In the 1970s, two men came together to answer a thorny question: After decades of white flight, neighborhood demolition and the suburbanization of America, how could cities bring people back downtown?

One was an architect in Massachusetts who drew inspiration from the casbahs of North Africa and the public squares of Europe. The other was a developer in Maryland who once called Disneyland the “greatest piece of urban design in the United States.”

Together, they popularized the “festival marketplace.”

To skeptics, it was a fancy term for a shopping mall. But to Ben Thompson and James Rouse, it was a curated mix of shops and restaurants where managers reviewed every detail to create an unforgettable experience.

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In 1986, the era of legwarmers, neon scrunchies and music videos on MTV, Rouse defiantly told the Wall Street Journal the festival marketplace “isn’t a fad.”

It was.

In the years following that interview, the construction of festival marketplaces slowed, the term fell out of favor, and the company Rouse founded was purchased by a shopping mall operator. Today, the festival marketplace that graced the cover of Time magazine — Harborplace in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor — is dilapidated, mostly vacant and at risk of demolition.

But some believe the ideas developed by Thompson and Rouse in 1970s are as relevant now as they were back then. The decline of Harborplace was not inevitable, they say, and the right mixture of retail and restaurants could thrive again, regardless of whether it’s called a festival marketplace.

“You have to ask, ‘Why isn’t Harborplace working?’ My suspicion is it’s not the architecture that’s the problem,” said Mark Lamster, architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News. “You don’t need to destroy Harborplace itself to solve the Harborplace problem.”

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Lamster went to college in the 1990s at Johns Hopkins University. He saw Harborplace when it was still thriving and called the pavilions a significant work of American architecture.

Throngs of visitors inside Harborplace in 1981, one year after it opened. (AP)

While no one is trying to copy Harborplace today, the pavilions were once a template for cities across the country and world. The first festival marketplace created by Rouse and Thompson in Boston was also a smash hit, but it had a head start. It was a redevelopment of Faneuil Hall, a historic marketplace built in the colonial era.

What made Harborplace so alluring is that it appeared to prove a festival marketplace could be created on a vacant, former industrial site. To leaders of rapidly deindustrializing cities, it seemed like building an oasis in a desert.

Almost immediately, cities scrambled to build their own festival marketplaces in the early 1980s, many of them developed or proposed by the Rouse Company. The Grand Avenue in Milwaukee was a smash hit, attracting 100,000 people when it opened in 1982. The reaction to the South Street Seaport in New York was mixed. The festival marketplaces in some cities, such as Toledo, Ohio, and Flint, Michigan, quickly struggled with attendance and vacancy. Both closed in 1990.

Squinting from a distance, many of these festival marketplaces looked interchangeable. They were often made up of long pavilions on a waterfront. The buildings were typically two stories tall, with pitched green roofs, large columns and lots of glass. Their names almost always had something to do with water, such as Portside, Waterside, Bayside, Riverwalk and the Water Street Pavilion.

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Waterside in Norfolk, Virginia, is among several festival marketplaces modeled off of Baltimore’s Harborplace. (halbergman/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

One writer in 1983 dubbed it the “Rouse-ification” of America, but the phenomenon would spread worldwide. The Rouse Company and its affiliated companies worked on projects in Sydney, Australia; Belfast, Northern Ireland; and Osaka, Japan.

In 1984, some cities, like Chicago and St. Petersburg, Florida, rejected plans by the Rouse Company to build on their waterfronts. Critics questioned whether the festival marketplaces were actually driving economic development. Increasingly, the success of Harborplace seemed like the exception, not the rule.

One aspect that most people got wrong about Harborplace is that it wasn’t an instant success when it opened — at least not behind the scenes — according to Anthony Hawkins, its original manager.

Hawkins, a Baltimore native, said he directly managed the pavilions for 15 years as part of a 30-year career at the Rouse Company. The first two years were “extremely stressful,” he said.

