Developer P. David Bramble’s prescription for revitalizing Harborplace does much more than just update the place where two forlorn green-roofed pavilions now sit mostly vacant along Pratt and Light streets.
In zoning amendments not yet publicly discussed but filed with the City Council, the developer’s vision comes into clearer focus.
His core idea is to end the height, mass and use restrictions placed on the land his company leases from the city. At the same time, he wants exclusive development rights to adjacent public land, increasing the project’s footprint by 40%.
The bottom line is that, in addition to quadrupling the square footage of Harborplace’s commercial space along Pratt Street, two oversized apartment buildings would be erected between Light Street and the waterfront, casting a long shadow over the city’s popular shoreline promenade.
Artist’s sketches displayed at last Monday’s press conference looked glitzy, especially a terraced glass structure dubbed “The Sail.” But the economic logic behind the designs is pretty standard stuff – “pack-’em-in,” mixed-use development with a suburban corporate sheen.
“It’s looking more and more like Harbor East 2.0,” a former city official said last week, referring to the East Baltimore skyline of glass and brick towers marching to the water’s edge.
Or Harbor Point, a cluster of ultra-modern business aviaries built on the grounds of a former chromium factory.
Or Kevin Plank’s Baltimore Peninsula – another private development that offers wonderful vistas of the Middle Branch for the few people who have so far opted to live there.
The Inner Harbor was supposed to be different.
In contrast to the private ownership of the rest of Baltimore’s waterfront, city officials designated the land around the upper basin – cleared of rotting piers and obsolete warehouses – to be “forever dedicated” as public space.
The waterfront area in front of and between where the two pavilions now sit was “dedicated perpetually as public open space so as to be forever available for pubic use,” according to the urban renewal plan approved by the City Council on June 15, 1967.
In exact terms, 30 acres south of Pratt Street, east of Light Street and north of Key Highway, wrapping around the shoreline from the World Trade Center to the Rusty Scupper Restaurant, would be set aside for the park.
Commercial use of the land was prohibited, and residential housing was out of the question.
Two exceptions were made to the parkland concept.
On the southwest corner, a little over three acres were set aside for use by the Maryland Science Center. A similar amount of acreage was leased to The Rouse Company along Pratt and Light streets for a “festival marketplace” offering food and shopping for residents and tourists visiting local attractions or simply strolling along the waterfront promenade.
To make sure downtown-sized skyscrapers did not encroach on public land, the city slapped a 100-foot height restriction across the entire 30 acres.
A special 50-foot height restriction was applied to the Rouse pavilions to appease citizens delighted with the harbor’s newly opened vistas.
Hailed, then Failed
Consider the grand opening on July 2, 1980, when an estimated 200,000 people joined Mayor William Donald Schaefer in hailing Harborplace as a world-class eating and shopping destination.
“Right now, Harborplace is here,” proclaimed veteran WJZ anchorman Jerry Turner, “the shopping mall hailed as the greatest thing since sliced bread. And judging from the crowds that jammed into the Inner Harbor today, that’s the way they felt about it.”
“Today old Baltimore welcomed new Baltimore!” exclaimed correspondent Andrea Mitchell, showcasing Harborplace for an NBC Nightly News segment.
Fast forward to November 2012, when “the shopping mall,” still viable but increasingly cluttered with franchises like “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” was sold to Ashkenazy Acquisitions for $100 million.
Jump ahead to December 2022, when Bramble’s MCB Real Estate acquired the pavilions out of receivership for reportedly one-third of the prior purchase price.
Then zero in on April 19, 2023, when the Board of Estimates awarded Bramble exclusive rights to redevelop Harborplace without holding a design competition or issuing a request for proposals from other parties.
Rebranded as “Equity”
Bramble says Baltimore now has a “once in a generation” opportunity to recharge its “beating heart” with a facility that not only will revitalize an economically challenged downtown, but offer equity and inclusion to all city residents.
A native of West Baltimore, the developer frequently uses the equity argument in public presentations, saying his plan represents the will of the people who have been attending “listening sessions” and responding to questionnaires as part of a $1 million “Harborplace community engagement process” underwritten by the Baltimore Development Corporation.
“Since we began the community engagement process, we have heard hundreds of people tell us that the original Harborplace wasn’t built for them,” Bramble wrote in a preface to a 93-page booklet released last month.
