Members of the audience applauded when Leon Bridges ambled to the microphone. The retired architect spent more than six hours sitting through a Baltimore Planning Commission meeting so he could register his testimony on a subject deeply important to him — the proposed redevelopment of Harborplace.
Politicians have cheered the proposal, which would dramatically reshape the Inner Harbor area and the city’s skyline. Some residents love it, and some hate it. One group of people has consistently criticized it. Architects.
A city panel of architects trashed the designs at a November hearing, with one saying it looked as though ChatGPT had been asked to design a waterfront development. Two local chapters of national architectural organizations wrote letters opposing the development plans, and several architects penned their own letters.
“We were told earlier that the vision of Harborplace would reflect Baltimore,” Bridges said Thursday. “It seems to me that vision has been lost.”
There are concerns about overbuilding, the addition of high-rise residential towers, and whether the developer and taxpayers can cobble together roughly $1 billion for these plans. But the chief concern among architects is who is driving the car.
Politicians and developers are in the driver’s seat, they say, while architects and planners are in the back seat. Many of those architects want to see a comprehensive public planning process for Harborplace — a road map of sorts — before starting the car and driving.
This struggle for the steering wheel happens in cities across the country, said Mark Lamster, an architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News, especially when it comes to major development projects.
Architects are driven by questions of scale, preservation, sustainability and aesthetics, Lamster said, while developers are primarily concerned about profitability.
P. David Bramble, principal of MCB Real Estate, said something similar at a community meeting this month. His firm bought Harborplace out of receivership this year, and he said the first principle of MCB’s redevelopment proposal is “economic sustainability.”
“The math has to work,” Bramble said. “We have to build a project that we can finance.”
That doesn’t mean MCB is ignoring the design of a new Harborplace. Bramble and his team have touted the international design competition that led to the selection of 3XN, a Danish firm that has been working alongside local architects from Gensler and BCT Design Group.
Kim Nielsen, cofounder of 3XN, spoke to Baltimore’s architectural review panel in November via video call from Copenhagen. He talked about architecture’s ability to create inviting spaces.
One of the proposed buildings — “the sail” — is a commercial building with a sloped roof that people would be able to walk up and down. Nielsen called it an “elevated neighborhood landscape” that will bring people back to the Inner Harbor.
Not everybody sees it that way.
“The sail building turns its back on Pratt Street,” Bridges said.
The retired architect also took issue with plans for two high-rise residential buildings. MCB Real Estate owns a parking lot on Pratt Street across from Harborplace, Bridges said, and that would be an ideal spot for an apartment tower.
John Mariani wrote in testimony to the planning commission that it makes no sense to put apartment towers along the waterfront when there are other opportunities to build multifamily residential housing nearby. Klaus Philipsen wrote that the city risks losing control over a vital space if MCB’s plans go forward. Echoing the fears of a former planning director, David Benn wrote he didn’t want Baltimore turning into “Dallas on the Chesapeake.”
Still, something has to change, said Arjun Hosakere, an architect who has worked at Gensler and at the Baltimore development firm Zahlco.
While Harborplace once drew millions of visitors annually, it’s decaying and mostly empty today. Hosakere said it’s time to get excited about the transformation of Harborplace.
“You can’t please everybody,” he said of the criticism. “You’re always going to get that.”
People should remember that designs evolve and improve as the development team gets feedback from architects, engineers and the public, Hosakere said. It’s also possible that architects may dislike a project that the public will enjoy, he said.
“I’m not saying it’s a fantastic design, done, pencils down, let’s build this thing,” Hosakere said. “Just like any project anywhere, it’s always going to get refined.”
But Lamster said the objections to Harborplace’s redevelopment are less about what could be gained and more about what could be lost. The existing Harborplace — even its current form — is a historic and influential work of American architecture that was once incredibly successful.
“The idea that they would go in and just blow it up rather than embracing that design and working from it is really objectionable to architects,” Lamster said.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the description of John Mariani's testimony to the planning commission.