After hours of charged testimony Tuesday, Baltimore City Council members advanced a legislative package that would clear the way for the redevelopment of Harborplace, marking an early step forward for the nearly $1 billion waterfront project.

Residents packed the City Council chambers Tuesday for the four-hour hearing, which offered an opportunity for council members to formally stake their positions on the redevelopment project. The plan relies on hundreds of millions of dollars in public financing and must clear three bureaucratic hurdles governing the area’s land use in order to move forward: amendments to zoning restrictions, the harbor’s urban renewal plan and the city charter.

The trio of bills advanced out of the council’s seven-member Economic and Community Development committee with just one member, Councilman Ryan Dorsey, voting in dissent. Dorsey voted against two of the three items, but on one of the bills — the proposal to alter zoning requirements — he voted in favor. The package still needs to go through the full, 15-member council, while changes to the charter would also require approval by city voters on the November ballot.

Since P. David Bramble and his development firm MCB Real Estate unveiled renderings of their revamped Harborplace in October, the designs have inspired both love and hate in Baltimore residents. Elected officials by and large have expressed broad support for the developer’s vision. Manyleaders — including Mayor Brandon Scott and Maryland Gov. Wes Moore — lined up alongside Bramble when he debuted his designs last fall.

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Following the vote, Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, the committee’s chair, said input from the dozens of people who testified Tuesday was taken seriously. She stressed there would be many opportunities for public discussion ahead.

“This is the beginning of the process,” she said.

Though some council members raised narrow concerns over the course of the hearing, only Dorsey voiced opposition. The Northeast Baltimore councilman called himself “wildly, wildly pro-development” and expressed support for parts of the project that would eliminate building height restrictions and reduce traffic lanes downtown. But he also called the decision to move the plan forward “the absolute quintessence of putting the cart before the horse.”

“The expanse between what has been presented to the public and what these bills will allow is vast. There’s so much room for what could possibly happen,” said Dorsey, drawing applause from the room when he cast his vote on the final bill.

MCB Real Estate released renderings of a redeveloped Harborplace on Oct. 30, 2023 that show new buildings with residential units and new park spaces. (MCB Real Estate)

The developer’s ambitious overhaul includes demolishing the harbor’s decades-old pavilions to make way for four new buildings, including two high-rise towers comprising 900 residential units and a commercial building with a curved roof called “the sail.” The plan also envisions a floating promenade on the water, reduced traffic lanes along Pratt and Light Streets, a public park and new bike lanes and public transportation options.

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The plan is contingent on substantial public support. MCB’s plan calls for $500 million in private investment and an estimated $400 million in taxpayer funding for the roadway changes and redevelopment of the promenade and other public spaces.

Caroline Hecker, an attorney representing MCB, told the council Tuesday that the developer has no plans to pursue funding for the project from the city, and would rely on state and federal-level funding for the promenade and other public areas of the project. The promenade along the water needs costly improvements, Hecker said, work the developer expects the federal government will finance, given its support for other Harborplace work over the decades.

And Hecker said MCB anticipates pulling down state-level funding to mostly cover work on the roadways, noting that plans to revitalize the Red Line transit project are likely to help with state financing at the harbor.

Opponents of the designs have taken particular issue with the developer’s plans to build high-rise apartment buildings along the water, which they argue block views of the harbor and tarnish the area’s designation as a public park. Others have protested that the developer and city leaders are trying to ram the plan through without transparency or adequate steps to incorporate public desires for the space.

“Perpetual means perpetual,” said attorney John Murphy, who told the council that language written into the charter and urban renewal plan in the late 1970s enshrined the harbor as public park space for future generations, a status he said is violated by the intrusion of apartments an expansion of the developed acreage under the MCB plan.

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“The open space character of Harborplace did not come about by accident,” Murphy said. “This was designed from the beginning to be open space.”

Bramble has defended his plans to build residential units on the harbor, arguing that the two towers are essential to the financial viability of the project. Though the exact timeline of the redevelopment isn’t clear, the developer and city leaders have stressed that it is a yearslong project that will include disruptive construction work downtown. MCB’s lease agreement with the city provides the developer with three years of free rent.

The Baltimore-based MCB, which has taken on many other major development projects in the region, came into Harborplace when it bought the twin, mall-like pavilions on the harbor out of receivership last year. Though the buildings helped make Harborplace an overnight sensation when they first opened along the Inner Harbor more than four decades ago, they fell into disrepair under previous ownership by an out-of-state firm. Most tenants have left.

Proponents of MCB’s vision have argued that the restoration of Harborplace will boost local business, bring in much-needed taxpayer revenue and bolster Baltimore’s status on the national stage.

Councilman Robert Stokes spoke in favor of the plan at the end of Tuesday’s hearing and said he thinks Bramble, a West Baltimore native, is helping to create a “pipeline” into the development world for young, Black residents.

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“We’re missing the whole point” by focusing on Harborplace’s past instead of its future, Stokes said. “We have to create something for our young people.”

Councilman Eric Costello, the lead sponsor on the bill package, tried to dispel criticisms — some of the based on incorrect rumors — of the plan at numerous points during Tuesday’s hearing. The councilman, whose district includes the Inner Harbor, pushed back on arguments that the plan has been rushed or failed to incorporate resident feedback, citing public town halls across the city attended by hundreds of residents. The process, he argued, has allowed residents in all parts of the city to weigh in on the future of a city asset that they all own.

Bramble and LLCs attached to his development company have donated to officials across Baltimore and Maryland, often giving maximum contributions of $6,000 to powerful incumbents over the years. The developer recently gave maximum contributions to Scott, Comptroller Bill Henry and Councilman James Torrence. He’s also given thousands of dollars to council members John Bullock and Mark Conway. His company gave Council President Nick Mosby a $6,000 donation this election cycle, while Bramble personally donated $2,000 to the Democrat.

In a statement after the vote, Colin Tarbert, CEO and president of the Baltimore Development Corp., called the approval an “exciting milestone” in the path to restoring Harborplace. “Our commitment to transforming Harborplace into a hub that mirrors Baltimore’s vibrant and diverse character remains unwavering,” he said.

Bramble, who was present for the length of Tuesday’s hearing, pushed back in his testimony on arguments that his plan doesn’t deliver what the public really wants, emphasizing that his firm drew input from thousands of Baltimore residents to craft its designs. Harborplace has declined to a point where residents no longer want to go there, he argued, while approving the land-use changes would allow his team to restore the waterfront “to a place where people want to come and spend time and we celebrate birthdays and retirements and enjoy the water and feel safe and well in our city.”

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Still others like Klaus Philipsen, a Baltimore-based architect who worked on Harbor Point and the proposed Red Line developments, urged city leaders to take more time and seek more information before moving the proposal forward. The public still has not seen a robust cost-benefit analysis of the plan or a traffic study examining impacts of the roadway reductions — all while funding streams remain uncertain, he said.

The zoning requirements, urban renewal plan and charter represent three safeguards, or “locks,” put in place by predecessors to ensure that no one can “go rogue with Baltimore’s commons,” Philipsen said. “So before you give away those three keys for those locks, you must be very sure that you will not regret this once the dust settles.”

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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