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The Future of Baltimore's Harborplace

Commentaryby David A. Plymyer9:39 amNov 14, 20230

The outsized role of developers in Baltimore is reflected in the new Harborplace plan

What should be part of a long-range plan for a crucial piece of publicly owned land is handed over to a developer who plainly states his priority is to make a profit. [OP-ED]

Above: P. David Bramble with his partner Peter Pinkard (left) and Adam Genn, vice president of MCB Harborplace.

The plan announced on October 30 for a massive redevelopment of Harborplace is a testament to how little attention Baltimore’s leaders pay to the wishes of ordinary residents and how much they focus on the demands of real estate developers.

The contrast between the enthusiasm expressed for P. David Bramble’s plan by the collection of political luminaries present at the announcement, led by Maryland Governor Wes Moore, State Comptroller Brooke Lierman, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, City Council President Nick Mosby and others, and the ambivalent reaction by the public suggests that local politicians underestimate the frustration of residents at having their views overlooked.

A chronic deficiency within city government is the failure to approach issues systematically and resolve upon thoughtful, long-term solutions to the city’s myriad problems.

Talk is plentiful, but strategies and plans with specific goals and objectives to solve problems such as blight, a shortage of affordable housing and the city’s inequitable tax credit system are non-existent.

The tendency of local leaders to shoot from the hip certainly applies to major decisions about land use and development.

Rather than base such decisions on plans crafted after public input and careful consideration, they base them on ad-hoc deals worked out with individual real estate developers that largely reflect what the developers want rather than what the city needs.

That is exactly what happened when Mayor Scott and the Board of Estimates awarded exclusive rights to redevelop Harborplace to Bramble and his company, MCB Real Estate, last April.

The deal set the stage for the city to alter course from the vision of a “greener and softer” Inner Harbor to what a former city official aptly described to The Brew as “Harbor East 2.0.”

Bramble's redeveloped Harborplace would include three new structures: 203 Light Street, a sprawling 400-foot-high apartment complex; 301 East Pratt Street, a glassy terraced food and shopping court; and 303 East Pratt Street, a mid-rise commercial property. (MCB Real Estate)

Bramble’s Harborplace would include 203 Light Street, a sprawling apartment complex; 301 East Pratt Street, a glassy terraced food and shopping court; and 303 East Pratt Street, a mid-rise office building. (MCB Real Estate)

Privatized Planning

The role of developers is to design and build projects, not take over planning for significant parts of the city.

That’s the duty of the Department of Housing and Community Development, which holds title to the Harborplace lease, the Department of Planning and the Planning Commission, on which six of the nine members are ordinary citizens.

As part of a $1 million grant to conduct “community engagement,” the Board of Estimates handed over to Bramble the responsibility to conduct public forums as well as “dinners with the developer” to discuss the future of Harborplace.

Actual planning, however, was done by Bramble’s own design team headed by Gensler, an international architecture firm, and Baltimore-based Sulton Campbell Britt & Associates.

The scope of their work includes not just the 4.5 acres of public land upon which Bramble wants to build his retail and apartment complex, but the larger promenade and parkland that stretches around the harbor from the World Trade Center to the Rusty Scupper restaurant.

Scott’s call for a comprehensive strategic plan after blessing a major project is right out of the “ready, fire, aim” school of Baltimore governance.

Since the announcement of Bramble’s proposal, Mayor Scott has rolled out an initiative called “Baltimore RISE: Roadmap for Investment, Support, and Equity.” He claims that it will serve as “an overarching blueprint” and a “comprehensive strategic plan” for the future of downtown Baltimore when completed next year.

The Inner Harbor and Harborplace are critical components of downtown Baltimore and must be carefully integrated into any plan.

Beginning work on a “comprehensive strategic plan” after giving his blessing to a major project is right out of the “ready, fire, aim” school of governance that we’ve unfortunately become accustomed to in Baltimore.

City Council President Nick Mosby embraces David Bramble after the October 30 announcement of his Harborplace plans.

David Bramble embraces City Council President Nick Mosby after the announcement of his Harborplace plans.

Forgotten Master Plan

Ten years ago, Baltimore released a master plan for redevelopment of the Inner Harbor called “Baltimore Inner Harbor 2.0.”

The introduction, summing up city government’s passive attitude towards the 30 acres of land it owns at the water’s edge, bears repeating:

“Not much has been done to the Inner Harbor since the National Aquarium, Harborplace and the Science Center first opened [between 1976 and 1981]. Significant signs of wear are evident throughout the Inner Harbor, from infrastructure conditions like the degrading promenade, to unmet opportunities of waterfront sites like Rash Field and Piers 5 and 6.

“One could argue that Baltimore’s crown jewel has been significantly tarnished, and that the city’s international standing of having a world class waterfront attraction has been eclipsed by countless other cities in the U.S. and abroad.”

