Once Too Radical, This Harborplace Plan May Not Be Enough

2007 Harborplace Plan Baltimore, MD

With the recent news of Baltimore’s Harborplace entering receivership, I’ve seen ideas surfacing about how we might to turn it around. To get some perspective, I turned to Scott Rykiel, Co-Founder of Mahan Rykiel Associates, who helped lead a team in the 2007 Pratt Street Competition hosted by the Downtown Partnership.One of the major moves put forth in the concept we developed with EEK’s D.C. office [Now Perkins Eastman] was removing the Pratt St. pavilion. At the time, it was too radical and was rejected in favor of a pragmatic and much needed street scape improvement project. However, the idea is now being recirculated in papers and opinion columns.

Mayor Jack Young chimed in with the Baltimore Business Journal saying, “Tear it down and rebuild something similar to what we have here, but with more entertainment and more local businesses.” An editorial in the Baltimore Sun, “A Simple – and Drastic – plan for Baltimore’s Harborplace,” by Michael Hill offers the following, ‘Instead of finding new owners, new management, new ideas, just tear it down.’ The editorial argues the Harborplace has done its job and then goes on to remind us that pre-Harborplace, the area was an open space beloved by many in the city. Even The Sun’s editorial board offered the idea of making it an outdoor center in, “Harborplace is very ’80s. Here’s how to fix it.

Vintage Baltimore City Fair Posters

Picking up on this idea, I asked Scott, what he remembered of the area, “I remember going down to the annual City Fair. They used the big lawn panels on the waterfront to host the festival with a Ferris Wheel, local food, neighborhood booths and art. During the festival, The World Trade Center even had a giant blow up King Kong on the roof of the building with an oversized spot light on it. All the ethnic festivals were down there too, but eventually Festival Hall was built (where the expanded convention center is) to avoid rain outs.” 

He continued to describe how early on, Harborplace was a local hang out, “We used to go there almost every day for lunch when my office was downtown.  The vendors were more local – Paolo’s Authentic Greek Food, the Soup Kitchen, the stores were original –‘The Black Pearl,’ was an high end sea food restaurant.  Phillips, local to Maryland, was the closest thing to a chain that was there.”

The nostalgia of these stories is seductive.  But nostalgia in Baltimore can be dangerous, as it has a way of obscuring the reality of today’s challenges and the change that needs to take place to move forward successfully.

Our 2007 competition submission suggested the pavilion on Pratt Street be removed to create a large waterfront park. To make up for the loss of retail space, we recommend expanded development opportunities  to the east and west of where the pavilion stands today. The submission also called for removing the right turn off Light Street that divides McKeldin Plaza from the harbor to create more concentrated retail amenities and improved walkability. Residential/mixed-use program were proposed for the World Trade Center – which is an idea that’s circulated in Baltimore for some time and is recirculating again now.


View from Pratt St. of the proposed plan.

Why remove the Pratt St. Pavilion?

Removing the pavilion reinforces the connection between the water and street. It provides  a new downtown open space for people to gather, be seen, play, eat and be entertained (think Chicago’s Magnificent Mile). The plan below highlights the park space including an interactive splash fountain that could double as an ice rink in the winter. To the north, just south of Pratt Street, an iconic shade structure is proposed to draw in visitors with a relaxing and comfortable place to enjoy the scene without hindering the view. An open lawn flanks the east side of the site and extends onto the pier, much like the successful Bond St. Wharf in Fells Point. The Constellation Visitor Center becomes a jewel box at the end of the pier; an elegant approach that maximizes the view of the ship and waterfront.  Light St. Pavilion remains as a retail/restaurant/market venue or repurposed as a restaurant/entertainment venue, like the recent Norfolk Waterside Pavilion by Cordish.  Getting the  right leasing mix is key to Harborplace’s future success and making it unique to Baltimore is an obvious choice.

Mahan Rykiel & EEK 2007 Proposed Plan for Harborplace , which included converting Pratt into a two way street.

Greater than the sum of its parts, this composition of spaces would act as a living room for visitors to experience the allure of our harbor – iconic landmarks like the Constellation, Pride of Baltimore, Federal Hill Park, Science Center, and the glow of Domino Sugar in the distance.  This new habor park would be a complement to the community-oriented park that’s about to break ground across the water at Rash Field.  Combined with West Shore Park, the Inner Harbor will be wrapped in an open space network the whole city can enjoy that also attracts repeat visitors and tourists from around the world.

This open and inclusive vision of the Inner Harbor would also afford the opportunity to improve the resilience of the waterfront, which has seen increased flooding in recent years and is a trend that is forecasted to continue. In this new Inner Harbor, a rich tapestry of soft and textured edges that break the rigid boundary of the promenade would reconnect people to the water, while serving essential infrastructural functions like absorbing storm surges, accommodating sea level rise, and providing vital habitat for at risk species who live at the interface between land and water. And like the retail environment, this new landscape could showcase our region’s  unique cultural and ecological heritage, as well as the unrivaled natural beauty of the Chesapeake Bay. Around the world, cities who invest in this kind of multi-functional and co-benefits approach to their waterfronts are finding the combination to be catalytic and cost effective. In fact, right here in Baltimore, the National Aquarium is advancing a plan to restore aquatic habitat around its Inner Harbor campus. And as part of the Parks & People Foundation/Baltimore City design competition for the Middle Branch, our firm in collaboration with the Dutch landscape architecture firm West 8 is proposing a large-scale landscape approach to investment that foregrounds the benefits of integrating ecology, economics, and community.   

We’ve proven before that if we are bold enough to imagine it, we can be courageous and clever enough to build it. Now is the time to reimagine Harborplace and invest in Baltimore’s future. We may not get a better shot.

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