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The Future of Baltimore's Harborplace

Rent abatement and a three-year grace period handed to Harborplace’s new owner

“Pop-up” stores and minimal investment will be the near-term fate of the struggling shopping center under a revised agreement

Above: At Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, a sparse crowd strolls past the largely shuttered Harborplace pavilions yesterday. (Fern Shen)

“Do It Now” was the motto of William Donald Schaefer, the Baltimore mayor who put Harborplace on the map in 1980 as a world-class tourist destination.

“Wing It Now and Hope for the Best” appears to be the strategy of the city’s Board of Estimates, which today gave Harborplace’s new owner, MCB Real Estate, three years to come up with a plan for the struggling waterfront shopping center.

To that end, the board agreed that any rent owed to the city under the original Harborplace ground lease “shall be unconditionally abated in full” until April 2026.

How much that will save MCB was not disclosed in public records, and board members did not request that information today.

The Brew asked for the original lease and the rental payments made to the city since 2017. The mayor’s office and finance department have not responded.

In addition to rent, MCB will get a three-year reprieve before having to make final construction plans or meaningful investments in the property.

The new agreement simply requires the developer to keep the pavilions – whose 155,000 square feet of leaseable space is currently more than 90% vacant – “in substantially the same condition” as currently exists.

What’s more, the city will pay MCB up to $1 million for future planning, community engagement, design and repair costs.

“A lot of planning”

Headed by P. David Bramble, MCB purchased Harborplace out of receivership last December after Ashkenazy Acquisitions Corp. defaulted on its mortgage.

Bramble has pledged to reinvent Harborplace for future generations through an interim phase of hosting “pop-up” tenants, followed by a reconstruction phase to attract more permanent occupants.

Bramble says he is not yet prepared to present his vision for the property, which occupies three acres of public land at Pratt and Light streets, and will hold a series of meetings for the public to add its input.

“Everybody knows this project is going to take a lot of planning,” he told a gathering of business leaders last month. “However, we can’t let our crown jewel sit around and languish while we work,” hence, the need for pop-up stores to “get people excited again and reconnected with our waterfront.”

No Clues About Future

Colin Tarbert, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., offered a similar assessment in brief remarks to the BOE.

After denouncing the Ashkenazy organization as “not good actors,” Tarbert described Bramble’s purchase as “a great step forward” and “a very exciting moment.”

“Harborplace is the center in many ways of the city,” and its redevelopment is critical for Baltimore’s future, he said.

Neither Tarbert nor board members offered any clues as to how city leaders envisioned the property in five or 10 years.

Or how it might fit into the planned rehabilitation of the Inner Harbor promenade with $67 million in state aid.

Comptroller Bill Henry and City Council President Nick Mosby did not ask any questions before the board ratified the rent abatement and $1 million payment.

Bramble did not attend the meeting, and City Administrator Faith Leach filled in for Mayor Brandon Scott, who was absent for undisclosed reasons.

UPDATE: The mayor was attending the African American Mayors Association (AAMA) 2023 Conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, according to his office.

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