Many of us hope that a new developer will reinvigorate the pavilions at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Our city’s geography urges one to that spot when walking along the water, whether from Federal Hill, Canton, or other points of origin. It is also a natural destination for visitors, including those attending football, baseball, or college basketball games.
Inner Harbor patrons are not greeted by a monument to Baltimore’s achievement, but rather are reminded of our city’s struggles and are left to wonder whether the array of vacancies is attributable to the pandemic, poor management, crime, community reputation, suburban disenchantment or all of those factors.
Alas, hope springs eternal. Last year, Mayor Brandon Scott announced in his State of the City that P. David Bramble of MCB Real Estate has reached agreement to bring the two largely vacant shopping pavilions out of receivership and transform them into vibrant destinations once again.
Bramble is no stranger to Baltimore. Among his other projects are the Northwood Commons shopping center proximate to Morgan State University, the Rotunda at 711 W. 40th Street, the Yard 56 mixed-use development in Greektown, and residential developments in Charles Village, Madison Park and Clipper Park, where his offices can be found.
His reputation extends far beyond Baltimore. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. On its LinkedIn page, MCB Real Estate LLC indicates that its “diverse portfolio of operating assets” totals approximately 10 million square feet of industrial office, retail, mixed-use and multifamily properties with nearly 4 million additional square feet in its development pipeline.
One might conclude that the problem of Inner Harbor decay is solved, that it’s just a matter of time before this talented developer revives the pavilions aesthetically and commercially and the people of Baltimore can move onto another issue, like whether the Orioles will sign a lease.
Not so fast. While attracting a new group of tenants to Harborplace would certainly represent an improvement over the status quo, I believe that such an outcome would represent a missed opportunity. We’ve all heard the admonition to “go big or go home.” I say, let’s go big.
Baltimore City and its region do much better when we act like major leaguers (e.g., Camden Yards, Johns Hopkins, the National Aquarium, Port of Baltimore). We falter when we act like a second-tier region (Convention Center, mass transit, schools lacking air conditioning).
The recognition that we need more out of this redevelopment than Banana Republic, Urban Outfitters, etc. came to me during a conversation with Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and former director of the American Visionary Art Museum. During the conversation, she informed me that she had fashioned a vision for the Inner Harbor. A statement of that vision can be found in a Baltimore Fishbowl article titled, “Rethinking Baltimore’s Inner Harbor for Enduring and Dynamic Success,” dated Dec. 2, 2022.
This provides examples of thinking big. This is what it means to retain ambition for our city, to supply hope that we can one day return to the ranks of America’s most prominent urban centers.
Some might find some of her ideas to be whimsical, impractical and expensive. For instance, she alludes to Copenhagen’s famed attraction, Tivoli Gardens, as a model. She says, “I suggest a plan for Baltimore to establish a contemporary and Baltimore-bespoke Tivoli Gardens-style amusement park for Baltimore’s greater Inner Harbor.” Tivoli Gardens encompasses a pleasure garden, an amusement park, and an aquarium. Stuffing that all into the Inner Harbor could strike one as fanciful.
But I don’t view it that way. This part of the city should offer more than just another mini-mall. Such things are hardly unique to Baltimore. Rather, what the redevelopment should include is a Charm City-themed experiential wonderland that proves irresistible to potential visitors, including those many suburbanites who have sworn that they’ll never return to the city.
I can imagine that a prominent developer might suggest that I should stay in my lane.
“If I want an economic forecast, I’ll call you. Otherwise, let me hire the architects, line up the financing, pull the permits, oversee construction and attract the tenants,” the developer might tell me.
I do not question the developer’s competence. Rather, I question our collective ability to conceive of our city’s future with an appropriate level of grandeur.
Anirban Basu is an economist and chairman and chief executive officer of Sage Policy Group.