Ethan McLeod is an associate editor at the Baltimore Business Journal and a former senior editor at Baltimore Fishbowl.
The pioneering festival marketplace was among the most trendsetting urban attractions of the last 40 years. Now it’s looking for a new place in a changed city.
On a Sunday afternoon in November, downtown Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is abuzz. It’s day three of Brilliant Baltimore, the city’s newly combined light-art-and-book festival. Crowds pack the waterfront promenade, perusing tents and stalls selling books, stationery, crafts, food, drink, and more. Some pose in front of the light installations that dot the perimeter of the harbor. Skaters glide around to music at the ice rink near the amphitheater, which opened for the holidays.
But just steps away, Harborplace—a twin-pavilion festival marketplace with an attached mall that’s been the anchor of Charm City tourism for almost four decades—sits all but idle. Music echoes overhead in a mostly empty lower-level food court in the Light Street pavilion. A few stray customers peruse Natty Boh gear and Maryland-proud attire at Crabby Jack’s General Store. Except for a few food vendors, a two-story H&M, a Hooters franchise (half-full on an NFL game day), and the kitschy Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum upstairs, vacancies abound.
The pavilion on the Pratt Street side is faring slightly better, with a handful of half-full bars and restaurants, food stalls, and tchotchke vendors seeing a trickle of customers. But its narrow hallways lack foot traffic and are similarly plagued by empty storefronts.
Surendra Chaddha, part-owner of smoke shop Tobacco ETC, says business is down 35 percent from when his store opened in the Pratt Street pavilion nearly a decade ago. He blames years-delayed and poorly executed interior renovations, as well as the constant drumbeat of news about crime happening nearby, which he says discourages visitors. ”Foot traffic is getting, every day, lower and lower and lower.”
Harborplace’s dying-mall vibe is no secret to Baltimoreans, but it’s still a shocking reversal for an attraction hailed as an urban game-changer and a national model when it opened in 1980. The brainchild of developer James Rouse and architect Benjamin Thompson, Harborplace was the Rouse Company’s first scratch-built festival marketplace, following their successful transformation of Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall into a retail attraction in 1976. Supported by a controversial 1978 ballot referendum and federal funding for an adjoining hotel from HUD’s Urban Development Action Grant program, the $20 million waterfront shopping plaza debuted on July 2, 1980, at a celebration reportedly attended by thousands featuring a live performance from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and fireworks to boot.
Harborplace joined a cluster of waterfront elements that the city’s leaders were assembling around its U-shaped harbor, a grim landscape of rotting wharves that had fallen into disuse since World War II. A science center and the I.M. Pei-designed World Trade Center office tower were already in place; an aquarium and the first of several downtown hotels were on their way. Nearby were a new convention center and the Charles Center complex—the city’s 1960’s-era urban renewal centerpiece. “This is the missing ingredient that makes it all work as one,” declared Martin Millspaugh, the head of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management and an architect of the city’s postwar revival. “Instead of a series of attractions, we’ll have one massive attraction: the shoreline.”
It worked, brilliantly. Harborplace collected 7 million visitors—its projected total for the first year—within three months. In the New York Times, critic Paul Goldberger praised the pavilions as a “stunning success.” James Rouse landed on Time magazine in 1981, his beaming face beside the ebullient coverline “Cities Are Fun!” Baltimore was celebrated—and copied—in cities across the country for blazing a path to post-industrial resurgence, one paved in tourist dollars: Harborplace went on to inspire a slew of other festival marketplaces around the country, from Toledo’s Portside to New Orleans’ Riverwalk.
“They created the demand. There wasn’t this phenomenon of festival marketplaces at the time,” says Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, which sponsors programming around the Inner Harbor and cares for its public spaces. “It was a very unique feature that created a curiosity and interest and excitement that drove people to the Inner Harbor, both tourists and locals.”
But 40 years out, the festival marketplace party is over—and not just in Baltimore. A few cities—including Tampa, Miami and Norfolk (which did demolish part of its original Waterside complex)—have given these facilities new life by working with developers to rebrand and update them. Others have succumbed to the wrecking ball. In Richmond, Virginia, the failed 6th Street Marketplace was razed in 2003, and the land reopened to pedestrians and traffic. In Jacksonville, Florida, crews recently demolished the Jacksonville Landing marketplace to replace the complex with, well, nothing, after the city agreed to a $15 million settlement to acquire it from its now-former owner.
