Plans for Harborplace are being drawn up before the Baltimore Architectural Board

Plans for Harborplace are being drawn up before the Baltimore Architectural Board

When a developer last month unveiled designs to reimagine Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, politicians exploded. Then the architects took a look.

To Pavlina Ilieva, chair of Baltimore’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Committee, or UDAAP, it was as if someone had asked ChatGPT to create a master plan for a waterfront development.

“I consider these all to be marketing images,” Ilieva said at a meeting Thursday morning.

It was the first of many public hearings for MCB Real Estate and its managing partner, P. David Bramble, promoting an ambitious redevelopment of Harborplace. Bramble wants to demolish the duplexes, reconfigure adjacent streets, add green space and erect five buildings — including two residential towers. The estimated price is about $1 billion.

Bramble said he was “very excited” to submit the designs to UDAAP, and Iliva and other members of the Baltimore Architectural Review Committee praised Bramble and MCB architects for their efforts and ambition. Then came the criticism.

They said there was no cohesive vision, no supporting research, little explanation of the design choices and an overly simplistic view of a very complex space. Perhaps more importantly, Ilieva said, the plan lacked a fundamental analysis of what made Harborplace a success in the beginning — and a failure today.

The Harborplace was impressive when it opened four decades ago, drawing millions of visitors to downtown Baltimore and its waterfront, but today much of the Harborplace is unused and falling into disrepair. The suites, which include a mix of retail and restaurants, are located on city-owned land along the Inner Harbor, but the buildings are privately owned and operated.

MCB bought Harborplace out of receivership after its previous owner defaulted on its debts. After hosting meetings with community members and stakeholders, MCB unveiled its plans for Harborplace and the surrounding public space on October 30.

Their plans call for a significant reduction in car lanes along Pratt and Light streets, including removing the spur that separates McKeldin Plaza from Inner Harbor Park. More lanes will be added for pedestrians, cyclists and mass transit. The park will be rebuilt. A garden, pond and lots of trees will be added. The drawings showed people swimming and kayaking between the floating piers in the harbour.

The wings will be demolished and five new buildings constructed, including “The Sail,” a curved-roof commercial building designed by a Copenhagen architectural firm.

According to Alexandra Hughes, MCB spokeswoman, current redevelopment plans require $500 million in private investment and $400 million in public funds. That includes about $200 million for park improvements, $75 million to $100 million to rebuild nearby streets, and $100 million for park space.

While UDAAP members offered plenty of criticism Thursday morning, the committee is an advisory group. It does not approve or reject projects, but major development proposals must come before the UDAAP for multiple hearings before the Planning Department issues permits for the project. The committee encouraged MCB to step back and reconsider key aspects of the project, including whether all five buildings are necessary.

Ilieva said she felt puzzled, upset and surprised when reviewing the proposal, which contained hand-drawn sketches followed by fully rendered scenes, without any explanation of the design process.

Another UDAAP member, Osborne Anthony, said he wanted a design that respected Baltimore’s boldness.

“What I see here is a very elegant presentation, but elegant and elegant is not always the answer,” Anthony said.

David Bramble, co-founder of MCB Real Estate, speaks at a press conference as the company's plans for the Harborplace development are revealed, at the Light Street Pavilion on Monday, October 30, 2023 in Baltimore, Maryland.

In a statement after the hearing, Bramble described it as a positive experience.

“We were pleased that UDAAP began the meeting by recognizing the bold vision to reimagine Harborplace that had been informed by months of community meetings,” Bramble said. “The time taken by UDAAP to provide constructive criticism on the initial designs will help move the process forward.”

Bramble will have many opportunities to discuss and present MCB’s vision for the Inland Harbor.

In addition to more hearings before the UDAAP, the redevelopment of Harborplace will also need amendments to its zoning, the city charter and the Inner Harbor Urban Renewal Plan, all of which will be presented to the City Council, city planning staff said. Several government agencies — city, state and federal — will need to review aspects of the plan. Voters will also have to approve any amendments to the city charter.

Then the demolition and construction can begin.

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