The transfer of the Harborplace pavilions to Baltimore-based development company MCB Real Estate last week means a new set of hands can get to work on reviving the aged city landmark.
But major changes to Harborplace’s design, stature and use are still years away, MCB Real Estate principal P. David Bramble has said publicly, though the firm is now legally bound to maintain its condition from further disrepair.
Here’s what MCB’s acquisition of the complex means for Harborplace.
When will we see change?
MCB’s newly approved 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.
After the first three years, it’s not clear what the company’s obligations will be. While the Board of Estimates agenda states that the city and developer will work in “good faith” on a redevelopment plan, it also notes that a specific plan may require further amendments to the lease — which could take more time.
Speaking before a crowd of downtown Baltimore boosters last month, Bramble appeared to be quelling expectations for quick movement on Harborplace’s development.
“I think that, obviously, everybody knows that this project is going to take a while to plan, to gather the necessary community engagement, and strategize on resiliency, and all the other things that are going to go into the overall redevelopment of the project over time,” Bramble told the State of Downtown Baltimore Breakfast audience.
He continued: “However, we can’t let our crown jewel just sit around and languish while we work on that over the next couple of years, with planning [the planning department] and with the mayor’s office and with the community.”
Bramble referred to the new lease agreement as an “interim lease” and said the company plans to use this period to “reconnect” people with the waterfront. This entails hosting public gatherings and having some small, local businesses move in to the complex on a temporary rental basis. Crust by Mack, a Black-owned, family-run baked goods maker, was first to sign on as an interim tenant.
The company has a public forum tentatively scheduled for June, according to the “Our Harborplace” website. A second forum, meant specifically for older adults in Baltimore, is scheduled for later in the summer, and a third and fourth will aim to bring together young people and other community members.
What are the plans?
Bramble, during remarks, said there are no firm plans yet for how Harborplace will be redone — though he did joke about fielding a number of requests for an Inner Harbor Ferris wheel. But he did mention the firm’s use of a number of “principles” to help guide their plans.
Among them: “safety and security — and making people feel safe and secure as they use the project,” Bramble said.
Next: Creating an anchor for Baltimore’s downtown district, which is contending with high crime levels, commercial building vacancy and housing vacancy. Bramble noted ongoing discussions with city officials and booster groups around how to make downtown feel more connected, lively and walkable to Harborplace.
Bramble also mentioned creating a Harborplace pavilion with a mix of uses: “residential, and office, hospitality, retail, food, entertainment.”
And finally: Bramble stressed wanting Harborplace to retain its character as a city-specific landmark.
“What’s going to make this so cool is that it is Baltimore,” he said. “And great, interesting things about Baltimore, we’re going to put them on display. And then the national tenants are going to be begging to come in alongside of that.”
Bramble also will have to factor in changing environmental conditions, such as rising water levels and higher water temperatures. City planners, in a 2013 “Baltimore Inner Harbor 2.0″ master plan document that focused on how to improve the waterfront destination, called for the integration of more “green” infrastructure to support a healthy harbor, including living shorelines, floating wetlands, rain gardens, stormwater management, enhanced tree canopy and native plant habitat.
Why is this happening now?
A court battle over the future of Harborplace concluded in September 2022 when a court-appointed receiver, IVL Group LLC, filed a motion to sell Harborplace.
The previous owner, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., had defaulted on a mortgage loan and had not made significant upgrades or investments in the property in several years, said Colin Tarbert, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp. The appointed receiver will now have oversight over MCB’s progress and will determine if the proposal they come up with is salient enough for a sale to take place.
Tarbert said the receiver met with several developers before landing on MCB Real Estate as the right fit for Harborplace. He cited Bramble and MCB’s work on Yard 56 in Greektown; Madison Park North in Northwest Baltimore; and at Northwood Commons, a once-segregated shopping center near Morgan State University, as testaments to his ability to get the job done. He estimated it could take another three to five years before construction could begin.
He said Harborplace will help bolster downtown, a change of pace after years of “energy” shifting east to Harbor East and Harbor Point.
“He’s a private sector developer; he’s not doing it for charity,” Tarbert said of Bramble. “He’s skilled enough to take on a complicated project like Harborplace and do it the way it needs to get done.”
Through fiscal year 2025, Downtown Baltimore and the Inner Harbor will also 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.