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After 30 years, Harborplace’s future is behind it, literally

Above: Tourists pick their way around Dumpsters and a service tunnel on Pratt Street side of Harborplace.

At last week’s 30th anniversary celebration, civic leaders were crowing about future (but-yet-to-be-named) tenants who would fill up Harborplace’s yawning vacant spaces. It was reminiscent of the Orioles, when they crow about their young minor league prospects. In both cases, the aim is to divert attention away from the more fundamental problems – for the O’s, the brutal competition of the American League Eastern Division and for Harborplace, the fickle retail biz, where ups and downs are the norm and today’s trendy new franchise and marketing trend is tomorrow’s has-been.

Yes, it’s always best to focus on the future, but it needs to be grounded not in the metaphysical, but the physical — especially when the physical is so frumpy and flawed.

Both baseball and retail, hereabouts, are now frustratingly focused on next spring, as if this current summer’s peak season is just an extra early spring training. It’s been this way for Harborplace even longer than for the O’s.

Harborplace isn’t the crown

Harborplace is often referred to as the crown jewel of the Inner Harbor. But it’s not the jewels, but the crown itself that really matters. And the crown of the Inner Harbor — which transformed the place from a mere a body of water to a body of achievement — is the magnificent promenade that wraps around the water in both directions from Harborplace to Canton and Key Highway.

Even in broiling heat of a Batimore summer, people were drawn to the Inner Harbor Promenade Monday

Even in broiling heat of a Baltimore summer, people were drawn to the Inner Harbor Promenade Monday (Photo by Fern Shen)

Harborplace’s relationship to the Inner Harbor Promenade is secure. As the tourists parade past on the promenade, they may be attracted to eat lunch here or they may decide to go to elsewhere, to Cordish’s Power Plant perhaps. If they peer inside and see too much blank sheetrock hanging where eateries should be, they might think less of the place, but it won’t reflect on Baltimore, amid all that our Inner Harbor has to offer.

It’s just like tourists from New York and Boston who attend Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and gaze upon the magnificent expanse of the old warehouse in right field and don’t think any less of the weak team the Orioles’ have put on the field.

When OP@CY was being built two decades ago, venerable old local sportswriter John Steadman raised his lush Andy Rooney-esque eyebrows and said that retaining the old warehouse in the new stadium would make the Orioles the “laughingstock” of baseball. Well, yes, John, they’re laughing with us, not at us, as they come to spend their tourist dollars which we happily accept, even as they beat up on our hapless O’s in front of the magnificent warehouse backdrop.

Former Gap store at Pratt Street Pavilion. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Good baseball teams come on and go, like trendy national restaurant franchises such as ESPN Zone and Planet Hollywood. But great coliseums like Oriole Park at Camden Yards and great urban crowns like the Inner Harbor Promenade can live forever.

Imitation is a fact of life

Of course, Oriole Park has been imitated. Has it ever! The intimate urban green girded steel bandbox has become a baseball cliche. But none of those wannabe stadiums has the Camden Yards warehouse.

The Hooters bunker, the blank wall and the loading dock: what folks see as they cross the 10 lanes of Light Street at Conway. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

Similarly, Harborplace started life as an imitation of Faneuil Hall in Boston and Ghirardelli Square/Fisherman’s Warf in San Francisco. And the imitations have continued with a vengeance, so that now virtually every hackneyed shopping mall in America has a food court that owes itself to Harborplace. We ought to start another food court, to prosecute them all for defamation of good dining. No one visits Harborplace anymore to experience the joys of a food court.

What we need is to continue to make Harborplace unique to Baltimore and not something they can get at any mall in America, or the Mall of America for that matter. This does not necessarily mean filling its space with ye olde quirky Bawlmer merchants, although if they want to come and can afford the rent, then welcome, although there’s a whole city of other locations from Hampden to Upton for them to choose.

Harborplace needs a butt-lift

The future direction for Harborplace is literally behind the building, at its back doors.

The rear end of Harborplace just happens to be the part that is most visible to the rest of the city as we whisk around it on Pratt and Light Streets. And there is nothing about it that is the crown jewel of anything. The face that Harborplace presents to the rest of the city and to downtown is downright down-and-out ugly.

