Laurie Schwartz, president of The Waterfront Partnership
Laurie Schwartz, president of The Waterfront Partnership Credit: handout photo

Water has shaped Baltimore. Across decades, our city’s waterfront has transitioned from working harbor to tourist destination to bustling mixed-use growth centers. Aquariums and concert spaces have replaced shipping vessels, but the soaring vision that leaders like William Donald Schaefer had for Baltimore’s shoreline has ebbed and flowed like the water itself.

Current attention is focused on how to redevelop the seemingly obsolete pavilions at Harborplace, as well as how to prepare for climate-change induced rising water levels. Working on these issues and much more is an organization known as the Waterfront Partnership, a collaboration of government, business and community partners that provides programming, planning, amenities and more all along the urban waterfront, from the Inner Harbor to Fells Point.

For 17 years, the Partnership has been led by Laurie Schwartz, a respected veteran of city planning and development efforts. Schwartz has overseen the development of Rash Field, the implementation of trash wheels and the planning of an improved promenade that will provide resiliency for the city. She is working closely with developer David Bramble as a redesign for the Harborplace area gets underway.

Schwartz, 70, was inducted into the Baltimore Sun’s Business and Civic Hall of Fame last year, and the paper recognized her for being “unquestionably smart, tenacious and hardworking,” and said her super power was “an uncanny ability to get government and the private sector to work together.”

Schwartz spoke with Baltimore Fishbowl recently about the past, present and future of Baltimore’s signature waterfront. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Baltimore Fishbowl: In 1992, I took a cross-country trip driving south, stopped in Baltimore for the first time, and said “Alright, I gotta get a crabcake at the Inner Harbor.” And then I moved here and started working for The Sun in 1999, and it took me a while to realize that the Inner Harbor and the waterfront is not downtown Baltimore. To me, it felt like the absolute heart of Baltimore. So from your perspective, is it really the heart of Baltimore? How should we, as a city, be thinking of all the land along the water in Baltimore?

Laurie Schwartz: The waterfront in Baltimore as in many cities is the draw for so many people, because of the water being such a unique feature for so many cities and such a special place for so many people. Baltimore was at the forefront of transforming its Inner Harbor portion of the waterfront from an older industrial port to a major recreational asset and tourism draw. Once the Inner Harbor was developed, it became clear that it was a destination and could be for so much more than just visitors and tourists — it was a place where people wanted to live. The key is really making sure we connect the waterfront – the Inner Harbor and other parts – to neighboring areas. Right now, Pratt Street and Light Street do serve as dividers between the Inner Harbor and downtown. And to build on the identity and the strength of the Inner Harbor and the waterfront to benefit neighboring areas.

BFB: That brings up a couple of interesting areas. There have been plans over the years, and you’ve probably been involved in them, about whether Pratt Street should become a boulevard, and maybe be two-way; and what to do with Light Street. You raise connectivity as an issue. Have you been involved in trying to help make those connections?

LS: I’m just advocating for them, and I think the redevelopment of Harborplace and the promenade reconstruction is going to provide the opportunity that we need now to better connect downtown with the Inner Harbor. You know, part of the look that MCB and [developer David] Bramble will be taking — and we will be involved in along with many others — is to look beyond just the ring of the Inner Harbor and look at Pratt Street and Light Street and how to upgrade and enhance those adjacent areas as well. One area that’s been talked about for a long time — and this may be the opportunity — would be to connect McKeldin Plaza to the Inner Harbor, and put the street grid back as it was long ago.

BFB: Rather than a triangle, is that what you are saying?

LS: Yes. And Pratt Street, I’m not an advocate of making it two way. But I do think that it can become an attractive boulevard with slower traffic, more landscaping, perhaps a small median in the center where people can just enjoy the atmosphere, much more than a full five lanes of cars rushing by.

BFB: The Waterfront Partnership is the organizing entity for a special taxing district, is that correct?

LS: Correct. It’s a benefits district.

