When a developer promised to radically alter the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, many people were delighted and impressed.

Some were indignant and horrified. They formed an opposition campaign. They packed public hearings. They feared city leaders were letting a political insider build a temple to hucksterism on a beloved piece of public land. And it all came down to a citywide ballot question that November.

Sound familiar?

Today, an ambitious redevelopment plan led by P. David Bramble is sparking conversations in Baltimore about architecture, history, elitism, race, traffic congestion, capitalism and the public’s access to the waterfront. The same thing happened nearly 50 years ago.

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Harborplace — now considered an icon of Baltimore — was nearly blocked by a groundswell of opposition.

It was August 1977. Bramble was in diapers, toddling around a West Baltimore rowhome, and a bespectacled, balding man named James Rouse was politely igniting a firestorm in city hall.

Rouse was nationally renowned as a shopping mall developer, an advocate for urban renewal and the founder of Columbia. The businessman now wanted to build what he called a festival marketplace on the Inner Harbor waterfront, land city leaders had long eyed for commercial development.

Harborplace would be the crown jewel of a downtown shedding the last traces of its industrial era. Vacant warehouses pockmarked the Inner Harbor like acne. Docks jutted into the stagnant water like rotting teeth.

Baltimore’s leaders believed the future of downtown hinged on office buildings, shopping and tourism. They used an influx of federal money to raze much of the area, laying the groundwork for future development.

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There was a hitch.

As developers erected new office towers in the central business district, residents got used to the open space along the city’s waterfront, especially along Light Street. The city planted grass, flowers and bushes and organized festivals. According to the book “William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography,” the irascible four-term mayor was dismayed when large crowds started showing up.

“No, no, not that nice! Don’t make it beautiful!” Schaefer said. “People will fall in love with it, and we’ll have a hell of a time putting anything else down there.”

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in 1970, 10 years before Harborplace was built. (AP)

Fearing public pushback, Schaefer decided no one would build on the space as long he was mayor and rebuffed multiple proposed developments.

“No one will build on the Inner Harbor as long as I’m mayor,” he told a city official, according to the biography.

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Then he heard Rouse was interested.

Schaefer and Rouse had known each other for decades. According to a biography of Rouse titled “Better Places, Better Lives,” Schaefer changed his mind during a visit to Faneuil Hall in Boston, the first festival marketplace developed by the Rouse Company. The mayor turned to Rouse’s wife and said, “Baltimore has got to have one of these.”

Not everyone saw the appeal. Business leaders, particularly in Little Italy, were concerned the pavilions proposed by Rouse would take their customers. A month after Rouse delivered his pitch to the City Council, a diverse group of residents banded together to oppose it.

They complained about almost every aspect of the proposed festival marketplace. It would block views of the water. It would create more traffic congestion. It would cater to upper class, predominantly white people who treated shopping like a leisure activity. It would do little for Baltimore, a city struggling with job loss, depopulation and crime.

These are some of the same concerns raised about the plan presented by Bramble and the development firm he co-founded, MCB Real Estate. Bramble wants to tear down Harborplace and replace the pavilions with a much bigger development — three commercial buildings and two residential towers.

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While today’s City Council has almost unanimously supported the vision of Bramble and his development firm, some of Rouse’s loudest opponents sat on City Council, including George Della Jr.

“Get off my Rouse,” Della, 80, recalled Schaefer telling him.

Much of Della’s political career was spent representing South Baltimore as a state senator. But in 1978, he was a councilman and member of a “merry band” of activists who met at a kitchen table to plan their grassroots opposition campaign.

The movement was largely led by women such as Louise Alder, a Locust Point resident who co-founded Citizens for the Preservation of the Inner Harbor. Della said the group went out with clipboards and collected more than 10,000 signatures for a ballot measure to block Harborplace.

The measure would have preserved the land as a public park. In response, the Schaefer administration lobbied the City Council to add a second ballot question with similar language. Schaefer’s ballot question would also preserve park space — while still allowing 3.2 acres of land to be developed into Harborplace.

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The second ballot question enraged the opposition movement, and The Baltimore Sun dubbed the ensuing political brawl the “year’s hottest issue.”

In November 1978, more than 100,000 Baltimoreans cast ballots, with 46% voting to keep the Inner Harbor free of commercialization. Harborplace was a go.

Construction began on a frigid day in January 1979. Eighteen months later, workers were racing to finish the $18-million project ahead of Fourth of July weekend in 1980.

Jayne Miller was a new reporter at WBAL when the TV station sent her to cover the opening. More than anything, Miller recalled the size of the crowd and an unprecedented sense of anticipation. Everyone was curious to know what the brand new Harborplace would look like, she said. More than 100,000 people attended the celebration, newspapers reported.

Standing in front of the pavilions on July 3, 1980, then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer and the developer James Rouse, both center, stand in front of a cake in the shape of Harborplace. (Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 4383)

Harborplace became an international sensation, drawing more visitors in its first year than Disney World, according to Time. The magazine featured Harborplace and Rouse on its cover and called him an “urban visionary.”

Alder, who died in 2022, told The Sun in 2019 she never went inside the pavilions and hoped they would be demolished.

But Della came to enjoy Harborplace. He said his son loved coming there because there was always something going on. They would walk or bike down to the Inner Harbor and fly kites, Della said. On one of those visits, Della said he saw Rouse, who was known to stroll about his creation as though he were another tourist.

“I walked up to him, and I said, ‘Hey, you know, this facility turned out far better than what I imagined initially,’” Della said, but he has no regrets about opposing it in 1978.

If it weren’t for the opposition movement, Della said city leaders would have let the Rouse Company do whatever it pleased to the Inner Harbor. Now, Della said his worst fears appear to be coming true.

He plans to vote this November against the ballot question that would enable Bramble to build apartment towers in the Inner Harbor. He said recent legislation passed by the City Council “really opens a can of worms.”

Anthony Hawkins, 78, the original manager of Harborplace, shares Della’s concerns about the proposed apartment towers, but he empathizes with Bramble.

Harborplace needs to be reimagined, Hawkins said, and even a great idea can face pushback. During the debate over the original Harborplace, Hawkins said he spent many nights canvassing neighborhoods, selling the proposal to skeptical residents ahead of the citywide referendum in 1978.

“It took a great sales job,” Hawkins said. “People have an adversity to change.”

Thsi story has been updated to correct the age of George Della Jr. Della is 80.

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