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How to revive Harborplace? Here are 9 views

A view of the Inner Harbor, taken from across the Baltimore Harbor in 2017. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

When local developer MCB Real Estate announced its plans to purchase Harborplace, Managing Partner P. David Bramble explained that he hopes the project will “reinvent and reimagine Harborplace as a modern gathering location that is awe-inspiring and authentically Baltimore.”

But otherwise, he didn’t specify what renovations he plans to make to the pavilions, saying that he’ll be gathering input from the community.

But Baltimoreans have been discussing and debating what to do with the dilapidated marketplace since long before news broke that MCB would be rehabilitating it. Here’s what nine local leaders, experts and other stakeholders say they would most like to see included in a new-and-improved Harborplace.

Eric Costello is the Baltimore city councilmember for the district Harborplace is in as well as a champion of Baltimore’s business community. He believes that one of the most important steps the development team could take is to simply make the buildings more appealing to visitors by filling the pavilions’ many vacancies and making cosmetic upgrades to the site.

“It’s been primarily vacant, it’s been dormant, whatever word you want to use to describe it. Uninviting,” he said. “But I think just a fresh look, fully leased up, the right mix of merchants in stores in there, cosmetic upgrades — I think all of those things are going to contribute to a better experience for everyone.”

John Racanelli, CEO of the nearby National Aquarium, said that, in addition to prioritizing local businesses and considering the input of Baltimore residents, he hopes that the redevelopment team will focus on sustainability, especially considering the site’s proximity to the harbor.

“As a conservation organization situated squarely on the water’s edge, we at the National Aquarium recognize the daunting challenges Baltimore will face from global climate change and sea level rise. We believe the redevelopment of Harborplace provides a generational opportunity to approach those challenges thoughtfully, with an emphasis on long-term sustainability,” Racanelli said in an emailed statement.

“New infrastructure that incorporates nature-based solutions will be more sustainable and provide amenities for all who visit the Inner Harbor. Examples already exist — such as the engineered floating wetland in our waterfront campus project — that can connect people with nature while sequestering carbon and increasing coastal resilience,” he wrote. “We’re ready to share what we’ve learned to ensure the new Harborplace’s long-term sustainability.”

Terri Freeman, the executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, another neighbor to Harborplace, pictures a revitalized Harborplace as a space that can educate as well as entertain. By adding cultural artifacts or exhibits to the marketplace, Harborplace could meld with other attractions in the Inner Harbor, like the aquarium, the Port Discovery Children’s Museum and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, to create a contiguous cultural corridor.

“They should take the time to actually explain the neighborhoods and the history of Baltimore, because it’s got a very rich history … it needs to convey it in a way that doesn’t (use) a lot of writing, but with design, how they utilize design, and how they might even utilize some artifacts to describe what these neighborhoods are and kind of pay tribute and homage to the neighborhoods of Baltimore,” she said.

“You wouldn’t want to put things that are really valuable in that type of a space, but you could do a 3D replica. Maybe there’s something that could be replicated from the Ukranian church that is in Baltimore. … Maybe they could do a replica of the marquee from one of the famous African American theaters that existed.”

Dan Beck, the founder of Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls, an Annapolis-based chain of fast casual seafood restaurants with a location in Harborplace, says that the keys to getting small, local businesses to move into Harborplace — and stay — are creating better relationships between the property’s management and the business owners, and lowering the barrier to entry for business owners to set up shop in the marketplace.

“The previous landlord was a national landlord (who) didn’t really put a lot of money in the property. And they were requiring, say, a three-to-four-month security deposit,” he said. “I know that the new ownership, they want to get local people in there and that’s a great idea. So, the way to do it would be to not approach the leasing like that.

“If you’re a local guy, a local chef or something, and the first thing you have to do is throw up a check for $50,000 for a security deposit, that’s going to disqualify a lot of people. That’s how you ended up with so many big national chains in the pavilions, because those are the people who have the pockets deep enough.”

Robin Eraso, who has managed stores in Harborplace for years, including two current stores, Neighborhoods in the Light Street pavilion and Life in Charm City in the Pratt Street pavilion, wants the new owners of the market to bring live events back, perhaps even building out the existing amphitheater to promote performances and gatherings.

“I think (Harborplace) originally did that with all the entertainment — the street performers, the bands that played every weekend, all that kind of stuff,” she said. “I think it’d be great to have a dedicated entertainment space. There’s so much you can do in the amphitheater — the little thing right between the two pavilions — where they used to do all the entertainment. But it would be great to have some sort of stage or something that’s permanently there where they could have music or even plays — Shakespeare in the Park kind of stuff.”

Joe Nathanson, the retired principal of Baltimore development consulting firm Urban Information Associates, agrees the most important thing Harborplace’s new owners could do is to bring in local retailers and restauranteurs, including both startups and established Baltimore staples. One way to do that could involve imitating a popular “world market” in Buffalo, New York, a city that has also been losing population in recent decades but began increasing its population once again as it started welcoming a larger number of immigrants and refugees.

“One of the developments that I remember seeing in Buffalo was a place called the West Side Bazaar, which was a place where members of immigrant communities could present their wares, in terms of arts and crafts items, but also many of the different cuisines of their home countries,” Nathanson said. “So, that is a concept that I would like to see developed. At least maybe one of the pavilions can be turned into an international bazaar.”

Donald and Thibault Manekin, the co-founders of Seawall, the development firm behind the highly anticipated Lexington Market project, said in an email that they were most excited for a local developer that truly understand how the city ticks to be taking the lead on Harborplace’s reinvention.

“Our team at Seawall is energized by the selection of a local firm to take Harborplace into the future. Local direction of our most important assets are what the city of Baltimore needs, and we as Baltimoreans should be setting the course for how these spaces evolve and serve us for years to come,” they wrote. “We look forward to seeing the creativity, authenticity and diversity of Baltimore come to life at the new Harborplace and hope it becomes a vehicle to unite the city and surrounding metro area.”

Colin Tarbert, the president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corporation, said that now is the time explore a range of possible uses for the space.

“It seems like the pavilions have outlived their function and new development is needed to maximize the site and reinvigorate the Inner Harbor as an international destination. A range of uses like restaurants, retail, entertainment and potentially even office, hotel and residential all make sense for exploration,” he said via email. “We should not limit ourselves to what is possible. The key to success will be to attract both locals and visitors by making it authentically Baltimore and unique.”

Donald C. Fry, the longtime president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee who is set to retire in June, agreed that the key to reimagining Harborplace is fielding community input and focusing on making the marketplace a hub that both residents and tourists of the city can enjoy. But he also hopes that the Harborplace renovation will help to anchor the revitalization of the city’s entire Central Business District, which has been struggling amid the COVID-19 pandemic as more people have begun working remotely, leaving the area a ghost town.

“The Greater Baltimore Committee would like to see Harborplace returned to its previous position as a jewel of the city, and obviously a kind of catalyst for the redevelopment or re-envisioning of the Central Business District,” he said. “The key thing is to make sure that Harborplace is a success again, and that the owner understands and appreciates Baltimore’s heritage, social diversity and culture, because I think that is what will make it a success for the city as a whole.”