I had been looking forward to news about the possible replacements for Harborplace — the 43-year-old former jewel in the Baltimore tourism crown — with the same fevered anticipation with which I await each new “Dancing With The Stars” cast. Which is to say I’ve been giddy. Seriously psyched.
If you didn’t grow up here, those old, faded green buildings at Pratt and Light streets might seem useless, an empty shell of yesteryear. But back in the day, they were the town square, the center of activity not only for tourists but for residents. Young people from around the area journeyed by bus or best friend’s ride to hang out, get a cheap slice of pizza, buy a trendy skirt, or maybe, like me, slap on an apron and name tag and sling some fudge to pay for prom tickets. Everybody was down there. It was a loud, busy party, and it was accessible to all.
Which is why last week’s reveal of renderings for the project by MCB Real Estate was … disappointing. Interesting. Fanciful. But missing something. I am not an expert in architecture, design or urban planning. I’m just a Baltimore girl, standing in front of the possible new plans for the centerpiece of the Inner Harbor, asking how welcoming it is to the public at large.
And what’s up with that air gondola?
I want you to know that I’m not one of those old-schoolers who reject change. I don’t have some weird attachment to those green pavilions. They meant a lot to me, but I know they’re outdated and neglected. Besides, the mall culture that supported a purely retail- and restaurant-based model doesn’t exist anymore. Those buildings have to come down, and something else that will draw business, visitors and money needs to replace it.
I just don’t know if this is it.
My first question is about accessibility to the public. I like the idea of the amphitheater and a park, multiple green spaces and, most importantly, pedestrian-friendly changes that get rid of that weird traffic island on Light Street. But there’s also mention of a 50,000-square-foot rooftop park on a building on Pratt Street. There were no details about the logistics of this. Is it public? How will people get to it? Is it ticketed? Is there a cost associated with it? Any time a space is inside a building, there may be rules about access.
Also, as some readers have said, the design of the four proposed buildings seems to block the view of the harbor somewhat. I’ve lived in neighborhoods where new construction limits visual access to the water, which is what made those locations attractive in the first place. There’s something relaxing about being able to see the waterline from the street. But the trees and buildings look like they obscure it.
The plans also include two proposed residential towers with about 900 housing units. Mixed-used properties are very popular, and make a lot of sense. When you’ve got people living at or near retail and restaurants, you’ve got a built-in market for those services.
But according to Apartments.com, there are already about 1,200 available rental units in the 21201 area code, where the project is located, so I’m wondering if more housing is the answer. Will the people who live in those units, which will likely be relatively expensive, want to share that space — even the parts that are designated to be public? Is it going to be welcoming?
When it worked, the beauty of the Inner Harbor wasn’t just the restaurants or the kite shop or the paddleboats. It was the people. I know the area didn’t open its arms to all; I had a friend who taught in Pigtown in the 1990s and said a lot of her students had never been to Harborplace because they sensed it wasn’t for them. I worry that the new design, with its designated housing and that rooftop park, reads exclusive rather than inclusive.
The design, as many have pointed out, is also incongruous with the rest of the area. I love that it’s futuristic, but it still doesn’t seem to fit, including that swoopy-roofed building. While I love creativity and applaud the creators for taking a giant swing for the fences, I’m not yet excited by the proposed changes. It’s hard to look forward to utilizing a space you’re not sure wants you there.