Speakers with long resumes stepped up to the microphone to urge the Planning Commission to table its vote on legislation that would change height and size restrictions at the Inner Harbor, allowing for waterfront apartment towers as part of a dramatic reboot of Baltimore’s tourist epicenter.
“I’m very concerned about the rush,” said Leon Bridges, a retired architect, planner and fellow of the American Institute of Architects, criticizing several elements of the plan backed by developer P. David Bramble.
“We have world-class architects in this city. They do not approve of this design,” warned Bridges at yesterday’s hearing, a continuation of one delayed in November.
One of those experts, the veteran architect and urban designer David Benn, concurred with Bridges, also raising questions (“we’re giving up land!”) and urging the panel to slow down.
The bills “should be tabled until we do very careful plans and controls for our public realm with a strong – really strong – vision to benefit our city for years to come,” said Benn, who noted that he is the longtime chair of Harbor Promenade Committee and a past board member of the Waterfront Partnership, among other qualifications.
“This [the current Harborplace plan] has been a huge international example for 50-plus years.”
Benn agreed that community input about the harbor’s redevelopment has been extensive, but the public’s “involvement” has been very tentative – “there’s lots of follow-up that needs to happen.”
For every critique raised by speakers like Bridges and Benn, the legislation’s sponsor, 11th District Councilman Eric Costello, pushed back with a sharp rebuttal.
“Anyone who says there wasn’t public engagement wasn’t paying attention,” Costello declared, enumerating the events that he, Mayor Brandon Scott and other elected officials have attended with Bramble, the managing partner of MCB Real Estate.
“There has to be a sense of urgency here,” declared Costello, casting the project as the salvation for a struggling city.
“We have some existential issues. We have some challenges.”
As expected, the commission went on to unanimously recommend the three measures, which will next move to the City Council and, if approved, to the desk of Mayor Scott.
The bills would permit residential development on public land and eliminate height, mass and use restrictions on property that Bramble’s company leases from the city.
The legislation would clear the way for massive changes sought by Bramble, who wants to quadruple the square footage of commercial space along Pratt Street and build two apartment towers between Light Street and the harbor’s edge.
Costello’s bills would amend the urban renewal plan governing the Inner Harbor and increase the amount of land the developer controls from 3.2 acres to 4.5 acres.
These changes would amend the City Charter, requiring a ballot measure to go before voters next November.
Another Mechanic Mess?
Several speakers urged the commission to approve the bills, offering emotional testimony like that of Crust by Mack founder Amanda Mack, whose pop-up bakery has been welcomed by Bramble to the current Harborplace location.
Noting that her success as a business owner came after growing up in city public housing, she urged the commissioners to see a larger purpose for the project: “The developer wants me to succeed. I hope you see the benefits and potential!”
But other speakers had practical warnings, like Bridges who advised city officials to “have in hand public money for this project” before approving it.
“We don’t need another Mechanic downtown,” he said, referring to the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, demolished in 2014, whose fenced-off ruins have been an eyesore ever since.
Bridges questioned the need for the 900-1,000 units of new housing that Bramble proposes to build on the site of the Light Street Pavilion.
According to the Downtown Partnership, there’s a 24% residential vacancy rate downtown and a 34% commercial vacancy rate in the area, he noted.
“We are expanding private development into the public realm” – Architect David Benn.
Benn made the same point. “When downtown has so many vacant buildings and empty lots, should we be building this much housing?” he asked.
He called for an international competition to re-imagine the entire waterfront portion of downtown, “not just one site,” saying, “we are expanding private development into the public realm.”
And he pleaded with the commission not to use Baltimore’s 405-foot-high World Trade Center as justification for allowing more tall buildings to ring the waterfront, saying the WTC was always meant to be “a punctuation mark.”
Bramble’s proposal to erect linked 32-story and 25-story apartment buildings at what is often called Baltimore’s front porch could start a chain reaction, he said, and “the city will not have the ability to control it.”