The long-awaited plans for a reimagined Harborplace intended to rejuvenate Baltimore’s downtown and waterfront include four new buildings and nearly 1,000 new residential units — a layout that will add retail space, restaurants, a park and an amphitheater to one of the city’s most well-known destinations, according to details released Monday.
MCB Real Estate unveiled the design plans at a news conference featuring state and local government and business leaders, including Gov. Wes Moore, state Comptroller Brooke Lierman, state Sen. President Bill Ferguson and Mayor Brandon Scott. During a series of remarks, all pledged to throw their full support behind the vision.
“There’s so much more work that’s going to have to be done: legislative work ... zoning, permits, and even more community engagement, which has already been tremendous, that has to continue,” Scott told the crowd, which packed into the second story of the Light Street pavilion. “But it is so welcome when we have a home team like MCB leading the charge, who have not only assured us but proven that they are dedicated to this project, and this project in the right way.”
The Baltimore-based company acquired the rights to Harborplace in April after a receivership court battle and is led by a West Baltimore native, co-founder and managing partner P. David Bramble, whose portfolio contains other high-profile city projects, including Yard 56 near Johns Hopkins Bayview Hospital, the Rotunda in Hampden and Arundel Plaza in Glen Burnie. Bramble has said it will take years for the firm to fully overhaul the complex.
Among the featured components is a large new housing development consisting of two towers in a “stepped down” design, one tower rising 32 stories and the other 25 stories. In all, the complex would deliver as many as 900 housing units, along with retail and commercial space.
The developer’s plans also describe two 200,000-square-foot buildings; one commercial property on Pratt Street that would include an open ground floor with publicly available meeting spaces; and another “retail and commercial” space with dining options and a 50,000-square-foot rooftop park, also on Pratt Street. The designs also make way for a smaller retail building within a 30,000-square-foot park along with an amphitheater, all bounded by downtown’s Light and Pratt streets.
Contributing to the design team is the Copenhagen, Denmark-based architectural firm 3XN, as well as Baltimore’s Gensler team, and the city-based BCT Design Group, Sulton Campbell Britt & Associates, Unknown Studio Landscape Architecture, Moffat & Nichol Engineers, RK&K, Biohabitats and the Baltimore County-based The Traffic Group.
On Monday, Bramble said the project will cost at least $500 million, not counting the public spaces. The MCB team is seeking City Council approval to zone much of the Inner Harbor for multifamily residential use, according to a charter amendment scheduled to be introduced Monday night.
Sponsored by City Councilman Eric Costello, whose district includes a portion of downtown Baltimore and the Inner Harbor, the bill would amend the zoning code from a public parks provision to one that permits residential development and off-street parking within the boundaries of “Inner Harbor Park,” which it describes as “from the World Trade Center around the shoreline of the Inner Harbor and including Rash Field.”
With a charter amendment, the final say on the matter would be left to city voters in an election year.
The two existing two-story pavilions, erected by The Rouse Co. as part of an effort to revive downtown Baltimore, opened in 1980. In 2012, they sold to Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., which went on to default on a loan and allow the pavilions to decline — and vacancies rise — over nearly a decade. Remaining tenants there include national brands including The Cheesecake Factory, Hooters and, until last year, Bubba Gump Shrimp.
MCB’s lease agreement does not establish a clear timeline for the developer to begin construction, but it does provide the team with free rent for three years. During that time, the company will field suggestions from community members and civic leaders, draft a financing plan and work toward getting the necessary approvals to start developing.
Through fiscal year 2025, Downtown Baltimore and the Inner Harbor will have $166 million in state funding to work with, with about $68 million designated for the Inner Harbor Waterfront Promenade. The National Aquarium, Rash Field Park, Maryland Science Center, USS Constellation, Pride of Baltimore II and Downtown Partnership of Baltimore also will receive portions of the investment.
Bramble has been hinting at plans for an ambitious overhaul of Harborplace that includes residential components for weeks, telling audiences during several public appearances that an investment in the waterfront would need to win over investors and incentivize consumer spending. He also has commented on the current layout’s unfriendliness to pedestrians and bikers and announced his intention to tear down the two pavilions currently lining the harbor.
