The redevelopment of Harborplace will be carried out as a two-step process, starting with an “interim” phase involving short-term tenants, followed by a more permanent phase, with long-range occupants.
That’s the word from P. David Bramble, managing partner of MCB Real Estate, the company in charge of revitalizing the once-bustling, now-moribund retail pavilions at Pratt and Light streets.
During a panel discussion today that was organized by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, Bramble said he wasn’t yet ready to present his vision for redeveloping the three-acre waterfront parcel currently occupied by the twin shopping pavilions that opened to great fanfare in 1980 but are now nearly vacant.
But he did go into some detail in describing his process for arriving at a vision, and what he plans to do with the pavilions right away so they don’t sit dormant during a lengthy planning period.
The key, he said, will be leasing space to short-term tenants who can fill up the mostly-vacant pavilions temporarily, while planning is underway for a more permanent redevelopment.
“We’re super excited about the concept of interim use,” Bramble told more than 500 members of Baltimore’s business community who were gathered at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel for the Downtown Partnership’s “2023 State of Downtown Baltimore” meeting.
“Everybody knows this project is going to take a lot of planning,’ he said of Harborplace’s redevelopment. “However, we can’t let our crown jewel sit around and languish while we work” on long range plans.
Short-term tenants will give people a reason to reconnect with Baltimore’s waterfront, just as they did when Harborplace opened four decades ago, he said.
“It’s the kind of thing that’s going to remind us why we love Harborplace so much,” he said. “We’re really excited about bringing these uses back and getting people excited again and reconnected with our waterfront and getting us really fired up for what we’re going to do over the next couple of years.”
1000 suggestions about the Ferris Wheel
Mayor Brandon Scott announced last April that Bramble was selected to be the new developer of Harborplace after the former owner, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., ran into financial problems and lost control of the property in a foreclosure suit.
MCB has since taken over from a court-appointed receiver and Bramble has begun exploring redevelopment ideas and options. He joked today about fielding “1,000 suggestions about the Ferris Wheel we should be building” – an apparent reference to American Visionary Art Museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger’s much-discussed vision for revitalizing the Inner Harbor with a roller coaster.
Harborplace opened in 1980 with about 125,000 square feet of retail space, room for dozens of shops and restaurants overlooking Baltimore’s harbor. Most of the space is now vacant, either because of the lengthy receivership or fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic or other reasons, but the individual spaces are in leasable condition. The Cheesecake Factory and It’s Sugar are two Pratt Street Pavilion tenants that predate MCB’s tenure as landlord.
Bramble said he’d like to find interim tenants who can move into the existing retail spaces with little modification and will accept going in that they most likely will have to vacate their spaces when MCB’s redevelopment plans are finalized. He said an example of the type of short-term tenant he has in mind is Crust by Mack bakery, led by Black businesswoman Amanda Mack, who opened this week.
“We’re going to be focused on really attracting small businesses, minority-owned businesses, arts, entertainment, things that can use the space just like it is,” Bramble said. “We can’t spend a lot of money on it until we figure out our overall development plan.”
The concept is to “make it alive again” as soon as possible, he said.
“This isn’t the final use,” he said of the interim period. “Right now, we’ve got an empty husk sitting right in the center of the city. We’re going to fill that husk up and get it activated.”
Community engagement process
Answering questions after his formal remarks, Bramble said the interim tenants will help bring life to Harborplace while MCB leads a community engagement process designed to arrive at a vision for how Harborplace should be redeveloped. He said MCB will soon launch a website that will give anyone from the community a chance to say what they’d like to see at Harborplace.
Bramble said MCB’s goal is to use ideas from the community engagement process to develop a long-term strategy for the best way to redevelop Harborplace. He said he doesn’t know how long that would take, which is why he is looking for interim tenants who can be flexible. He likened the interim tenants to “pop-up” shops that now appear in vacant spaces in local malls, except that they likely would be in place longer than a month or two. He called them “Pop-up plus.” He said Harborplace will have more traditional pop-up retailers as interim tenants, too.
The interim period could be months, or it could be a year or more, he said.
“People have to be flexible,” he said. “We’re going to have to pick uses that can be flexible and that can be ready to leave when we’re ready to start construction.”
Set of principles
As for his long-range vision for Harborplace, Bramble indicated in his prepared remarks that nothing will be firm until the community engagement process takes place. But he said he is developing a set of principles to guide the development.
One principle, he said, is that whatever happens at Harborplace needs to be an integral part of a larger, seamless district; it can’t be planned in isolation.
“We’re thinking about an amazing core that allows you to eat, drink, live, you know, all the way from President Street…down to the stadiums,” he said. “We’re excited about opportunities to think bigger about our downtown and all of its activities.”
A second principle, he said, is that whatever happens on the Harborplace site can’t just be a shopping mall.
“We’re talking about mixed use,” he said during the panel discussion. “I think that obviously for a long time, Harborplace in particular has been thought of as just a mall. The mall is dead. Everybody knows that.”
The long-term development “will not be a mall,” he said again after the formal presentation. “The whole concept of a mall is basically gone. In most towns, there is one big mall. You don’t need two or three. No one wants to come down to the waterfront to get something that they could get at a suburban mall. That’s not what we’re looking for, and that’s not what this was. It wasn’t a mall. It was a festival marketplace. So that meant it had all kinds of cool things, unique things that you couldn’t get anywhere That’s why people came. We have to recapture some of that magic.”
MCB isn’t looking to go backward, Bramble said.
“It’s a new vision,” he said. “We’re not just recreating what was there before…We’ve got to come up with something that’s not just a reflection of the past. Not that we’re going to forget the past. But it’s not just a reflection of the past. It’s our vision for the future. What do we seek for Baltimore? What do we want to be? How awesome can we be? How awesome are we?”
A third principle is that whatever happens on the site should be a reflection of Baltimore, he said.
“The most important thing, in our mind, is going to be authenticity” that comes from having Baltimoreans as key participants, he said during the panel discussion. “That’s not to say that I’m turning away national tenants…But it is to say that we’re [starting] with the idea that what’s going to make this so cool is that it is Baltimore: the grit, the neighborhood, the interesting things about Baltimore. We’re going to put them on display. And then the national tenants are going to be begging to come in alongside those things.”
Development on the land is currently restricted by a city height limit that states no buildings on the site can be taller than the bow of the USS Constellation, or about two stories. Asked if he might seek to get the height limit lifted so he could build a taller replacement structure, Bramble said nothing is off the table while the community engagement process is underway.
“It could be anything,” he said. “It could be an airport. We’re going to go through a community process and get a bunch of ideas. The developer’s job, as I see it, is to take all the different ideas, all the different uses, combined with what you can actually physically do at the site, and most importantly, what I can finance, because no financing, no deal, meld them all together, and come up with something that reflects the vision that I’m comfortable with. That’s my job. I’m like a conductor. The train’s not ready to leave yet.”
The community input will help lead to the final vision, he said. “We’re going to engage in a process…We’re not ready yet.”