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The Future of Baltimore's Harborplace

Opponents of the Harborplace plan hope to get an alternative charter amendment on the ballot

Vowing “a campaign of public persuasion,” the Inner Harbor Coalition promises to put the proposed apartment towers and other large-scale development at the water’s edge on the November 2024 ballot

Above: “Bird’s eye view of Baltimore City,” an 1858 depiction by E. Sachse & Co. of the Inner Harbor and beyond, on a Harborplace utility box. (Fern Shen, mdhistory.org)

Supporters of a sweeping makeover plan for Baltimore’s downtown tourist waterfront say they’ll take their proposal to voters in November, but opponents hoping to neutralize them are preparing a City Charter amendment of their own.

The alternative proposal would target the most controversial element of the plan – two luxury apartment towers that developer P. David Bramble wants to erect on the water’s edge at Harborplace, an area currently occupied by two low-level pavilions surrounded by public space enshrined in the City Charter.

“We have an existing charter that allows the two pavilions to occupy the public park. This would amend the charter to explicitly say that no new apartments or office buildings can be allowed in the area,” said developer David Tufaro.

Tufaro and his allies acknowledge that changes are needed at the now largely vacant but once hugely popular “festival marketplace” that opened in 1980. But they say Mayor Brandon Scott and other city leaders have left both planning experts and the public out of the loop.

“We’re all really worried this has come forward without due diligence – it hasn’t really been studied,” said architect David Benn, who has testified against the plan.

“The whole idea of building 900 units of luxury housing on the waterfront, when we have all this vacant land and all these buildings that could be infilled downtown – and doing this when we have the really nice Inner Harbor Park that rings the water – it’s just weird,” Benn said.

“And it looks like the politics is all figured out and it’s steamrolling toward the finish line,” Benn added in an interview today with The Brew.

The alternative ballot measure the opponents are formulating would specify that any changes to the Inner Harbor Master Plan “would have to be done according to the normal, public-vetting planning process,” said Tufaro, a longtime city resident whose own development projects include Montgomery Park, White Hall Mill and Waterloo Place Apartments.

The current plan, which gives Bramble exclusive rights to redevelop Harborplace without an RFP (Request for Proposals), “amounts to ramming it down our throats,” as Tufaro sees it.

“Yes, they had a supposed public process,” he said. “But there was no mention of apartment buildings until the October 30th reveal. That was kept secret.”

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

Blessed by Scott, City Council President Nick Mosby, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, Senate President Bill Ferguson and State Comptroller Brooke Lierman, all Democrats, the Bramble plan currently has powerful political winds filling its sails.

But Tufaro, who ran for mayor as a Republican in 1999, contends that “no one in town who’s not connected to the project supports it.”

Tufaro said his group, the Inner Harbor Coalition, will soon unveil its website and begin “a campaign of public persuasion.”

Asked if his group would be able to collect the needed 10,000 signatures of registered voters by the deadline this summer, Tufaro expressed optimism.

“We’ll succeed because Harborplace draws out people’s passion,” he told The Brew. “They see it as their space – public space – that’s been turned over to a private developer.”

David Tufaro disclosed plans for an alternative Harborplace charter amendment on Jayne Miller’s WBAL radio show on Saturday. (YouTube)

Hearing now Scheduled

Last April, Scott and the Board of Estimates awarded Bramble’s MCB Real Estate rent abatement and a three-year grace period to come up with a plan for the mostly deserted shopping center, long regarded as the city’s tourist showplace.

Bramble’s proposal includes three large structures in place of the low-slung pavilions:

A twin-tower apartment complex at 203 Light Street; a glassy, terraced food and shopping court at 301 East Pratt Street; and a mid-rise office building at 303 East Pratt Street. Bramble wants the current pavilions demolished as soon as possible.

In response to critics, Bramble has argued that without making the major changes he proposes – which include rebuilding and narrowing Light and other downtown streets – Baltimore will miss a “once in a generation” opportunity to recharge its “beating heart” with a facility that not only will revitalize an economically challenged downtown, but offer equity and inclusion.