BFB: So when you look at the map of the Baltimore waterfront, there are neighborhoods that are not in the Waterfront Partnership. Tide Point I don’t think is there, and Canton is not there. Is that OK? Or is it your vision to even be more expansive, and think even more holistically about the waterfront areas in Baltimore?

LS: When the Waterfront Partnership was formed, which was led at the time by Michael Hankin and Michael Beatty, they determined that a special benefits district or a special taxing district would be the best vehicle for funding the effort. And they felt strongly from the beginning that the district should only exist where support was present. So when we got started, there was a lot of support from the Rusty Scupper around to and including Harbor Point. At the time, Fells Point wasn’t sure if they wanted to be a part of it. So they were not in our initial boundaries. And one of the key principles that Mike Hankin set out was, we will only expand if we’re requested to. If a neighborhood approaches us, we would love to expand to include Fells Point, Canton, Locust Point, if support exists and if we’re asked. We’re not going to go out knocking on doors asking to expand. And so the Fells Point neighborhood did want to be included in the district. And we first embarked on a voluntary contribution plan and provided some services and there was support there for creating or expanding the business improvement district. And that took some time. But there was support ultimately, and as far as I hear, our neighbors are very happy that they are now within the larger district.

BFB: I’m looking at your website and the events are all pretty exciting – including the oyster partnership, Baltimore by Baltimore, Summer on the Waterfront, Ecotours. What’s the programming that you and your team are most excited about?

LS: Well, the newest and most exciting event series that I think we’re all excited about is Baltimore by Baltimore, which is the first Saturday of every month. It’s a festival series of music and makers, we call it, that really features the best of Baltimore and much of it is hidden talent that had not previously been exposed to a broader audience. … The key is hiring producers who are neighborhood based, and they put the show together for that month. They enlist and invite the talent. That means it’s coming from the neighborhoods. It’s not bands or talent that we might know. So it’s a great way to expand the network and cast a wider net, if you will, to bring performers and talent makers to the Inner Harbor that hadn’t been here before and are, for the most part thrilled to have that kind of venue. And so we’re really excited about that. It’s been very successful.

BFB: Last year was the first year?

LS: Yes. And it really begins to break down that perception that we hear too much that some people don’t feel comfortable, local people don’t feel comfortable, coming to the Inner Harbor. It’s just been so successful. Last year, we had an average of 10,000 people per Saturday attending, and that was independently collected information and data. It’s not just our guesstimate of how many people came. And they were safe events, and they were successful. The makers all made some money, got more followers, and the performers …. just looking at Baltimore by Baltimore Instagram account is just incredible, the excitement and enthusiasm. It’s all ages and races. It’s just heartwarming to see people coming together like that at the Inner Harbor, which is what the Inner Harbor was meant to be: a gathering place for Baltimore.

BFB: How depressing was it to see the decline of Harborplace over years? And could that have been avoided, or is it inevitable that places go through transitions like this?

LS: Well, places do go through transitions, and I think it was avoidable. The major reason I believe Harborplace deteriorated was because of out-of-town ownership. Certainly some out-of-town developers and owners are responsible and want to provide that vendors and retailers or restaurants that meet the market interests of any particular area. In this case…when Rouse Companies sold to General Growth [in 2004], General Growth [Properties] had their own financial problems…. General Growth knew malls. They didn’t know festival marketplaces. So they put in Hooters and Ripley’s and just your bigger box or larger chains that didn’t meet the needs or interests of Baltimore. They weren’t what locals wanted. And they weren’t what visitors wanted either.

Then General Growth filed for bankruptcy [in 2009]. They weren’t investing in any of their properties at the time. So Harborplace really went downhill from that lack of attention. And then Ashkenazy Acquisitions Corporation bought it. And they lived up to their name. They were an acquisition company. They were not a development company. They were not a management company. And Harborplace continued to slide waiting for promises from them, until it finally went into receivership. And now that’s been over three years.

