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A new sparkle for the Inner Harbor

More than three decades after the opening of Harborplace, which radically changed Baltimore’s waterfront and set a new vibe for the city, a local group is working to modernize the area with new parks and attractions.

Local business leaders see Rash Field as ‘a missed opportunity,’ the Abell Foundation’s Robert C. Embry Jr. says.

Recommendations from a $120,000 study, Inner Harbor 2.0, should be unveiled in September and could include space for concessions, picnics and public access to the water, said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore Inc., a nonprofit that commissioned the study in partnership with the Greater Baltimore Committee.

The upgrades include but aren’t limited to Rash Field, McKeldin Square and Fells Point; eventually, they will include much of the waterfront spanning in a boomerang shape from Locust Point to Canton.

“The Inner Harbor promenade is 40 years old,” Schwartz said last week. “Just like any public space that receives that much use, it’s tired and at a minimum needs a facelift and at most needs rejuvenation.”

Schwartz, representatives from the city’s Department of Planning and local architects from Ayers Saint Gross were among a small group who visited several waterfront parks in New York City last month to glean ideas and inspiration.

Included in the tour were Battery Park City, the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park and the High Line.

“We saw the mix of large open spaces available for just concerts or events or picnicking, Frisbee throwing,” she said of the 5-year-old (and still developing) Brooklyn Bridge Park. Located on New York’s East River waterfront, the public space also includes a place for outdoor weddings.

“We saw a lot of stormwater management practices that were very insightful and inspiring. We saw a number of ways that they incorporated the park and water access for kayaks and canoes, so people could actually get on the water easily for their own recreation, and a lot of recreation on the piers, including soccer fields, baseball fields and other kinds of fields that could be programmed for other sports.”

The first phase of the upgrades on Baltimore’s waterfront will stretch from the Inner Harbor east to Fells Point, Schwartz said.

Representatives of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, the Baltimore Development Corp., architectural firm Ayers Saint Gross, the mayor’s office and the city’s planning department last month toured some of New York’s public spaces to glean ideas and inspiration for land use and stormwater management.

Robert C. Embry Jr., a member of the GBC board and president of the Abell Foundation, said local business leaders have been discussing the need for upgrades for years.

“Rash Field has been a subject of great deal of discussion,” he said. “It is a missed opportunity. But the problem is one of money. Nobody at the moment has that kind of money.”

Cost estimates for the waterfront upgrades have not been finalized, but funding will come from public and private sources, said city planning director Thomas J. Stosur. He went on the New York trip along with Kim Clark, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., and a representative from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s office.

“We’re working with the finance department and the mayor’s office to see what kind of options we have to put in city funding and leverage other state and federal sources of funds,” Stosur said. “Ideally, we’ll get some private sources of funding, whether it be corporate or philanthropic. But we all agreed that we need a compelling vision in order to make a good case.”

For the first phase, the plans call for using the city’s existing seven-mile waterfront brick promenade as a focal point. Stosur said the prototype New York parks helped to refine ideas that include public art installations and range in scale “from cosmetic to potentially bold ideas that could take years to implement and ultimately redefine some of the land-use issues.” Examples include adding a pedestrian bridge to span the Inner Harbor from Harbor Point to Rash Field.

The recently built Pierce’s Park near Little Italy, he said, was an example of a high-quality public space added to the waterfront.

“I wouldn’t see us messing with that sort of thing,” he said, of the privately funded park, built in memory of local businessman Pierce John Flanigan III and managed by the Waterfront Partnership. “There’s some basic connectivity we could enhance along … the waterfront to make it an easy experience for someone to get close to the water and enjoy it. We could also cut back on how much walking one has to do.”

Business leaders — including Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., which owns Harborplace; officials at the Maryland Science Center; General Growth Properties; and the owners of the Ritz Carlton Residences, Under Armour and Harbor East — soon will gather with community representatives to receive the waterfront upgrade recommendations.

Schwartz said the Waterfront Partnership sent out more than 30,000 surveys this year and received 1,000 responses, most of which indicated that changes and upgrades were needed.

While she would not reveal the survey results in full, Schwartz did offer a synopsis.

“The walkability, public promenade, access and views, the diversity of people and attractions and outdoor activities were listed as ‘likes,’ ” she said.

“The dislikes included: the chain stores and restaurants, dirty and smelly water, too touristy, nothing for locals,” Schwartz said. “And asked if people could change one thing, what would it be? ‘Clean up the water, add green space and parks, more locally owned shops and restaurants, improve and update Harborplace, improve the water taxi and add outdoor activities’ were among the responses.”

She said the establishment of a “Harbor Connector” ferry boat to run continuously between the Rusty Scupper restaurant and Harbor East is a possibility because such service would help reduce vehicular traffic on Light and Pratt streets.

GBC President Donald Fry said last week the project’s goals are pressing.

“The Inner Harbor has been Baltimore’s calling card for 30 years,” he said. “It’s certainly been the jewel of the city, but every so often we need to go through shining up that jewel. This is the appropriate time as we see expansion across the waterfront, to fix up [and] enhance the experience for visitors as well as the residents of Baltimore.”

Fry acknowledged that finding money for the upgrades could be challenging in tight economic times. The city is the main stakeholder, he said, because public officials will be responsible for much of the implementation of the plan.

“In all likelihood, we are going to do this in incremental staging,” he said. “I think there could be a variety of funds, state funds, city bond funds, some form of private sector involved in the process. But as always, you need to have some sort of a vision and plan before you can look to make the sell on these types of projects.”