“There has to be a sense of urgency here,” Councilman Eric Costello said last month, describing the project as a way to address what he calls Baltimore’s “existential issues.”

In late December, the Planning Commission considered bills that would permit residential development on the land and eliminate height, mass and use restrictions on the property that MCB leases from the city.

Introduced by Costello, who sits on the commission, the three bills would amend the urban renewal plan governing the 33-acre Inner Harbor Park and nearly double the amount of public land open for development.

As expected, the Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the bills, which now move to the City Council.

The Economic and Community Development Committee announced last night that it will hold a public hearing on February 13, allowing in-person testimony on bills 23-0444, 0446 and 0448.

As of this morning, the online bill file shows no reports have been filed yet by any of the city agencies that typically weigh in on land use matters, including the departments of planning, recreation and parks, transportation, and housing and community development.

A family passes the closed Harborplace pavilion on Light Street. Dec 28, 2023 (Mark Reutter)

A family passes the mostly shuttered Harborplace pavilion on Light Street on December 28. (Mark Reutter)

What Went Wrong?

Bramble says the apartment buildings are essential to pay for the rest of the project and enliven the area with shoppers and visitors. His critics disagree.

“Yes, Harborplace needs help, but this isn’t the only way it can be re-invented,” Benn said

“I can tell you from experience that residential development does not activate public space. It’s shops, it’s restaurants, it’s attractions like the National Aquarium that will do that,” Tufaro said.

In his view, Harborplace’s immediate demise stems from bad management, particularly by Ashkenazy Acquisitions, which purchased the buildings in 2012 from the Rouse Company and brought in chain stores as well as Ripley’s Believe It or Not before the company was forced into receivership in 2019.

But Tufaro places equal blame on city leaders, who he said neglected the Inner Harbor over the last 20 years while executing lucrative financing deals and tax breaks that spurred development at Harbor East and Harbor Point east of downtown and Port Covington in South Baltimore.

“The city’s own policies drained the energy out of the central business district,” he said. “Catering to well-connected developers enabled this to happen. The city didn’t stand up for its citizens.”

“The city’s own policies drained the energy out of the central business district. Catering to well-connected developers enabled this to happen”  – David Tufaro.

He said the Inner Harbor Coalition is not focused on any one plan for the revival of Harborplace, pointing to ideas already on the table, such as the Waterfront Partnership’s Inner Harbor 2.0, as well as scenarios put forth by former American Visionary Art Museum Director Rebecca Hoffberger and architect Steve Ziger.

“We can debate whether we need to take one pavilion down, some people think we shouldn’t take either down,” he said. “I think maybe they’re a little bit too large for the amount of retail relative to the public space. But the real point is to make the harbor attractive again.”

The latest attraction meant to create excitement at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, a Ripley's Believe it or Not. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The opening of Ripley’s Believe It or Not at Harborplace in 2012. (Fern Shen)

Legal Action?

The group is considering all angles, including litigation, Tufaro said, pointing to the city’s allocation of $1 million to Bramble to conduct his own planning process for the project.

“The use of that public money, the hiding of the real plan from the public, the lack of a public proposal which would have been the standard procedure,” he said. “There are a lot of potential legal issues that we’re exploring.”

Benn, longtime chair of the Harbor Promenade Committee and past board member of the Waterfront Partnership, said he and others are worried about hasty changes being made that will drastically alter zoning and road configurations “even though there’s been no traffic study” and are premised on a plan whose funding may not materialize.

“They’ve talked about $400 to $500 million in public money somehow coming from the government. Meanwhile, everyone in Annapolis is saying we’re in a financial hole,” he said.

“What worries a lot of people is, if they tear down the pavilions but have no money to do anything, we will end up with an empty lot there. What if this developer leaves, and we’re left with all these open-end zoning changes for whoever comes in?”

Tufaro compared his group’s efforts to the grassroots campaign in the 1970s to stop Baltimore’s East-West Expressway that would have erected a huge highway interchange over the Inner Harbor and ripped through thousands of historic homes in Federal Hill, Fells Point and Canton.

“This is the equivalent of the Stop the Road campaign,” he said. “It’s all about protecting our crown jewel.”

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