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Rethinking the Inner Harbor

Converting Rash Field into a “destination park” with a kayak launch, a performance stage, outdoor dining, a sculpture garden and a playground is the top priority of a wide-ranging, multi-year plan to upgrade the 40-year-old Inner Harbor area to be unveiled Wednesday.

Rendering courtesy of Ayers Saint Gross Architects and Planners

Plans also call for a pedestrian walkway to connect Pier 6 to Rash Field.

The vision, called Inner Harbor 2.0, was based on an economic impact study of the area, which it says attracted 14 million visitors in 2012. It calls for upgrading the waterfront promenade, adding green space in the form of public parks and amphitheaters and a wetlands garden, establishing bike sharing stations and building a new grand entrance at McKeldin Plaza, where Pratt Street meets Light Street.

As Baltimore’s top tourist attraction, the city’s waterfront area generates $2.3 billion in economic activity each year, according to the Waterfront Partnership and the Greater Baltimore Committee, the sponsors of the plan. But visitors to the Inner Harbor right now see attractions that are worn from decades of use, and Laurie Schwartz, president of the nonprofit Waterfront Partnership, said a facelift is in order.

“It is an ambitious plan to repair infrastructure, identify new, affordable attractions and amenities and bring people closer to the water by adding new green infrastructure,” Schwartz said. “The overall objective is to refresh the harbor so we can bring tourists back and attract more locals to use the harbor.”

Schwartz and GBC President and CEO Donald C. Fry said no cost estimates had been prepared to fund the plan. Many of the elements, such as the pedestrian walkway, would require extensive and costly engineering work. A way would have to be devised to allow tall ship to pass under the bridge to the Inner Harbor.

Schwartz and Fry did say a request for $9 million in state capital funds had been made to Gov. Martin O’Malley over the next three years to help fund the Rash Field redevelopment, and Schwartz said she and Fry planned to meet with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in the near future to seek city capital improvement funding. Private and foundation funds are also being sought, Fry said.

In addition, the city’s Board of Estimates is expected to vote Wednesday morning on a resolution requesting that $65,000 in state economic development funds be spent on a feasibility study for the proposed Rash Field redevelopment by the Maryland Economic Development Corp.

In May 2011, the GBC released a plan to redevelop the Inner Harbor area that held many of the same ideas.

That plan also included an ambitious design to add a new arena, hotel and expanded convention center at the inner harbor, none of which is included in the proposal to be unveiled Wednesday.

Instead, the new plan was based on survey results from local residents and business leaders and stresses “quality open spaces, parks, playgrounds, interactive water features and artwork.” New landscaping and added shaded areas will help visitors in the summer months enjoy a cooler space by the water.

Some of the recommendations generated by the surveys included “be authentic to Baltimore and Maryland, create free amenities and anticipate impacts of climate change.”

Schwartz said small changes to Rash Field and its surrounding areas will be made over the next nine months, including new lighting and park benches. Larger changes, such as adding park space and performance space, will have to wait for funding.

Fry, whose office overlooks the glittering waterfront, said the Inner Harbor was the “jewel of our city,” in need of a polish.

“Thirty years ago, the Inner Harbor was the premiere and pinnacle of urban waterfront development,” he said on Tuesday. “We’ve sort of let that lapse. It’s time for us to reinvest and get that product back to where it needs to be.”