“This project includes a lot of public space, and people should have a say in how public space is developed and used. But it’s not all altruistic. It’s also practical,” Bramble said Monday morning. He also acknowledged feeling the “pressure” as the lead developer on such a high-stakes effort.
Later in the day, Bramble and Gensler Managing Partner and Principal Vaki Mawema outlined the proposal at a lecture series sponsored by the Baltimore Development Corp., calling it a “once in a generation” opportunity to catalyze more downtown investment and increase access to the water. A video that played before the panel began showed sketches of Dumbo, a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, that may have served as inspiration for the plans.
“Equity is not always dollars and cents, but it can be experience,” Mawema said while presenting slides that appeared to demonstrate increased water views around the harbor. “We know we want to create the greatest, most wonderful Inner Harbor in the world. ... but it’s right in the middle of downtown, so we can set ourselves up to create the most incredible downtown in the world.”
Mawema called the array of building designs and styles a deliberate mechanism to increase interest and excitement among visitors. “We want people to just go, ‘Wow. Wow,’” Mawema said of the design.
While reviewing the Pratt Street building with the rooftop park, Mawema referred to it as “a majestic structure,” designed to create a similar effect on the city as the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. “This is a signature building, a postcard moment,” he said. “The most memorable buildings in the world have the quality of shaping outdoor spaces.”
On the “step-down” residential building, Mawema pledged for it to “absolutely transform the skyline of the Inner Harbor in an exciting way.” Adding more residents, he said, would help maintain the project’s long-term economic viability and enhance public safety along the water.
The firm has spent months engaging community members to seek feedback on the plans. At an appearance earlier this month at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s lecture series, Bramble brought three people he met out in the community on stage with him as testament to the company’s surveying of diverse voices. At The Baltimore Banner’s iMPACT Maryland conference, he told the audience the firm had reached at least 30,000 people.
It’s not clear what specific pieces of community feedback MCB Real Estate incorporated, and several other questions about the initiative were not answered Monday. For example, it’s not known if the Harborplace residential buildings would include any moderately priced or affordable units (though a note on the MCB Real Estate website pledges to “build a robust inclusionary housing strategy”) or how much more investment it would require from public coffers. The sketches also appeared to propose narrowing Light Street, though it was not clear when that process would start or the effect it would have on traffic.
To some, Monday’s announcement also reinforced long-held concerns among community members about high concentrations of investment in Baltimore’s waterfronts at the expense of existing communities.
“People are living in neighborhoods where properties are falling down,” said Nneka N’namdi, founder and COO of Fight Blight Bmore, which has emerged as a prominent voice on the city’s vacant housing stock and the impacts it has on residents. “I get their notion that you can’t have a strong uptown without a strong downtown, but that’s an antiquated idea. Neighborhoods themselves create vibrant economies.”
N’namdi, who attended the morning news conference, also pointed out that two inclusionary housing bills are still awaiting votes in the City Council. “The underlying notion that this is being designed for everyone ... we haven’t heard from them how they plan on addressing that,” she said.
Other attendees raised skepticism about the viability of the plans.
“They’ve been talking for years,” said Mike Marks, an educator from West Baltimore who came to Monday’s news conference. Marks said he wanted to hear plans for the place that drew him to Baltimore around 40 years ago “straight from the horse’s mouth.”
Hearing support voiced by Maryland’s governor helped assuage some of Marks’ concerns, but others in the crowd said they would need a little more reassurance that the project would not wind up like the historic Morris A. Mechanic Theatre on South Charles Street, which was razed in 2014 but never replaced, leaving a massive gap in the city’s core.
Bramble, at the Monday afternoon panel discussion, said the real estate firm is occupying a unique space in being tasked to both build new buildings and reconfigure public space. He said the plans’ proposals for upper and lower waterfront promenade walkways; a 2,000 seat amphitheater; public seating and lounging space; a new “world-class” park at the corner of Light and Pratt streets and increasing waterfront views speak to their prioritization of the public’s ideas.
He also acknowledged the need to invest in other areas of the city.
“We want Baltimore to rise together,” he said. “We need to focus on getting everyone to feel like they’re a part of the story, and it’s doable.
“This is it. If we fail to drive a freight train through this opportunity, we are crazy.”
Baltimore Banner reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.