“For Harborplace to work, it needs tenants and it needs customers. And it needs world-class public space to invite everyone – everyone – to participate in its splendor” – David Bramble.
“To make Harborplace for all Baltimoreans, we need to think about (to quote, directly from community comments) a multiplicity of local businesses, artists, and highlights of the past and the future of this city, rooftop green entertainment space, natural amphitheaters, pedestrian-friendly circulation.”
“We should think about the possibility of a European town square with housing and mixed-use 24-7 activities and ensure that we generate a primary economic benefit to the Black Butterfly,” he continued, saying he was in agreement with this feedback.
Judging by the online response, the public has been highly skeptical of these claims, anticipating that the area under Bramble’s plan would be out of reach for all but the wealthy.
“Say NO to tall buildings on the water’s edge,” one commenter wrote. “I heard Brandon Scott saying it’s a good plan because young people want to live downtown, but they won’t be able to afford it.”
Changing the Ground Rules
To accomplish his ends, while also making a profit on the $500 million he says he and his backers are willing to invest in Harborplace, Bramble has proposed major changes to the zoning code.
The changes would not only convert 1.3 acres of prime public space into development areas, but could crack open the door to future development on other public parcels, such as the land now occupied by the Maryland Science Center.
Specifically, the three bills written by zoning lobbyist Caroline Hecker (on behalf of Bramble’s company) and introduced by City Councilman Eric Costello, would:
• Remove the 50-foot height restrictions on Harborplace. This will allow Bramble to build 32-story and 25-story residential towers between Light Street and the water’s edge.
• Expand the footprint of the Harborplace lease to encompass McKeldin Square. Bramble wants to reduce the number of traffic lanes on Pratt and Light streets and close off Light Street’s northbound “dogleg” to Calvert Street – proposals that almost certainly would require public financing.
• Lift square foot and density limits by the harbor, including the current maximum of 250 dwelling units per net acre. (Bramble’s apartment buildings would contain 900 units on roughly 1.8 acres of land.)
• Permit off-street parking “screened from public view,” which would presumably require either underground garages just yards from the rising water table of the Inner Harbor or parking on upper floors.
• Remove the power to approve or disapprove Harborplace plans from the city housing commissioner and a citizen advisory task force. Instead, advice and comments would be channeled through the Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel (UDAAP), and the final say rest with the mayor.
Political Support Lined Up
Some of these zoning changes can be approved by the City Council. But because Bramble will encroach on land set aside by the city charter for “perpetual” open space, voters will have to give their stamp of approval.
Plans are underway to submit those change as a charter amendment on the November 2024 general ballot.
Already, city and state leaders have lined up in support of the project, while sidestepping the question of public subsidies.
Both Harbor Point and Baltimore Peninsula have relied on the lavish use of tax increment (TIF) financing.
Some $164 million in TIF financing went into the construction of new streets, sewers and a connecting bridge in the case of Harbor Point, while a whopping $660 million has been pledged for Baltimore Peninsula, formerly known as Port Covington. (So far, $137.5 million in TIF special obligation bonds have been issued.)
Bramble says his company does not plan to pay for street or other infrastructure improvements outside of its development footprint.
“The full weight of city government is ready to make this a reality” – Mayor Brandon Scott.
While announcing his vision for Harborplace on Monday, the developer was surrounded by Governor Wes Moore, State Comptroller Brooke Lierman, State Senate President Bill Ferguson, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Baltimore Council President Nick Mosby.
Moore said the fate of Harborplace and the fate of Baltimore were intertwined. “We cannot take this moment for granted because today isn’t just about how we redefine a cultural landmark. Today is about how we rewrite the narrative of a city.”
Later in the day, Moore’s office announced that the governor was directing $67.5 million in state funds, earmarked by the General Assembly for the Inner Harbor promenade and other improvements, to help Bramble’s project.
Mayor Scott’s full-throated embrace of Bramble’s plans was another signal that elected leaders had handed over the future of Baltimore’s “beating heart” to a developer who says his company owns, manages and operates over $3 billion in real estate assets.
“The full weight of city government is ready to make this a reality,” Scott proclaimed, “so that the world can see that Baltimore is back, baby, back better than ever.”