Baltimore-based developer P. David Bramble of MCB Real Estate was selected by the city to revitalize and redevelop Harborplace and the area around Pratt Street and Light Street in downtown Baltimore. Bramble recently told The Times Media his vision for this important waterfront property; he’s thinking big in his plans and wants to be sure that this property “is a place that everyone in Baltimore is going to feel like belongs to them.”
According to Bramble, his ideas for Harborplace are based on a months-long community engagement process that included a listening tour, community meetings and feedback from his website, which resulted in input from “tens of thousands” of residents from Baltimore City on the best way to redevelop Harborplace.
The redevelopment plan calls for two multi-family residential towers, commercial space for retail, restaurants and offices, and an expanded public space. The two pavilions will be torn down to make way for the new development.
Bramble believes the prime site needs more than one use to spark a second Renaissance that will boost the economy and bring people back to the waterfront. It sounds like a lot of unsettled ideas for what might be Baltimore’s crown jewel, albeit tarnished.
On April 19, 2023, the Board of Estimates awarded Bramble exclusive rights to transform Baltimore’s Harborplace without issuing a request for proposals from other parties. In essence, our elected officials have handed over the future of Baltimore’s “beating heart” to a for-profit developer whose company owns, manages and operates over $3 billion in real estate assets.
The design team is led by the Baltimore office of Gensler and several other design team members. Bramble says he wants to transform Harborplace in a way that spurs revitalization and is accessible. However, many residents and commentators see Bramble’s vision as a shift from “the people’s park” to a private enterprise
Perhaps it’s time to look back to examine how Charles Center and Harborplace were planned and developed. It wasn’t one man in charge of all aspects but a variable chain that answered to the then-city government who knew it had to be done right.
Between 1928 and 1958 very few buildings had been developed in what was then the heart of downtown Baltimore. In 1958, before the development of Charles Center and Harborplace, the Greater Baltimore Committee, an organization comprised of many local business leaders, along with the city, studied the area and solutions that would transform 22 acres in the center of downtown. The result was a report signed onto by the city and the GBC.
To implement an expansive and radical development plan, the City created a public-private corporation, the Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Corporation. Its principal roles were to develop an Inner Harbor Master Plan, which was an outgrowth of the success of Charles Center.
Through Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management, the city enforced design guidelines and arranged the location of buildings around the Inner Harbor.
The development of the Inner Harbor was wildly successful, proving that good development can attract visitors and residents alike. The city’s trust, and that of its citizens, was handed not to one person, but to a group of people, business leaders with a vested interest in the city’s well-being. They had divergent ideas and backgrounds.
Harborplace opened in 1980 as a centerpiece of the revival of downtown Baltimore with about 125,000 feet of retail space, room for dozens of shops and restaurants overlooking Baltimore’s harbor. However, Harborplace has been in a steady decline for years, as store after store and restaurant after restaurant closed. Harborplace was acquired in 2012 by Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation, which began a series of renovations, but ran into financial problems. The property was taken over by a court-appointed receiver, which operated it for more than a year until MCB acquired it in July 2022. Most of the space is now vacant, but several temporary tenants have been added in recent months. Now, the reimagining has begun.
Now, the city appears to have turned over the direction and future of Harborplace to one man-real estate developer Bramble. This is not to say Bramble is a good or bad developer, but how did it come to be that city management has, in essence, washed its hands of what Harborplace has become, a derelict property, and turned its future over to David Bramble?
He says he wants to transform Harborplace, but is his vision one that will truly make the area accessible to all? Bramble says “we’ve got to energize downtown,” but we question whether this is the best use of space that is known for strolling and shopping.
There are hurdles that will need to be cleared, which include citywide legislation to change existing zoning to residential, and repealing a 1970 charter amendment that set a height restriction at the Pratt and Light Street Harborplace area. It is estimated that this could take 18 months or more and would include public debate. This is in addition to the now estimated $400 million in public money that will be needed from promenades and public spaces and to reconfigure Pratt and Light streets.
We would like to know, to what extent is the city monitoring Bramble’s vision, the project, and has the city created deadlines for accountability? To what extent, we ask, has the city even studied the reuse of this property and communicated ideas to Bramble? And finally, what does he want to become the final plan?
Mayor Brandon Scott realizes he has placed all the city’s eggs in Bramble’s basket. He said, “We are looking forward to his great vision — Harborplace 2.0, because we need a new version of the harbor that works for the 21st Century.”
We look forward to the vision as well, and to seek answers to our questions since, as others have said, this revitalization is critical and too important to fail.
Editorial Advisory Board member Arthur F. Fergenson did not participate in this opinion.
EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS
James B. Astrachan, Chair
James K. Archibald
Gary E. Bair
Andre M. Davis
Arthur F. Fergenson
Julie C. Janofsky
Ericka N. King
Susan F. Martielli
Angela W. Russell
Debra G. Schubert
H. Mark Stichel
The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.