City officials who continue to exhibit a phenomenal lack of imagination, civic courage and respect for taxpayers have done it to us again. The Baltimore City Planning Commission’s pro forma approval of land-use bills that would effectively shift public waterfront land into private hands in perpetuity and remove building height restrictions near the Inner Harbor will be rolled up into a charter amendment and put before voters next year. But as city voters have a reliable history of approving ballot motions, this is virtually a done deal.
So now, I’m experiencing a kind of urban post-traumatic stress disorder. Last year, the city reversed years of restrictions prohibiting billboards downtown. Over the objections of many downtown residents concerned about light pollution as well as questionable aesthetics and driver distractions, brightly glowing digital billboards are within sight of my apartment, and boy, are they ugly.
Likewise, the $535 million tax-increment financing bond passed in 2016 to aid the private development of Port Covington, now the Baltimore Peninsula, is transforming a vast acreage of waterfront land near historic Cherry Hill. It is becoming a bland, hard-edge, suburban enclave with boxy buildings and chain stores that would be right at home in an industrial strip mall or outer-ring suburb anywhere in the country. Walking around this soulless expanse is a depressing experience but for the spectacular water views that I suspect many nearby residents will not automatically feel welcomed to enjoy.
Eric Stephenson, the planning commission’s chair, condescendingly suggested at the recent hearing on the Inner Harbor that some of us are “resistant to change.”
I call BS. I live downtown and I see what’s happening as the Inner Harbor hollows out. I am not resistant to change. I am opposed to shortsighted changes that may very well do far more harm than good to our beleaguered downtown.
The current plan on the table looks backward, not forward. It’s not at all clear — as experienced realtors have noted — that urban high-rise living will continue to attract well-heeled residents as the condo market grows saturated. (And don’t get me started on the housing inequity issue.)
Moreover, increasing building density along the waterfront is the opposite direction from which other cities are moving. Take Penn’s Landing along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, where the plan includes a huge park and an extended pedestrian bridge. New private development, including housing and hotels, has been set aside for future consideration. In other words, it’s not baked-in from the start.
Nor is it clear where $400 million or so in public funds will be found for adjacent public space near the Inner Harbor, including the reconfiguration of McKeldin Park. We’re told that state and federal governments will it cough up. That’s a laugh — and shamefully unrealistic. Our state faces serious budget deficits and Congress, which oversees this kind of spending, is woefully dysfunctional.
What galls me most about all this is that we didn’t need to end up here. Why has the city once again turned over a major asset to a private developer? Why didn’t the city sponsor an international design competition accompanied by an extended public charrette (stakeholder meeting), instead of the paltry (sham) three months of community meetings we were offered?
For anyone who needs further convincing that we are heading in the wrong way with this plan, I invite you to participate in an experiment: Come down to the corner of South Charles and Conway streets and walk around the entire perimeter of 414 Light St., the 44-story luxury glass condominium building erected in 2018 that overlooks the harbor.
I think you’ll find that tall buildings tend to create a dead zone around them, as well as zones of exclusion and narrow utility. The front façade offers a pull-in for vehicles (nothing public about that). The other three sides offer a glass wall looming above a sidewalk that arguably gives off a hemmed-in feeling, a parking garage alley (nothing fun about traversing that), and a surface parking lot.
Now imagine more of that (minus the surface parking, presumably) and then tell me this is your dream for the future of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
We can do so much better.
Amy L. Bernstein is an author and book coach and long-time city resident.