Prominent on Pratt Street side of Harborplace: Dumpsters! (Photo by Gerald Neily)

The design of Harborplace makes it part of a virtual wall that stands between the glitter of the Inner Harbor and the city that spawned it. What Baltimore has always needed, and has barely ever received, is for the Inner Harbor to transmit its unique glamor to the city as a whole. Sure, the hype has always been there, but the city needs much more than hype.

The rear end, behind the face of Harborplace, needs to be redesigned and augmented to reach out to downtown, and thus to the city as a whole. The “enabler” for this wretched relationship is the design of Pratt and Light Streets themselves. Streets are the medium from which we see the city and interact with it. Harborplace turns its back on the city because Pratt and Light Streets are brutal traffic-ways that are utterly unable to properly serve this role.

Light Street side of Harborplace. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The worst offender is the intersection of Light and Conway Street, at the southern end of Harborplace and the gateway to the Inner Harbor for many. From this vantage, the view of Harborplace is dominated by a loading dock and a blank wall.

A few years ago when traffic became sufficiently bad, the city closed the Light Street crosswalk closest to Harborplace and forced pedestrians to cross Conway, despite the fact that it led folks to the side of Conway that traffic engineers had already put off limits to pedestrians farther west next to Camden Yards.

Around the corner from this loading dock is Mount Hooters, an earth berm that incongruously comprises part of the south wall of Harborplace. The Hooters is/are seductively close to this berm, but to actually reach the Hooters, one needs to walk all the way around to the promenade.

Scale the berm, discover a Hooters! (Photo by Fern Shen)

The rest of nearby Light and Pratt Streets are almost as bad as the Conway intersection. A few years ago, the City held a design competition to improve Pratt Street, and the winning entry proposed widening Pratt to more resemble Conway and to accommodate even more traffic. They also proposed a gimmicky giant high-tech video screen along Light Street to push us even deeper into the imitation game – Baltimore as pseudo-Times Square.

From the intersection of Pratt and Light streets, it's a long bleak way to the water. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Perhaps the worst indictment of Pratt and Light is that they have been chosen as being suitable for the impending Grand Prix invasion, just as Detroit, Richmond and Long Beach had before them. As if nothing says Baltimore homespun charm like wheels spun at 190 mph.

No, the answer is much simpler. Baltimore has its unique magnificent Inner Harbor promenade, virtually completed from Canton to Key Highway. Now it just needs to extend the tentacles of the promenade to reach out to the rest of the city. Harborplace is the most important place to do this. Pratt and Light Street must be radically redesigned as real urban streets, complete with real functional urban sidewalks, to give Harborplace genuine downtown addresses on each street instead of merely walls against the raging traffic. Then Harborplace should be redesigned to take advantage of its new downtown orientations and reach out to the city.

Does this street make me look fat?

Light Street must be narrowed from its current outrageous ten lane width to something more civilized and appropriate. The earth berms should be banished, not only at Mount Hooters but also the wall in the Light Street median strip which prevents pedestrian crossings and isolates Harborplace from the rest of downtown, particularly the Hyatt Hotel and Verizon building across the street.

Narrowing Light Street will create enough room to expand Harborplace to give it a proper street orientation, and to hide the loading dock.

The city has already taken one step in this direction by proposing the realignment of northbound Light Street just to the north so that it would no longer connect directly into Calvert at Pratt Street.

Even William Donald Schaefer, in statue form, has his back turned toward the city. (Photo by Fern Shen)

On Pratt Street, there is less room, but an even greater need for improvement, because this is the closest Harborplace gets to most of downtown, and is what the most people see. The Pratt pavilion loading dock can be integrated into the building so that people leaving Harborplace near the Cheesecake Factory aren’t confronted up to their eyeballs in garbage, and have a direct path to the Pratt sidewalk and northward to the rest of downtown.

This is by far the most crucial step in the city’s dream of making Pratt a great walkable urban street like Chicago’s Magnificent Mile or New York’s Fifth Avenue.

In sum, we must rescue Harborplace from its current state where we feel compelled to judge it on what tenants they are or aren’t attracting. Harborplace tenants will come and go, just as Corey Patterson and Miggy Tejada come and go on the Orioles, but the Inner Harbor, Downtown, Camden Yards and Harborplace are forever.

What separates the Inner Harbor from the rest of Baltimore: wide, traffic-filled Pratt Street. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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