So I think the decline was not due to the market. It was due to out-of-town owners that were not knowledgeable about the festival marketplace [concept]. There are some in the country that still do well, that Rouse originally developed. But now I think MCB is the right owner at the right time. David Bramble has a broad vision, and wants to develop what the community wants and is also working with us on redevelopment of the promenade. So it’s going to be a very exciting time in the next five years for the Inner Harbor, and Baltimore.

BFB: Is the Waterfront Partnership involved in safety at all? How do you think about safety for visitors and residents along the water?

LS: Our core programming is focused on creating an attractive and a welcoming environment. That starts with safety, maintenance, cleaning, and landscaping. Those are the core programs of Waterfront Partnership.

BFB:  Do you have dedicated safety staff? Is there an equivalent to the yellow jersey folks that the Downtown Partnership has?

LS: For the harbor, they are more hospitality guides than safety guides, and we have a very good relationship with the police. They will call on the police when they see suspicious activity, or groups of people that look like they’re up to suspicious activity. Fortunately, the Harbor doesn’t have the safety concerns that are experienced in other parts of the city. …. So safety guides provide that kind of welcoming, friendly presence. The goal of their work is to make a welcoming environment for people.

BFB: You’ve gotten a ton of kudos with the Rash Field redevelopment. People have been very excited about that project, and the timing of completion seemed great, coming mid-pandemic. Talk to us about how long that took to do , and what you were able to accomplish.

LS: This was the only remaining undeveloped parcel in the Inner Harbor. And it pretty much was left as a blank slate. There was a little bit of play equipment built into the landscape near the Science Center. And then Baltimore Beach, the beach volleyball group, set up through permits with the city. And they were activating the space, but that’s all.

And for many years, various groups said they were going to take on the redevelopment of Rash Field. But I think the Waterfront Partnership had the unique ability, because we have a good relationship with the city. The partnership is well respected privately. And we get things done. We just know how to roll up our sleeves, figure out what needs to be done and do it. We don’t always make a lot of noise about it. We just get it done. And so we started by working with the city primarily with the recreation and parks department, the Baltimore Development Corporation and the mayor’s office. They all supported our taking the lead on the design of the site. We went through a whole competitive process and hired Mahan Rykiel. We oversaw the design, along with all the supporting agencies. And we were able to raise money, starting with the city, which was very generous. The overall costs was $16.8 million, and the city funded $10 million. First Mayor Rawlings-Blake and then Mayor Young made those commitments and that allowed us to request and receive $4 million from the state, and then raised a little over $2 million privately. So it was all leveraging the commitments of government. And we saw real interest from private entities who participated and underwrote the pavilion, which is the most striking aspect — it’s the elevated white shade structure that captures people’s attention visually. It took a long time, I’ll admit that. We and GBC (Greater Baltimore Committee) had come out in 2012 with what was called Inner Harbor 2.0. An updated master plan for the harbor and Rash Field was identified as the top priority out of that plan, and so we got started in 2013 raising money and putting together the plan, and it opened in 2021. So it took a while.

In the summer, hospitality guides have iPads and survey people in the park, ask where they’re coming from and where do they live and what else would they like to see in Phase 2. The mix of people coming to the park is really broad and diverse. Certainly, people within walking distance are the heaviest users. But we have visitors from all over the city, and some tourists who happen upon it. But we really built it for Baltimore. And it’s been really well received. And we’re now starting to work on Phase 2.

BFB: Oh, what’s Phase 2?

LS: Phase 2 is the rest of the park. The whole site is about seven acres. And the first phase that we developed is only two and a half acres. So the next phase is is larger. And we’ve gone through a community engagement process for that. And Mahan Rykiel is just getting started on the design. And we’ve started fundraising already.

BFB: Gotcha. The population of downtown Baltimore as residential population has grown tremendously, hasn’t it, over the past decade or, or even two decades? How does that affect the waterfront and people’s desire to be there and use it? How are you taking that into account?

