vacant lot since 1990 with a series of redevelopment proposals that came and went. 

What options does Bramble have? Ideas from experts 

The inner and the outer frame of the Inner Harbor
(Photo: Philipsen)
Lehr Jackson who once worked for the Rouse Company as their chief leasing and development manager is still interested in Baltimore's development and comes up with ideas in his own private think tank. Unsurprisingly he still likes Thompson's pavilions and wants to re-purpose them, maybe one in a hollowed out form as a shell for markets and events. An opened up structure would allow better views of the water from Light Street and Pratt Street. 

True, the original concept of pavilions as a small indoor mall may be functionally obsolete, the buildings themselves stand strong, their slight postmodern design is a bit dated, but the idea of second floor terraces overlooking the water is still a good one and so are the slight nautical references of the design. The elevated pavilions are also quite resilient to rising sea levels. Dated design is part of a city's tapestry. A full demolition would appear wasteful.

The Urban Design Committee of AIA (UDC) has long supported the idea of connecting the McKeldin plaza by closing the road connection from Light to Calvert Streetand adding the road space of northbound Light Street to the Inner Harbor by bundling Light Street traffic in both directions west of the median. The UDC had hoped to preserve the original fountain on the connected larger open space. Should the pavilions be demolished, any denser redevelopment would certainly need additional space. It may be what MCB will be looking for.

The Wharf development DC (website)

David Benn, a local architect and waterfront expert agrees with Jackson's assessment of the pavilions. He told me that "the Thompson's Harborplace buildings deserve to be largely retained and repurposed. They frame the corner and the small performance space fairly well", Benn says. "They are good examples of reinterpreting older waterfront character for contemporary uses, they are flexible, with large loft spaces and good exposure to the surroundings. Saving the majority of it is sustainable."  Benn once advised about the future of Norfolk's festival marketplace and thinks that Norfolk's approach of reducing the total area and placing a small farmers market, cafes and the like on the ground floor with recreational options or event spaces on the upper level could work here as well. Should the McKeldin plaza become connected, "the whole area" could be reframed which would "have consequences for the Light Street pavilion, Benn says.

The buildings of the Wharf overlaid on the "westshore"
of Harborplace (Fillat Architects)

Baltimore hospitality architect Peter Fillat with a portfolio of national and international projects mentioned to me a hotel use above shops in two new structures within the height and footprint limits of the current pavilions. Hotel rooms are low and a flat roof could become a public event space just like at South Street Seaport in New York. Fillat sees such a hotel as the second convention hotel that is envisioned as part of the planned expansion of the convention center, using that portion of the investment at HarborPlace instead. 

Fillat sent me a slide deck with various illustrations visualizing a host of ideas; one of them modeled on the thriving Wharf District project in DC. Fillat overlaid the footprint and height of the DC waterfront buildings on an enlarged Light Street parcel that would include the McKeldin Plaza to see how it would fit. In that scenario, Fillat's assumption is the Pratt Street pavilion would be demolished just as shown on a competition entry by Baltimore's landscape architects Mahan Rykiel in 2007. Those plans MRA had developed with EEK which is now Perkins Eastman, i.e. the Wharf District  architect.

MRA rendering: A small Millennium Park (Scott Rykiel)

Scott Rykiel, principal at the Baltimore landscape architecture firm Mahan Rykiel in a company blog article said that their 2007 competition entry may have not been radical enough in light of new developments. The competition submission suggested that the pavilion on Pratt Street be demolished in favor a large waterfront park open to Pratt Street and making up for lost built space by connecting McKeldin Plaza to the harbor. He bemoans that the pavilions turn their "back of house" side towards the street and the city. Scott, who also was involved in various designs for the current McKeldin park and designed the successful new Rash Field tells me that the north shore area needs more green space and shaded areas, and that a park facing Pratt Street could be a small version of Chicago's Millennium Park. Scott says people still need places to eat and drink, whether they are locals, visitors, conventioneers, or folks who visited a concert at the refurbished Arena. He sees the best economic opportunity in F&B (food and beverages) and also points to Norfolk's repurposed

A park instead of the Pratt Street pavilion (MRA)

Festival Marketplace as an example. He emphasizes that the establishments "need to be local and about the place". He remembers, that for the original pavilions Rouse had scouted out the most successful local retailers and restaurants and brought them to HarborPlace. "Why is Baltimore's biggest farmers market under a highway", Scott wonders and muses "how wonderful it would be to have this market at Harborplace. 

Barbara Wilks, the New York architect who founded W Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and
designed the new Constellation ticket building and museum and water taxi terminal across from the pavilions has worked on several New York waterfront parks. She sees a "great opportunity for Baltimore". She points to the larger context in which Pratt and Light Streets should be seen as "part of the project. "Harborplace was meant to be a gateway, but it has become a barrier", says Wilks. "It originally had a more three-dimensional public aspect, with overlooks and outdoor seating. It became progressively more enclosed and private. There is an opportunity to “layer” the space—it is not only about the harbor edge", Wilks continues. "Walking along the street edge should be just as exciting. It should be seen as a series of linked edges of varying characters, moving back into the city." She adds: "The topographic change should be used to better advantage. The waterfront should feel like it is expanding up into the city, not like the city is bearing down on it and constricting it". Ms Wilks with Rogers Partners was a consultant for St Petersburg, Fla where studio W designed the 20 acre "pier approach" of the award winning  St Pete Pier

St Pete Pier development (

redevelopment. Wilks thinks that the broad based community participation there could be a model for Baltimore in which "a community [was] deciding how it wanted its future to go and how to change an icon". 

The Pier was integral to the St. Petersburg Downtown Waterfront Master plan, whose vision is “to protect, enhance, and promote St. Petersburg’s downtown waterfront as one of the premier waterfront destinations and attractions in the United States.” (ULI Americas)

Adam Gross, principal at ASG and author of Harbor 2.0, asked about how some of the ideas laid out in his masterplan could now come to fruition, told me that he certainly has opinions, but that he'd rather wait with making them public until Bramble's community engagement process will officially begin. 

Harbor 2.0 masterplan (ASG/Jonathan Ceci)

It looks like all the Baltimore voices share  Pasquarelli view that he had expressed about the old New York Festival Marketplace:

"Being in an enclosed mall that could be anywhere in the United States, yet occupies this incredibly special and precious site for our city, is an unfortunate result of some of those planning ideas.”

Maybe the New Yorker Seaport Working Group which guided SHoP's design would be a proper approach for Baltimore as well. Just as the shops and restaurants should have a decidedly local flavor, a working group that encompasses stakeholders and local planners, architect and landscape architects would ensure that the HarborPlace redesign has local aspects as well.

Bramble's "front porch" expression hints at what HarborPlace should be, if one understands the front porch as a space that transitions from the private to the public, a space with the private space in back, and the public street in front, a place to see and to be seen. Given that the City owns the HarborPlace land and the water itself is public, the image seems appropriate as a guiding principle for redevelopment. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA Phototour of the pavilions

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