Harborplace remains, for now, but it faces a deeply uncertain future. Last June, a city circuit court judge placed the property under receivership, putting New Jersey-based IVL Group in possession of the buildings and wresting control from New York City’s Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation. Ashkenazy had purchased Harborplace—also acquiring its lease of city-owned property running through 2087—for nearly $100 million in 2012. A recent Baltimore Business Journal investigation noted, among other discoveries, that Ashkenazy did not pay ground rent on the property since July 2014 under a now-finished rent abatement deal with the city.
IVL Group, whose website says it specializes in “distressed asset and property management,” is managing and leasing Harborplace on behalf of Deutsche Bank Trust Co. Americas, the trustee for UBS-Barclays Commercial Mortgage Trust, which holds the mortgage on the property. The receivership opened the door for a potential sale of the troubled plaza, though IVL Group’s plans remain unclear. Asked about the pavilions’ future, the firm’s president, Ian Lagowitz, responded via email, “at this time I have no comment.”
Last summer’s receivership news and sluggish foot traffic prompted plenty of concern about the fate of the struggling pavilions. Baltimore Mayor Jack Young opined at one point that they should “be torn down and redone” (comments he later walked back, sort of). The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board suggested a “a partial tear-down and rebuild,” among other ideas.
Not long ago, it would have been unthinkable for a Baltimore leader to suggest taking a wrecking ball to the city’s marquee attraction. But now the groundbreaking shopping center that saved the city is fighting for its own life.
Harborplace was never supposed to just be just a mall. Its initial strength was its locally made goods and food, says Jimmy Rouse, a Baltimore artist and one of the late developer’s two sons. He recalls his father bringing them to the Lexington Market and North Avenue Market—outposts of Baltimore’s network of public markets, the nation’s oldest—when they were growing up. The crowded, chaotic sheds full of vegetable stands, fish stalls, and lunch carry-outs provided the kind of urban vitality that the elder Rouse tried to inject into the shopping malls and planned communities he was known for.
“He loved the idea of having a meat purveyor, a cheese purveyor, a produce purveyor, all these separate, individual merchants,” Jimmy Rouse says. “When he started Harborplace, part of the vision was to recreate that, have an independent meat and cheese dealer… produce, flowers, all these individual merchants in there, along with retail that was impulse buying.”
When the New York Times ventured back to Harborplace for a food review in 1983, writer Marian Burros found dozens of vendors selling everything “from crabcakes to kielbasa,” and cited Indian, Greek, Chinese and other options, plus indigenous favorites like cheese bread from Ms. Desserts, lemon sticks, and coddies. A mainstay of the early Harborplace was The Fudgery, an aggressively fun candy vendor known for its exuberant young staff of singing fudge-makers. (The R&B group Dru Hill began their careers there.)
It’s hard to overstate how transformative Harborplace was for Baltimore’s sense of itself in the 1980s and ‘90s. Even locals who shunned the twin pavilions as cartoony tourist traps often found themselves drawn to the waterside, especially when hosting out-of-town visitors. Baltimore held plenty of more “authentic” haunts, but it was Harborplace, and the circuit of Inner Harbor attractions it anchored, that dominated every television ad or visitor’s center brochure.
As time wore on, however—and cookie-cutter festival marketplaces popped up in dozens of other cities—the facility’s charms began to seem less distinctive. What was once a one-of-kind attraction became just one of a network of glitzy waterfront shopping emporia. The homogenization was internal, as well, as national brands began to replace the local merchants. “Chains dilute local flavor of Harborplace,” read a headline on a 2002 Baltimore Sun story that noted a troubling loss of independent retailers at the water’s edge.
Joshua Olsen, an executive vice president for D.C.-based developer Monument Realty and author of a 2003 biography on James Rouse, says Harborplace and other festival marketplaces “were victims of their own success.” Big names like Starbucks, Hooters, and UNO Pizzeria saw the retail spaces’ popularity and moved in, and smaller, locally owned retailers were priced out of leases.
