Baltimore has a wonderful opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons, as my father, James Rouse, used to say. He also used to say, ” Every problem is but a challenge, and a challenge is an opportunity in disguise. And when confronting a problem, start by thinking first of what things would be like if they worked and let reality compromise you later.”
The current state of Harborplace is, for sure, a sad one. Any redevelopment plan that would, for example, envision tearing down the existing pavilion buildings and replacing them with Harbor East-style high rises, with new first-floor tenants, might work on the spreadsheets. But such a plan would not make the lemonade Baltimore needs. How we go about squeezing the lemons will have a large impact on our ability to revive Harborplace.
Harborplace is at Main and Main streets for Baltimore. Nowhere in Baltimore is more ideal as a place for people of diverse incomes, races and ethnicities to meet and celebrate the beauty of city life. Here’s the proof: Harborplace in 1981 had 20 million visitors. It was at the time the No. 2 tourist attraction in the U.S., with only Disney World attracting more people.
Baltimore’s self-image in the 1960s and 1970s was awful. Let’s face it, our self-image today and the gritty realities of everyday life in Baltimore are maybe as bad as or worse now than they were then. We need to reinvent ourselves. And our amazing Inner Harbor, if properly reinvented, has the power to propel our city once again in the right direction.
My father used to say that “cities are meant to be gardens in which to grow people.” His visions for Cross Keys, Columbia and the Enterprise Foundation were rooted in his love of and respect for people — all people — regardless of race, ethnicity or class. Our reinvention of Harborplace needs to embrace his concept that “our cities are for people, and unless they work well for all people, they are not working well at all.”
So, in thinking about how to make the Harborplace renovation work, we can’t just think about building for rich people who want to live or work in high rises. We need to think big, the way American Visionary Art Museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger did when she wrote recently about “Rethinking Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.” We need to capture and captivate those visitors to our Convention Center and our stadiums with a good reason and an easy way to come visit the Inner Harbor.
We need to be bold, as economist Anirban Basu implored us to be when he wrote that “Baltimore City and its region do much better when we act like major leaguers (e.g., Camden Yards, Johns Hopkins, the National Aquarium). We falter when we act like a second-tier region (Convention Center, mass transit, schools lacking air conditioning).”
As Rebecca recommended, we need to attract and entertain the convention and stadium visitors to Harborplace by celebrating Baltimore heroes along Conway and Pratt streets, with sculptures and imaginatively written quotes from Elijah Cummings, Frederick Douglass, Billie Holiday, Edgar Allan Poe, Cal Ripken, Frank Robinson, and others.
Both pavilion buildings should be saved, and green and/or solar roofs should be added. Take every opportunity to educate about global warming mitigation. Tearing buildings down is not in any way green.
The mayor and the governor need to appoint a task force to look at the ideas that work in other great cities around the world such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Sydney Opera House, the Charles Bridge in Prague, Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen and Pikes Place Market in Seattle. Such a task force would also be able to consider ideas that have been proposed for Baltimore’s reinvention, such as the Baltimore Lift, which would use gondolas to serve as a fun ride and way of moving people along the Pratt Street corridor from the stadiums to Fells Point. An Inner Harbor bridge between Fells Point and Federal Hill has been proposed in various forms by Hunt Williams. The Baltimore Museum of Art also once proposed opening a branch in the Power Plant.
The task force should include David Cordish, who has created great urban entertainment in many American cities, and Mike Hankin and Laurie Schwartz, who have done a terrific job with the Waterfront Partnership in reinventing Rash Field. Perhaps the task force could ask Janet Marie Smith, who saved the warehouse at Camden Yards and put Baltimore on the map for inner-city stadiums, to recommend urban planners for the job of sorting through and presenting the best possibilities for a reinvented Inner Harbor.
Gov. Wes Moore has made it clear that he believes a transformation of Baltimore is needed for the health of Maryland, and it could help chart course of his own political future, which might well include serving two terms. Baltimore’s greatest single asset is its waterfront. The creation of an Inner Harbor task force for the purpose of thinking big and bold about the next steps for Harborplace and the Inner Harbor would provide a timely opportunity for the governor.
We need a new vision for our Inner Harbor, not just new buildings for Harborplace. Let’s start by thinking about what things would be like if they worked for all Baltimore’s residents and visitors. Where there are problems, there is opportunity. Getting the Inner Harbor right is an opportunity that will not come again in our lifetimes. We have an opportunity to create an economic and perceptual transformation.
Ted Rouse is president of Healthy Planet, a socially and environmentally driven economic and real estate development company. For 25 years at Struever Bros Eccles and Rouse, starting in 1980, he worked to renovate buildings in Baltimore such as Tindeco, Canton Cove, Indecco, The Munsey and many others. He was chair of the American Visionary Art Museum’s board during its time of expansion to include the Jim Rouse Visionary Center. His father, James W. Rouse, was the developer who built new towns, shopping malls and marketplaces. Among his projects are the city of Columbia, Maryland, and Harborplace.