LS: It’s made an enormous difference. And it’s really allowed the waterfront to be successful. I mean, Harbor East is a wonderful mixed use community; Harbor Point is following suit and their apartments and condos still sell quickly. It provides more life on the street, especially at night. People come down for the restaurants or bars or the movie theaters, or to walk the waterfront. But the base population lives nearby and are within walking distance. And that just makes an incredible difference in terms of the number of feet on the street. And a sense of ownership that people have for ‘my neighborhood.’

BFB: I was paying attention last year as the Downtown Partnership was going through a blueprint process, one of the ideas on the table was the possibility of merging or combining groups. Is there value in a broader organization that was paying attention to both downtown and the waterfront?

LS: I think the key is that we are supportive of efforts within the larger downtown and waterfront area. Candidly, I mean, first, it’s a decision of the stakeholders, you know, it would be up to the boards of directors of those areas, the waterfront and downtown. Personally, I don’t see an advantage in having a larger group. I think as long as we’re working together and supporting each other, and building on each other’s strengths and meeting needs, I don’t see the benefit, frankly, of formal merger of organizations. But ultimately it’s up to the property owners and stakeholders.

BFB: Waterfront Partnership is also behind Mr. Trash Wheel? It’s so popular. How did that come about?

LS: While the Waterfront Partnership was focused from its inception on cleaning the land side of the waterfront, once we got our feet on the ground, Mike Hankin urged us to turn around and take some responsibility for also cleaning the water. Our initial focus was identifying new ways to remove trash from the Harbor rather than clean by chasing the trash with DPW skimmers. Knowing our interest, John Kellet, at the time working for Living Classrooms Foundation and also consumed by the problem of trash in the water, literally sketched an idea on a napkin and shared it with Mike and DPW officials. Mike and Waterfront Partnership were intrigued and were successful in obtaining grant money from Abell Foundation to fund the first interceptor, the first Waterwheel, invented and built by John Kellet.

In 2008, the first small water wheel powered trash interceptor was installed in the Jones Falls area; however, this initial water wheel was too small for the Jones Falls and was relocated after 8 months.  Following the relocation, John continued his efforts and went on to invent and build a larger trash wheel, which became Mr. Trash Wheel and was installed in May 2014. The introduction of the googly eyes on Mr. Trash Wheel was actually a suggestion from a company called What Works. The idea came about after a Waterfront Partnership generated video of the water wheel went viral online, accumulating over 1.5 million views within a week and ranking number one on Reddit.

BFB: So what are your favorite hidden gems of Baltimore? When you are in your ‘discover Baltimore’ moments with close friends or family, what do you like?

LS: Well, certainly, the Farmers’ Market on Sunday [under the JFX] brings just an incredible, cross section of Baltimore, all in one space. It’s where Baltimoreans from all over the city come together in one space. Koco’s is my favorite crabcake. And there’s Lexington Market. But walking around the waterfront is really special. Each part of the waterfront is different. Fells Point is is one of my favorite neighborhoods. It’s just historic and unique and funky and quirky. And that’s a favorite place to bring people.

BFB: In 10 years, how will the waterfront look different than it does now?

LS: The Inner Harbor will look very different; and Harborplace will be redeveloped. The adjacent streets will be more attractive and hopefully calmer not as much congestion. The promenade will be raised. We are seeing flooding and and a lot of increases in sunny day flooding especially.

BFB: So resiliency issues need to be addressed?

LS: We and MCB are beneficiaries of a state commitment of $67 million to rebuild the promenade. So that’s imminent. That will be rebuilt and it will be raised to become more resilient. The promenade is going to be rebuilt and that will look very different. We’re just starting in the coming months to embark on the studies and design, but it will be more resilient and I suspect even greener than it is….The harbor is going to look very different and be much more vibrant and alive.

David Nitkin is the Executive Editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He is an award-winning journalist, having worked as State House Bureau Chief, White House Correspondent, Politics Editor and Metropolitan Editor...