Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is set to get a gigantic face-lift with the redevelopment of Harborplace. But with recent flooding and rising sea levels, there’s an obvious question: Is Harborplace doomed to sink?

Let’s save the suspense. No, the promenade that rims the Inner Harbor will almost certainly not be underwater anytime soon. Climate resilience is a feature of the Harborplace master plan released by developers.

The remade area along Baltimore’s harbor, which comes with a total projected cost of around $900 million, is being designed to account for rising water and more rainfall, said Vaki Mawema of Gensler and Claire Agre of Unknown Studio, architects who are working on the project with developers.

“The water is coming. There’s nothing we can do about that,” Agre said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Maryland is expected to get warmer and wetter in the coming years. Recent projections show the state will likely experience about 1 foot, or potentially 1.5 feet, of sea level rise between 2000 and 2050, which “will be greater than that experienced during the whole of the last century,” according to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

“That’s locked in,” said Bill Dennison, interim president and professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “What we have to deal with today is the reality of the fact that we’re not going to change that trajectory.”

That’s because, even if humans stopped emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses instantly and permanently, there is still an excessive amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere warming the planet and changing the climate.

That doesn’t mean it’s time to abandon waterfront living and development, Dennison said.

“But we certainly have to be smarter about how we construct things and how we plan,” he said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Building higher

The plans for Harborplace include narrowing the nearby roads as well as constructing hundreds of residential units, a new park and more. The developers envision a straightforward solution to account for rising sea levels and storms: building higher.

Right now, the highest portion of the Harborplace promenade is about 6.5 feet above the water level. The plans for redevelopment call for adding 3 or 3.5 feet, making the promenade 9.5 to 10 feet above the water, Agre said.

The lifted portion of the promenade will be from about the Maryland Science Center to the amphitheater at the corner of the harbor, and wrap around to the National Aquarium, Agre said.

“We are going to be as barrier-free as possible,” Agre said — meaning the project’s design calls for a gradual incline to the new heights, eliminating the need for stairs or ramps.

Denys, a child from Ukraine, dips his hand into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor by the amphitheater. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The elevated part of the promenade is where buildings and parks that are featured in the Harborplace plans will go. The plans also call for allowing people to get closer to the water by lowering parts of the promenade, adding floating docks and building a “living shoreline” of floating wetlands.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Planning for development along the waterfront — anywhere — is about defining what the “acceptable level of risk” for a certain area is, Agre said.

“Baltimore is not alone. Every mixed-use waterfront development is looking at this,” Agre said.

Projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show a foot of sea level rise will, for the most part, leave the Inner Harbor and Harborplace untouched.

A changing climate also means Baltimore will be more susceptible to flooding as storms intensify. Agre and Mawema said the Harborplace plans account for that, too.

“We need to determine how frequently is acceptable for these programs [Harborplace] to flood and be clear-eyed about that,” Agre said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

She said the planning firms team worked with “really good data” and ran “millions” of scenarios for rising seas and other climate issues to determine how to design for the future.

The way things are planned now, and with current projections for how the types of storms Baltimore gets will change, the new Harborplace designs have the promenade and first levels of buildings “at or below” today’s level of flood risk, Agre said.

So “maybe we get one major flood a year,” she said. “That’s something we can handle.”

The new buildings coming to Harborplace will be constructed a few feet higher than the existing pavilions and designed so the ground floors can “accept” floodwater, Mawema said.

“It’s not about keeping the water out. It’s about working with the conditions that we have,” he said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

That could include locating an elevator control or fuse box in a place unlikely to flood, or adding stormwater management features outside so water can absorb into the ground instead of flooding buildings and paved surfaces.

Cody Boteler is a reporter on The Banner’s Express Desk, reporting on breaking news, trending stories and interesting things in and around Baltimore. His work has appeared in The Baltimore Sun, USA TODAY, Baltimore magazine and others.

More From The Banner