Baltimore’s planning commission delayed a vote on the redesign of Harborplace after technical difficulties prevented residents from watching a Thursday meeting online.
The panel was due to vote on three bills that aim to change zoning and street design around the Inner Harbor, all of which were sponsored by City Councilman Eric Costello.
Costello asked commission chairman Sean Davis to end the meeting without voting, citing the “high-profile nature of the proposals.”
Davis agreed, adding that members of the panel should refrain from publicly discussing the pending legislation until they meet again next month.
Residents attempting to participate online felt thwarted. Since the pandemic hit Baltimore in 2020, City Hall has regularly held public meetings in hybrid formats that allow both in-person and virtual participation. Thiru Vignarajah, an attorney who ran unsuccessfully in the 2022 Democratic primary for Baltimore City State’s Attorney, livestreamed some of the panel’s proceedings from his campaign Facebook page.
“I heard the webcast is not working — which is not cool on something this important, which was announced with virtually no notice,” he wrote online.
The panel gave residents who appeared in person the choice to deliver their testimony on Thursday or to wait until the next meeting. The majority deferred until the yet-to-be-scheduled December meeting.
The nine-member planning commission, which operates as a part of the city’s Department of Planning and includes six appointed citizen members and three political appointees, reviews most major developments in Baltimore. The group makes recommendations to the City Council, helps guide the city’s comprehensive master plan and hears public testimony throughout the year.
The Baltimore-based MCB Real Estate firm unveiled the design plans at a news conference last month featuring a slate of local elected leaders and business executives who pledged to throw their full support behind the effort. The proposals call for a total of four new buildings that would add retail space, restaurants, a park and an amphitheater to one of the city’s most well-known destinations. It also would narrow Light Street for traffic; build out more space for pedestrians, cyclists and mass transit; and reconstruct the promenade into a two-level structure.
Under the plans, Harborplace’s two pavilions that opened to much fanfare in 1980 would be demolished. The two-story structures ushered in a lucrative tourism era for Baltimore, but have since fallen into disrepair.
The company, with a portfolio that includes other major developments in Greektown, West Baltimore and Hampden, 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. Bramble has said it will take years for the firm to fully overhaul the complex, and has spent the last several months making appearances at town halls, conferences and community meetings to drum up interest and enthusiasm.
Despite Bramble’s robust public engagement tour, the plans still caught some people off guard.
The Harborplace plans — estimated by the development team to cost close to $1 billion using a mix of public and private funds — ultimately will endure several public hearings prior to construction. It also must survive a charter amendment process, which will task voters with either approving or rejecting a future ballot question seeking permission to change Harborplace’s zoning from a public park space into one that enables residential buildings.
In a Thursday letter delivered to the planning commission, the Urban Design Committee of the Baltimore Chapter of the American Institute of Architects called on the commission to provide greater transparency and demand more rigor from MCB Real Estate.
Among the critiques, the letter, reviewed by The Baltimore Banner prior to Thursday’s meeting, said members of the public have not been provided sufficient time to prepare testimony; have not seen the project’s materials, proposals and financial information presented in an accessible way; and have not heard sufficient justification for including residential units, “unlimited” building heights and private parking at the site.
“Locating high-rise buildings within the Park, especially when there is more than enough land for housing elsewhere in the City, drastically changes the character of this site for the worse: from a park to a city block with a promenade along one side,” the letter states.
Another subset of the city’s planning department, the Urban Design and Architectural Advisory Panel, delivered harsh feedback to the Harborplace developers earlier this month at a public hearing and urged them to make adjustments. Chairperson Pavlina Ilieva remarked that the design plans appeared inauthentic and AI-generated. Another panelist said the renderings did not reflect the city’s character.
At a neighborhood meeting in South Baltimore, Bramble, hearing criticism about the plan’s calls for two residential towers, said the project could not move forward without them. He defended them as crucial to enabling Harborplace to be financially sustainable and viable throughout the year, even during the cold weather months when waterfront traffic recedes.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct that the meeting took place Thursday.