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The Future of Baltimore's Harborplace

Commentaryby David A. Plymyer9:07 amNov 24, 20230

Championing a stadium deal and the Harborplace plan: Two rookie mistakes by Wes Moore

The governor’s showy salesmanship on behalf of two hot-button development issues in Baltimore is jarring [OP-ED]

Above: Governor Wes Moore and Orioles owner John Angelos in March pay a visit to the Battery Atlanta mall adjacent to the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park stadium. (YouTube)

On September 28, Maryland Governor Wes Moore announced with a flourish that he had reached a deal to keep the Orioles in Baltimore and at Camden Yards for at least the next 30 years.

The big reveal was unfurled on the centerfield screen in the stadium during a game at which the Orioles clinched the American League East title, with Moore and Orioles owner John Angelos watching from a stadium suite.

A month later, on October 30, the governor returned to Baltimore and joined developer P. David Bramble to announce his enthusiastic support for Bramble’s plan to redevelop Harborplace.

Both the stadium deal, which turned out to be a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MOU), and Bramble’s plan were almost immediately met with skepticism and, in some cases, anger and disdain.

What’s since become clear is that Moore did not do his homework before getting out in front of the proposals.

The stadium MOU had Moore’s blessing. And while Mayor Brandon Scott bears primary responsibility for prematurely embracing Bramble’s plan, the broad support of city and state electeds for the plan never would have coalesced so quickly and thoroughly without Moore’s involvement.

Baltimore’s current crop of leaders are capable of enough mischief without the governor enabling poor decision-making by them.

Most perplexing and troubling is what little consideration was given by the governor and other officials to the histories of Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor.

The value of those histories does not lie in nostalgia. It lies in understanding and preserving what makes that ballpark and the Inner Harbor truly special places.

Entrusting the stadium to Orioles defies common sense

The proposal to give development rights on state-owned land around the stadium to the Orioles at a bargain price has drawn plenty of criticism.

But it is the provisions that would take responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of the stadium from the Maryland Stadium Authority and give it to the Orioles that caused outright alarm.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which opened in 1992, has been referred to as the “ballpark that changed baseball.”

The stadium’s contextual design, incorporating elements of the historic waterfront neighborhood in which it is located, including Eutaw Street and the B&O Warehouse, became the standard against which ballparks built since then are judged.

The stewardship of this precious publicly owned asset by the Stadium Authority has been crucial. Improved and carefully maintained across three decades, the stadium remains one of the most admired sports venues in the country.

No wonder there are serious concerns that Angelos, who has publicly bemoaned the financial hardships associated with owning a “small market” team, would cut corners when it came to maintenance and upkeep of the stadium.

ABOVE: Gov. Wes Moore joins John Angelos last March for a tour of Battery Atlanta, the mixed-use development around Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves, that the Orioles owner has cited as a model.

Ignoring what makes the Inner Harbor unique

The evolution of the Inner Harbor from a working waterfront to an internationally acclaimed public amenity and attraction is one of the most celebrated stories in planning and urban design.

Here is what Vicente del Rio, a noted architect and urban planner from California, said in 2017:

“Baltimore’s Inner Harbor plan was a pioneer in its vision, components, and implementation process, having received more architecture and urban planning prizes than any other similar project in the United States.”

That pioneering vision did not emerge overnight. It was crafted through years of hard work, public discussion and heated debate.

The voters of the city felt so strongly that the Inner Harbor should remain an open and inviting public space with a minimum of commercial activity that they enshrined the boundaries of “Inner Harbor Park” in the city charter.

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

Harborplace’s dual “festival pavilions” may be passé, but the core vision of a panoramic Inner Harbor is not. It is still emulated around the world.

One of the most significant elements of that vision is the concept of a green, sunlit transitional area between the city’s urban core and the water, with the original planners focused on minimizing the “shadowing” effect of tall buildings.

No wonder many residents were aghast at Bramble’s proposal of five new buildings inside park boundaries, especially the prospect of a twinned 32-story and 25-story apartment building looming over the waterfront promenade.

Among those critics was the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel (UDAAP), which essentially told Bramble’s design team to start over.

Crowds cheer during the opening-day ceremonies at Harborplace on July 2, 1980. (YouTube)

Crowds cheer during the opening-day ceremonies at Harborplace on July 2, 1980. (YouTube)

Time to stop and think

Moore’s actions remind me of a story from the first meeting of the state Board of Public Works after William Donald Schaefer became governor in 1987.

During discussion of an agenda item, he informed the other two members of the board that, when mayor of Baltimore, he lived by three words: Do it now.

The venerable state comptroller from Calvert County, Louis Goldstein, responded that in southern Maryland they lived by three other words: Stop and think.

I don’t believe that Moore and his staff gave enough thought to either the stadium deal or the Bramble plan before the governor approved them. The absence of more thoughtful analysis was jarring.

A former state official described Moore’s approval of the stadium MOU as a “rookie mistake.” That’s a kind explanation.

Hopefully, the governor’s endorsement of Bramble’s plan to redevelop Harborplace also falls into the rookie mistake category, because that would mean there is a chance that he will learn from both mistakes and not repeat them in the future.

• 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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