Some tenants left, while others had to be evicted, Hawkins said, but eventually Harborplace hit a groove that lasted for years. What made Harborplace successful was the hand-in-glove relationship between management and tenants, Hawkins said. He recalled how Harborplace helped one of its original vendors, Wayne Brokke, transition his restaurant into a barbecue joint.

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Brokke operated a popular soups and salads restaurant in South Baltimore — The Soup Kitchen — when he was approached about moving to Harborplace, which was then under construction.

Brokke was reluctant to move. He said he had a line out the door at his existing location. Then he visited the future site of Harborplace. Brokke said he saw the view of the water and found it irresistible.

Wayne Brokke, then the 31-year-old owner of The Soup Kitchen, talks to his manager, Vincent Cianni, on July 3, 1980, the opening day of Harborplace. (Amy Gould)

Brokke’s restaurant opened alongside a butcher shop, a French restaurant, Phillips Seafood, an ice cream store, a cheese stall, a spice store, a flower mart, a supermarket and much more.

Yes, the tenants had to pay steep rents, property taxes and maintenance fees, Brokke said, but it was all worth it to be at Harborplace.

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“They were constantly having meetings with you and helping you become a successful businessman,” Brokke recalled.

Today, the 75-year-old former restaurateur lives downtown. Brokke said it pains him to walk to the Inner Harbor and see crowds of people strolling past the empty storefronts at Harborplace.

Hawkins, 78, can’t remember the last time he visited Harborplace.

“I avoid it,” he said. “It makes me sick to go there.”

Hawkins blames Harborplace’s last owner, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., for its downfall. But Brokke believes the decline started as early as 1990.

That’s when Hooters — a chain restaurant featuring chicken wings, beer and scantily clad waitresses — moved in.

“We caught a lot of grief from some of the people at City Hall about it,” Hawkins said, but the Rouse Company had Hooters restaurants in its other shopping centers, and they sold a lot of chicken and beer.

To Brokke, the opening of Hooters signaled that more chain stores were coming.

This is a photo of Hooters, which originally came to Harborplace in 1990, and is suing its landlord over deteriorating conditions at the mall-like pavilions.
Hooters, which originally came to Harborplace in 1990, is one of the longest-standing tenants in the pavilions. (Giacomo Bologna)

Later that decade, Brokke was vacationing in New Orleans when he had too much to drink. The next morning, a hungover Brokke visited one of the festival marketplaces developed by Rouse in that city.

“Am I at Harborplace?” Brokke recalled thinking. “The same chains were at all their malls.”

Brokke continued to operate his restaurant at Harborplace for several more years. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the number of visitors to Harborplace dropped, Brokke said, and the Rouse Company kept raising rents. The company seemed increasingly indifferent to its local vendors, he said, and he didn’t renew his lease.

In 2004, a Chicago-based firm called General Growth Properties bought the company in a $12.6 billion deal, The Baltimore Sun reported. A few years later, the Great Recession hit. General Growth Properties, the nation’s second biggest operator of shopping malls, declared bankruptcy.

A New York company called Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. scooped up multiple festival marketplaces in the ensuing years, including Faneuil Hall and Harborplace. Under Ashkenazy’s ownership, a majority of Harborplace became vacant. Storefronts shuttered. None of the original tenants remain today. Hooters is now the longest-tenured restaurant at Harborplace.

Both Rouse and Thompson died more than two decades ago, but Brokke and Hawkins believe their creation — the festival marketplace ― could thrive again in Baltimore with the right management and tenants.

That won’t happen.

Last year, a development firm led by P. David Bramble bought Harborplace for $83 million. Bramble, a West Baltimore native, wants to build a much larger development. His proposal would more than double the existing amount of commercial space at Harborplace.

MCB Real Estate released renderings of a redeveloped Harborplace without the pavilions. (MCB Real Estate)

When Bramble explains his plan to lease all that space — and make a profit — it sounds like Rouse describing the festival marketplace: Bring in local vendors, create a unique atmosphere, and make it “cool.”

To Bramble, the first step is tearing down the pavilions that made the festival marketplace a worldwide phenomenon.

“There’s nothing special or iconic about these buildings,” Bramble said. “They’re all over the place.”

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