Photo by NCinDC, via Flickr
Photo by NCinDC, via Flickr

Developer P. David Bramble on Wednesday cleared a key hurdle in his efforts to “reimagine” Harborplace when Baltimore’s Board of Estimates voted to amend a ground lease between his company and the city, paving the way for the property’s redevelopment.

The Board of Estimates initially approved the lease in 1979 to spell out the terms and conditions under which a developer is allowed to operate the two Harborplace pavilions, which occupy roughly three acres at the southeast corner of Pratt and Light streets in Baltimore. 

The lease was made between the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, the landowner, and an affiliate of The Rouse Company, the developer that opened Harborplace on July 2, 1980. It has been amended several times as the property changed hands over the years.

The document approved Wednesday is the fourth amendment to the 1979 lease. It was drafted to reflect the most recent change in Harborplace’s ownership, from Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation to an affiliate of Bramble’s company, MCB Real Estate, which took over as Harborplace’s owner last year. No exchange of funds was involved in Wednesday’s transaction.

Colin Tarbert, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corporation, said at the Board of Estimates meeting that the lease amendment was needed to facilitate the redevelopment of Harborplace, a project that’s considered critical to the revitalization of downtown Baltimore and its waterfront.

He said the 125,000-square-foot property has been “in limbo” for the past several years, after Ashkenazy experienced financial problems, a court-appointed receiver assumed control, and most of its tenants left. He said the city worked with the receiver to identify a new owner to bring the area back to life.

“Today is a milestone,” he told the board. “This allows us to officially now move forward with the reimagining and the redeveloping of Harborplace.”

Changes to the lease

Under the latest amendment, the city assigns the ground lease to MCP HP Baltimore LLC, the affiliate of MCB Real Estate that has replaced Ashkenazy as the developer of Harborplace.

According to materials presented to the Board of Estimates, the amendment also states that the city will “waive any and all existing defaults under the lease,” and “abate, for the ‘Development Period’ of up to three (3) years, any rent owed to the city under the lease.”

It states that MCB Real Estate, “in furtherance of the goal of community engagement, will endeavor to develop a program for ‘pop up’ rentals for local businesses during the Development Period” and “will maintain Harborplace in the condition in which it [was] received at the time of settlement.”

Finally, it states that the developer and the city “will endeavor to work in good faith on a redevelopment plan for Harborplace, the specific development plan for which may require further amendments to the lease.”

Two-step strategy

Bramble has previously outlined a two-step strategy for redeveloping Harborplace. The first step, he said at a recent meeting of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, is to find tenants to occupy the existing Pratt Street and Light Street pavilions on a short-term basis, so they won’t remain empty and more people will come back to the waterfront.

The second step is to arrive at a long-term redevelopment plan for the property, which could involve major changes to the existing buildings in order to attract and accommodate long-range occupants. Bramble has said he wants to launch a “community engagement process” to help his team arrive at a vision for redeveloping Harborplace.  

“We’re super excited about the concept of interim use,” he said at the Downtown Partnership meeting. “Everybody knows this project is going to take a lot of planning. However, we can’t let our crown jewel sit around and languish while we work” on long-range plans.

The language about ‘a program for pop-up rentals’ is consistent with Bramble’s previous statements about the first step of his development strategy and his desire to activate the waterfront. In the past, the city’s ground lease has expressly limited the number of short-term or pop-up tenants allowed in and around the Harborplace pavilions.

The language about the good faith planning effort is consistent with Bramble’s statements about the need to take sufficient time to develop a long-term vision for Harborplace without allowing the property itself to remain dormant.

Tarbert said there were no “existing defaults” under the lease, but the amendment was written to make sure MCB was “not inheriting anything that they did not cause.” He said the “development period” may not take three years but “we have given ourselves three years in the agreement” to provide a time cushion in case it does.

Bramble did not address the Board of Estimates on Wednesday. He told the Downtown Partnership last month that he hopes to launch the ‘community engagement’ process soon.

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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