No, the city of Baltimore is not rushing the redevelopment of Harborplace.

That’s what the Baltimore Planning Commission decided Thursday night after an hours-long hearing on the ambitious plans to reimagine the Inner Harbor. Commissioners unanimously agreed to recommend changes to city policy on height and size restrictions at the site — a key step in a lengthy public approval process.

More than 50 people packed the planning commissioner hearing room, with some residents waiting hours to speak. The planning commission received dozens of letters ahead of the meeting from residents and organizations about the proposed Inner Harbor redevelopment, with most in opposition.

Near the end of the meeting, Commissioner Eric Stephenson said he noticed a generational split among the speakers.

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Older residents who could remember Harborplace when it first opened generally opposed the plans, Stephenson said, but younger residents who have only known the dilapidated pavilions near the water wanted change now.

“This idea of urgency keeps coming up,” Stephenson said. “What’s the rush?”

The rush, he said, is that it’s not fair to younger residents to keep pushing off a redevelopment that will take several years — at a minimum — to build.

“I would push back on people saying we’re going too quickly,” said Deputy Mayor Justin Williams, another member of the planning commission.

“There has to be a sense of urgency here,” echoed Councilman Eric Costello, who sits on the commission and also represents the Inner Harbor as part of his council district.

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Staff turned on a fan in the room, which quickly became stuffy as residents waited for a turn to give their opinion. Harborplace was the last agenda item for a meeting that began at 10 a.m. for the Baltimore Planning Commission.

“I can’t feel my butt right now,” said Chairman Sean Davis at about 5:30 p.m.

But Davis said he was committed to allowing everyone an opportunity to speak because he knew importance of Harborplace to so many Baltimore residents.

This is a photo of P. David Bramble, principal of MCB Real Estate, speaking to the Baltimore Planning Commission about the proposed redevelopment of Harborplace.
P. David Bramble, principal of MCB Real Estate, speaks to the Baltimore Planning Commission about the proposed redevelopment of Harborplace. (Giacomo Bologna)

Harborplace was an overnight sensation when the twin, mall-like pavilions opened along the Inner Harbor more than four decades ago, drawing millions of visitors annually. Under the ownership of an out-of-state firm, the pavilions fell into disrepair, and most tenants left. Earlier this year, Baltimore-based MCB Real Estate bought the buildings out of receivership.

P. David Bramble, principal of MCB, unveiled the plans for Harborplace’s redevelopment this fall. His plan calls for razing the pavilions and replacing them with five buildings, including two residential towers totaling 900 units and a commercial building with a curved roof called “the sail.”

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The plan would also reshape the public space surrounding Harborplace and is contingent on significant support from taxpayers. Bramble wants to change how people interact with the water by building a floating promenade, reduce nearby traffic lanes, make the entire surrounding area walkable, create a public park, install bike lanes and add public transportation options.

MCB’s plans call for an estimated $500 million of private investment and $400 million of public money. The public money would include about $200 million for promenade improvements, $75 million to $100 million to reconstruct the nearby streetscape, and $100 million for the park space.

Caroline Hecker, an attorney representing the development team, said this public money is expected to come from the state and federal government — not the city.

At a community meeting earlier this month, Bramble noted that these numbers are rough estimates and will almost certainly change.

“As long as I’ve been involved in these projects, the price tags only ever climb, unfortunately, but that’s where we are right now,” Bramble told an audience in Cherry Hill.

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To build the high-rise residential towers and the large commercial building along the city’s waterfront will require a lot of paperwork. Zoning, an urban renewal plan and the city’s charter must all be amended. Following Thursday’s blessing by the planning commission, the City Council will consider three different bills. Ultimately, voters will have to approve an amendment to the city charter through a November 2024 ballot question.

“The residents and the voters are going to have the final say on this,” Stephenson said. “And that’s important.”