Even the ownership lost its local flavor. Harborplace changed hands in 2004, when the Rouse Company was acquired by Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which at the time owned or managed 178 regional shopping malls in 41 states. New York-based Ashkenazy acquired the pavilions from GGP in 2013.
Ashkenazy had planned to modernize the pavilions in 2016 and 2017, including updating the facades and interior retail spaces and adding a marketplace on the second floor of the Pratt Street side. But the work lagged and, based on previously presented designs, never fully materialized. And the exodus of tenants quickened.
Jimmy Rouse has watched as all this misfortune descended on the pavilions his father built, and he’s convinced that they could be be revitalized by simply going back to the original formula that made Harborplace such a hit in 1980: a renewed focus on local. His ideal restoration would “emphasize small merchants, not big national chains that the previous owners have tried to bring in there and that didn’t work. You need made-in-Maryland, made-in-Baltimore.”
It would also ideally be managed by an invested, Maryland-based owner, not an outside firm with an entire national portfolio to manage, Rouse says: “It needs an owner that cares. It’s had two really bad owners in a row, both from out of town.”
But the customer base is there and untapped, he argues, pointing to newly built high-rises and conversions of offices into apartments around the harbor. “There are more residents living downtown than at any time in Baltimore’s history,” Rouse says—not to mention the still-vigorous stream of visitors drawn by other Inner Harbor attractions like the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center. In neighborhoods beyond the harbor, freshly minted food halls are packing in hungry crowds; by returning to its 1980s roots, Harborplace could jump aboard a very hot urban dining trend.
“I think there’s a grand opportunity there,” Rouse says. “And I’m sure if my father were alive, he’d see it as a grand opportunity.”
But saving Harborplace might not be that simple: Changing consumer demands, design considerations, and even rising sea levels may all be working against the future viability of the two pavilions.
“They fall into the period of malls being social places of gathering,” says Klaus Philipsen, a Baltimore architect and urban design blogger. “And the mall is obsolete now, and the mini-mall on the waterfront is obsolete as well.”
Harborplace’s connectivity to the city is also hampered by street design, Philipsen notes: It’s ringed by multi-lane thoroughfares feeding the two interstate highways, I-95 and I-83, that penetrate the city. Pedestrians coming from downtown need to cross thick spans of traffic to reach the shopping areas. To facilitate better walkability, he suggests eliminating lanes on Pratt and Light streets, to “make these highways less highway-like and more like a city boulevard.”
Another local architect, Adam Gross of downtown architecture firm Ayers Saint Gross, which prepared a comprehensive Inner Harbor master plan for the Waterfront Partnership in 2013, blames the pavilions themselves: While they collected many design awards in their time, they have “dated horribly, architecturally,” he says. “There’s just way too much ill-defined space.” Many of the pavilions’ tenant spaces have entryways facing busy streets, not the water nearby, and have exposed loading docks. “I would strip it back to the raw concrete, at a minimum, and just make them glass pavilions,” Gross says.
Business leaders have called for addressing the market’s subpar street-level access and compromised views for years. A spokesperson for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a nonprofit that represents downtown neighborhoods’ commercial and residential interests, noted its 2008 Pratt Street renewal plan recommended better screening of mechanical equipment and loading docks, among other aesthetic improvements. (The organization otherwise declined to comment on Harborplace’s future, saying its territory ends north of the waterfront, and deferred to the Waterfront Partnership.)
Randy Sovich, a North Baltimore-based architect, says for both pavilions, “the existing building shell would lend itself to other uses or configurations” like city-owned public makerspaces and marketplaces. Design-wise, he similarly envisions more transparent structures, offering New York City’s Pier 17—a recent transformation of another early waterfront Rouse project—as an example.
“I’m picturing a new expanded roof structure/platform that would be a public space,” he said via email. He also suggested the Pratt Street pavilion’s second level may be superfluous and could instead be made into “an open elevated park space.”