The 2013 plan was funded by the Waterfront Partnership and Greater Baltimore Committee and prepared by Ayers Saint Gross in collaboration with the city Planning Department.

The plan was generally well-received by residents, who expressed a desire for a more open and less commercial waterfront setting.

Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake described it as creating a “greener and softer” Inner Harbor that would appeal to both residents and tourists.

In 2021, two UMBC professors published “Reimagining the Harbor as a Hub.” The paper elaborated on the idea of the Inner Harbor as a “shared public space” connecting residents and visitors to authentic Baltimore neighborhoods and institutions.

Mayor Scott publicly endorsed the professors’ recommendations, reinforcing expectations that his administration would embrace the plan to redevelop Harborplace into the more park-like amenity described in Baltimore Inner Harbor 2.0.

Harborplace's Pratt Street pavilion in 2014 after Ashklenazy Acquisitions acquired the

Harborplace no longer drew in large crowds in 2013 when the Inner Harbor 2.0 plan was released. (Brew file photo)

Big Public Price Tag

But that was not to be. Baltimore Inner Harbor 2.0 was a cruel joke. Master plans are worth no more than a politician’s promise in Baltimore.

What was announced for Harborplace on October 30 was Bramble’s plan, not the city’s, and there is nothing “greener and gentler” about it.

Apartment buildings, and the steady income that they produce, have been a key component in many of Bramble’s projects. The inclusion of two towering apartment buildings with up to 1,000 dwelling units was as predictable as the public backlash against them.

“I want to be very clear. I am a developer and I do this to make money”  – David Bramble.

The planned development would be another dense, high-rise neighborhood built on the fringes of the traditional downtown business district, replicating in concept, if not in exact design elements, the Paterakis family’s Harbor East, Michael Beatty’s Harbor Point and Kevin Plank’s Baltimore Peninsula (formerly known as Port Covington).

Behind the “bold vision” of Harborplace, a shift from people’s park to private development (11/4/23)

It also would be another project requiring a serious infusion of public money to complete – $400 million, according to Bramble, whose company would also be responsible for rebuilding the surrounding public space.

I don’t believe that the planned development would put a prime piece of Baltimore’s waterfront to the use that is in the best interests of most city residents.

And if history is any judge, little if any attention has been paid to its economic impact on the rest of the city.

Bramble's team would be responsible for overseeing the rebuilding of the public space around Harborplace, including a proposed two-tier promenade, the lower level floating in the water. (MCB Real Estate)

Handed the responsibility of “re-imagining” the 25 acres of public land surrounding Harborplace, Bramble’s team has proposed floating wetlands and a two-tiered promenade. (MCB Real Estate)

harborplace floating promenade1

Learning from Philadelphia

In 2009, Philadelphia created the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation to oversee redevelopment along a six mile stretch of the river in response to public frustration with the degree of control held by developers, the focus on market-driven development and the loss of public space.

The corporation drew upon expert advice and public input to prepare the Master Plan for the Central Delaware adopted by the city in 2012.

The plan’s balance of public and commercial spaces is widely acclaimed as a success.

In the words of the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board, “The Central Delaware master plan – both its origins and its execution – represented a turn from the backroom, politically connected (and often taxpayer-supported) deals that for too long drove development in the city and led to a waterfront that was dominated by cars and big box stores.”

Philly’s plan for its waterfront represented “a turn from the backroom, politically connected deals that for too long drove development”  – Philadelphia Inquirer.

The editorial board was referring to Philadelphia, but the history of “backroom, politically connected (and often taxpayer-supported) deals” driving development sounds awfully familiar.

Construction began in September on Penn’s Landing Park, an 11-acre park that includes a span over I-95 to directly connect center city Philadelphia with the waterfront. It’s the type of transformational project only possible if properly planned.

If Philadelphia’s leaders could figure out that allowing developers to lead them around by their noses wasn’t a good way to plan for redevelopment of the city’s waterfront, why can’t Baltimore’s leaders?

Sidestepping Responsibility

At a public forum held last week, Bramble stated that “if we don’t get the height restrictions lifted, we are not going to move forward with a deal. There’s no return. It’s a deal breaker.”

He went on to say this: “I want to be very clear. I am a developer and I do this to make money. I am not a community group. I’m not a public entity. I’m an investor. I raise money for people and give it back to them.”

That kind of ultimatum should not sit well with residents. But it is city and state leaders, not Bramble, with whom those residents should be angry.

Citizens have every reason to conclude that the politicians assembled on October 30 let them down by not basing important land use and development decisions on thorough planning and meaningful public participation. Once again, they abrogated that responsibility.

Let’s hope that Baltimore RISE produces some worthwhile ideas. And if it does, that it does not meet the same fate as Baltimore Inner Harbor 2.0.
• David. A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney after 31 years in the county law office. To reach him: dplymyer@comcast.net and Twitter @dplymyer.

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