Baltimore’s Inner Harbor hasn’t always been the public space we recognize today, but the city and its residents have always been connected to the water. Here’s how the harbor transformed from an industrial hub a century ago to the beloved attraction developers want to revitalize.

A view of the Inner Harbor from Federal Hill, about 1872. (Courtesy Enoch Pratt Library)

Before 1900: An industrial boomtown

Early on, Baltimore was a major port city, railroad boomtown and coastal slave trade hub. Factories and warehouses crowded the wharves and lined the streets around the Inner Harbor. But as early as 1773 — before the founding of the United States — there are reports of a theater opening at the Inner Harbor, showing its potential as a public space. The geography of the Inner Harbor has changed a lot since then — the water line used to start at Water Street, two blocks north of its current location, and nearly as far west as Hanover Street. The harbor was also dredged many times, with shipping channels widened and deepened to allow for bigger ships.

A view of the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 from Federal Hill. (Courtesy The Maryland Historical Society)

1904: Rebuilding after the Great Baltimore Fire

Baltimore’s Great Fire destroyed the city’s downtown, resulting in a new look for the Inner Harbor. The wharves that jutted out into the water were rebuilt, and because of the fire, they fell into public ownership. But even as some of the land around the harbor was public, it was still mostly controlled by corporations.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in 1941. (Courtesy The Maryland Historical Society)

1940s to 1950s: World War II population boom

Baltimore’s population boomed during World War II, as it turned its industrial might toward the war effort. It was a bright spot following the hard times of the Great Depression in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

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The proposed Southwest Expressway would have covered the Inner Harbor in highways. (Courtesy The Maryland State Archives)

Early 1960s: Urban flight

As suburbs sprouted in other counties, Baltimore’s population saw a slow and steady decline. Many retail and industrial businesses soon left downtown. The Inner Harbor looked like “a wide open pool of black water surrounded by a prairie crisscrossed with streets,” according to a history of the city provided by the Baltimore City Department of Planning. The area narrowly avoided a highway plan that would have made it unrecognizable and inaccessible to the city’s citizens. It took a strong, yearslong effort from Baltimore residents to save the Inner Harbor.

Aerial of Baltimore harbor 1962
An aerial of downtown Baltimore in 1962. (Courtesy: University of Baltimore)

1964: The Inner Harbor Master Plan

The city and consultants unveiled an ambitious project that envisioned a harbor surrounded by interconnected public spaces along with a waterfront promenade. “They envisioned museums, office buildings, hotels, amphitheaters, marinas and piers for visiting ships, parks and playgrounds, and a new kind of shopping center, the festival marketplace,” according to the Department of Planning’s history of Baltimore. They were, of course, talking about Harborplace. That plan was estimated to cost $280 million, or about $2.8 billion in today’s money.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor skyline on Aug. 31, 1970. (AP)

1970s: Transformation to a public space

Federal Urban Renewal funds paid for the demolition of nearly all the buildings around the harbor, and for the construction of piers, bulkheads, roads, utilities and parks. The promenade was constructed around the harbor’s edge, and more and more public events and attractions filled in the spaces around the water, including the Maryland Science Center and the City Fair. Office buildings, including the World Trade Center, were built, bringing business back downtown.

Baltimore celebrates the opening of the Harborplace pavilions in July 1980. (Courtesy of Enoch Pratt Library)

1980: Harborplace opens

Baltimore voters approved a referendum allowing 3.2 acres to be developed by the Rouse Co., and leaving the majority of the land around the Inner Harbor as public park land. The National Aquarium opened in 1981 and remains one of the city’s biggest attractions.

A view of Inner Harbor from the top of Federal Hill in 2006. (EyeJoy/Getty Images)

2004: General Growth Properties buys Harborplace

James Rouse, the man behind Harborplace, died in 1996, and a few years later General Growth Properties bought Rouse Co., which owned the pavilions. The following years were tumultuous for General Growth, which filed for and emerged from bankruptcy a few years after acquiring the property. In 2010, when the pavilions turned 30 years old, General Growth announced plans to reshape Harborplace by bringing in new tenants to appeal to local residents and downtown office workers rather than tourists. It didn’t work. In 2011, Harborplace’s last original tenant, Phillips Seafood, left.

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A bird’s-eye view of the Inner Harbor during the War of 1812 bicentennial celebration in 2012. (Greg Pease/Getty Images)

2012: Harborplace sold again

Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., a New York real estate investment firm, bought Harborplace from General Growth for nearly $100 million. The firm was collecting unique commercial properties like Harborplace at the time, but Ashkenazy’s time on Baltimore’s waterfront would be short-lived. By 2019, it had defaulted on the $98.5 million loan and Harborplace was placed in receivership, a court-ordered process that required a judge to approval a sale to a new owner.

MCB Real Estate Co-Founder David Bramble speaks at a press conference where the company’s plans for the Harborplace development are revealed, at the Light Street pavilion on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023 in Baltimore, MD.
MCB Real Estate co-Founder David Bramble. (Wesley Lapointe/The Baltimore Banner)

2022: MCB Real Estate makes a deal for Harborplace

A deal for MCB Real Estate to buy Harborplace was approved in late 2022, and the sale was finalized in 2023. Headed by local developer P. David Bramble, the group had big plans for what they called “the crown jewel” of Baltimore. Bramble said years of nonlocal ownership helped turn Harborplace into what it is today, and he wants to reverse course.

Harborplace renderings show massive residential units envisioned by the developer. (Handout)

October 2023: New plans are unveiled

MCB’s plans to redevelop Harborplace include a large square building with a sloping rooftop park, two new residential towers and more changes to the familiar waterfront. The infrastructure around the harbor, including both Light and Pratt streets, could also get a facelift under MCB’s plan.

An earlier version of this story included a photo that was dated incorrectly.

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