Sovich is co-editor of the architecture zine T3XTURE, which collaborated with the AIA’s Baltimore chapter and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation in 2019 on a design competition that challenged designers and architects to rethink the harbor’s edge. While a number of the 13 finalist proposals retained the pavilions, some of them proposed replacing one or both with green or public space. Many included ambitious plans to better connect waterways flowing into the harbor, or providing for more softscape and natural elements.
One, designed by University of Maryland landscape architecture students, proposes reforesting the area where the Light Street pavilion now sits to create a new softscape canopy. Another, from Murphy and Dittenhafer Architects, suggests using repurposed dredged material in the Inner Harbor to mitigate storm surges.
Architects Kelly Danz and Amanda Ganginis submitted a design that Danz says is “based around recreation, not shopping like it is now.” The current Inner Harbor, she says, includes “too much hardscape. It just needs to be more green, and I think it could be more open.” Their idea centers around carving out inlets to let water flow from the harbor to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Maryland Science Center, and other nearby inland areas. It would also add waterside recreational spaces and install permeable surfaces, parks, and green roofs to better manage stormwater runoff.
Yet, even while removing the Light Street pavilion, they opted to keep the Pratt Street one in their vision. “We should have some sense of history,” Danz says. “We didn’t want to completely disregard the entire existing fabric.”
Repurposing the property for noncommercial use like a wetland park would take more than just re-engineering the space: It would almost surely require changing the city charter. The document, which serves as Baltimore’s local constitution, says the city-owned land where Harborplace was built “shall be set aside” for use as “eating places and other commercial uses.” Any changes to the charter must be passed by the Baltimore City Council, and then approved by voters via ballot referenda.
As Danz suggests, there’s also an argument to be made that the buildings are too culturally valuable to simply erase from the map. Approaching their 40th birthday, the pavilions represent the nucleus of a successful revitalization campaign for a post-industrial wasteland where few locals (and even fewer tourists) once wanted to set foot.
Olsen, the developer and Rouse biographer, says “to some extent, the structures are historic—with a little ‘h’—in terms of the role they played in remaking Baltimore and the city as a whole.” But “just because a design had an impact 30 years ago doesn’t mean it’s the right design for today,” he says. “Those pavilions were always designed to disappear to some extent.”
The harbor itself may have its own role to play in that erasure. A 2017 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report found the Chesapeake Bay area is the third most vulnerable area to climate change in the United States. Projections published last year by researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science predict that so-called nuisance flooding days in Baltimore are likely to continue growing annually to 100 per year on average by 2050; flooding could occur almost daily in the Inner Harbor by 2100.
One graphic from their report shows the pavilions surrounded by water in 2100 following a potential one-two punch of a powerful hurricane storm surge and sea-level rise. Residents got a taste of this already following Hurricane Isabel in 2003, when the Inner Harbor promenade submerged under four feet of water.
“Climate change has and will have a greater impact in the years to come,” notes Schwartz of the Waterfront Partnership, “so that’s got to be incorporated into any plans as well.”
Whatever happens to Harborplace—whether it gets reborn as an eco-friendly park or as a bustling urban market more in line with its creators’ vision—many locals are hoping that it can cater to the wants and needs of different kinds of users.
Standing outside the Light Street pavilion in early November, Alice Kennedy, visiting with her daughter for the day, says her ideal revamped Harborplace would boast more family-friendly entertainment, and pivot more towards what Baltimoreans—not just tourists—want.
“Building a space specifically just for tourism, I don’t think benefits us as a city as a whole,” she says. “The local is not looking for a Boh shirt. It’s about finding that balance between what can help and drive the tourism economy, but what can be captured by our local economy as well.”
Schwartz thinks that answering the question about what to do with Harborplace will require “serious research and conversation” with those who will spend time there. It should also account for landscape and programming changes already planned, she said, like the forthcoming first phase of renovations of Rash Field—a somewhat neglected waterfront park space at the southern end of the Inner Harbor—or the National Aquarium’s $14 million floating wetlands project.
The existential question is thus about “not just that one property,” but the broader area, she says. “It’s a very, very different environment now than when Harborplace opened… It is time for a new look at the Inner Harbor. It is 40 years old. I think it could use some new thinking.”