Developers behind an ambitious $500 million-plus plan to overhaul the iconic Harborplace complex know they’ve got a lot of convincing to do.
On Monday evening, P. David Bramble and other members of his MCB Real Estate development team took their best crack at winning over about 200 Baltimore neighbors who could eventually be among those to decide the fate of a charter amendment necessary for the project to move forward. The meeting, moderated by City Councilman Eric Costello, gave residents their first chance to directly ask their burning questions about the proposal to make over a site that has been the heart of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
And they had a lot of questions.
Would the development team seek tax-increment financing to fund the project? No, Costello said, but they will pursue funding from state and federal sources.
Must the plan include residential towers? Bramble said the apartments are crucial to making the project profitable and vowed he will not move forward without them. The developers are seeking City Council approval to zone much of the Inner Harbor for multifamily residential use.
Could motorists experience more traffic congestion around Pratt and Light streets? Possibly, the panelists said. It’s the cost for making the area more pedestrian-friendly. Plans call for pushing development all the way to the corner, eliminating a spur that now curls around Harborplace.
Where will the ice rink go? That’s the first thing Bramble’s kids asked. He’s committed to ensuring there’s space for it.
The freewheeling question-and-answer session at times generated both approving applause and sharp criticism of MCB Real Estate’s plans, which must clear several levels of approval before demolition can begin on the faded Harborplace shopping and dining pavilions, once the Inner Harbor’s premier attraction. The Pratt Street and Light Street pavilions have long since passed their heyday, having declined under prior ownership that struggled to fill their vacant retail and restaurant space.
MCB’s renderings depict four new buildings and nearly 1,000 residential units in a layout that would add new retail space, restaurants, a park and an amphitheater to the heart of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The Baltimore-based development company acquired the rights to Harborplace in April after a receivership court battle.
The large new housing development along Light Street would consist of two towers in a “stepped down” design, one tower rising 32 stories and the other 25 stories. Plans also describe a commercial building on Pratt Street that would include publicly available meeting space on the ground floor, and a building with “retail and commercial” space with dining options and a 50,000-square-foot rooftop park. They also include a smaller retail building within a 30,000-square-foot park along with an amphitheater.
Mark Braun, a new resident to Baltimore, walked into the meeting Monday evening excited about the project. He recently relocated to Federal Hill from Providence, Rhode Island, in order to be closer to his grandchildren. Braun has enjoyed riding his bike around town but considers the intersection of Pratt and Light streets treacherous.
Would MCB’s vision for Harborplace slow the flow of traffic? he asked the panel. The answer, yes, was enough to win him over. Still, he’s not sure his more established neighbors felt the same way.
“I don’t have a feel yet for what people in Baltimore are like, so I couldn’t read the room,” he said following the meeting. “I hope there won’t be a lot opposed.”
Several residents grilled the development team on the necessity of the residential units, which they argued could drive up rent prices, obstruct views of the water and generally detract from Baltimore’s central public space.
“I want to be very clear, I am a developer and I do this to make money,” Bramble said. “If you want a space that’s going to last, it has to turn a profit. As soon as they become unprofitable, they become vacant. That’s what happens. This city has got to get its mind around economic growth.”
Asia Carter and Christian Miller were not won over by the developers’ arguments, they said following the meeting. The Otterbein residents appreciated Bramble’s directness when he spoke about his need to turn a profit. However, they said, the changes could come at the expense of people who enjoy the Inner Harbor in its current form, particularly the city’s youth.
“What would a law enforcement presence look like in an updated Harborplace?” Carter wondered aloud following the meeting.
“I’m worried once they get the votes they’ll take power and shut out the public,” said Miller, a teacher at Carver Vocational-Technical High School. “It’s almost like giving them this divine right to this land. It’s not something I want to give up easily.”
Bolton Hill resident Marcel Klik, who works near the Inner Harbor, initially saw the renderings and said he “wasn’t ready for the scale of the buildings.” By the end of the meeting Monday, he felt more persuaded that the project could pull Baltimore out of its pattern of divestment.
“The thing David [Bramble] said that I’ve been preaching is we are this haven of local living on I-95 with a port and a diverse, educated workforce,” Klik said. “Baltimore should be hitting it out of the park.”
The city’s struggle to thrive has long frustrated Klik. As he departed the meeting, he said, “I’m more onboard than expected.”