With a potential new developer named to acquire and revitalize the two Harborplace pavilions at Pratt and Light streets, many city planners, business leaders and others are suggesting ways to improve Baltimore’s downtown waterfront and draw tourists and area residents back to the Inner Harbor shoreline.
In the following article, Rebecca Alban Hoffberger offers one of the most detailed and wide-ranging visions to date, a potential template for changes that go far beyond modifying the two retail pavilions that developer Jim Rouse opened in 1980.
Since retiring in October as director and chief curator of the American Visionary Art Museum, Hoffberger has worked with TBC Inc., a local advertising and marketing agency, to write an overview and generate a series of visuals that reflect her vision for what Baltimore’s Inner Harbor can and should be. One of the chief points she makes is the need for a stronger and more engaging pedestrian connection between the Inner Harbor and two other places where people gather in large numbers, Camden Yards and the Baltimore Convention Center, using Conway Street as the main link.
Hoffberger is no stranger to visionary thinking. As director of AVAM from its incorporation in 1989 to earlier this fall, she has long played a role in shaping part of the Inner Harbor and leading discussions about ways to build on its early successes.
AVAM’s campus at 800 Key Highway has won numerous awards, including Baltimore Sun readers’ poll honors as Baltimore’s Best Museum and Best Tourist Attraction multiple times. It was the first museum in the United States to win the coveted “National Award for Excellence” from the Urban Land Institute. In 2021, members of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation named AVAM the city’s “most beloved building” constructed over the past 150 years.
Last year Hoffberger received the William Donald Schaefer Visionary Tourism Award from Visit Baltimore, the city’s official destination marketing organization. Next spring, she’ll receive the “Maryland’s Global Visionary Leadership Award” from the World Trade Center Institute, given annually to recognize an individual who, through their life’s work, has made a significant and lasting contribution to international culture in Maryland.
At 70, Hoffberger is not sharing her thoughts because she wants to become a developer or city planner, and she isn’t running for political office. As she puts it, she has no “dog in the game.” She presents her vision here for the first time, she says, in the hope that others will be inspired by the ideas she’s planting, and some of them will take root.
What follows is her vision for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Rethinking Baltimore’s Inner Harbor for Enduring and Dynamic Success
By Rebecca Alban Hoffberger
“Cities were meant to be gardens in which to grow beautiful people.” — Jim Rouse
We can learn a lot from examining the enduring popularity of the most successful urban visitor destinations hosted by cities around the world. Herein, I suggest a plan for Baltimore to establish a contemporary and Baltimore-bespoke, Tivoli Gardens-style amusement park for Baltimore’s greater Inner Harbor and why.
Copenhagen’s famed attraction, Tivoli Gardens, first opened in 1848. It remains to this day Denmark’s No. 1 visitor attraction! Beloved both by global visitors and by generations of Danes for more than 170 years, the Tivoli Gardens consist of an exquisite pleasure garden; a classic amusement park; an aquarium; sculptural points of interest; welcoming seasonal holiday activities; an engaging-for-children fairytale (Hans Christian Andersen) pavilion, an upright “Golden Tower” and nine other amusement rides.
We already have our own more spectacular National Aquarium; our historic USS Constellation ship; the Maryland Science Center and a skatepark, so we are well on our way! I do not believe we need more than two or three truly spectacular visitor rides, but I suggest they be unique and that at least one have the potential for becoming a new signature Baltimore icon. All this to create a lasting “THERE to the there” for our Inner Harbor at a time when shopping as destination has now been largely and lastingly eclipsed.
I warn against any typical developer plans to just refurbish the two existing pavilions no matter how tastefully, then install new retail and food tenants, and call it a day. The money will be quickly wasted, as the face of retail has now forever changed. My suggested vision, provided out of love and concern for our city and outlined below, is made visible with the help of the extraordinary artistic and graphic expertise and kind generosity of TBC Inc. It aims to inform, enchant, and showcase Baltimore at her very best — bespoke to her better angels past, present and future. It would give ALL BALTIMORE CITY RESIDENTS an equitable chance to enjoy the Harbor’s new bounty with renewed pride, regardless of income status. It also addresses the frequent complaints about the Harbor’s lack of available shade and expressions of concern for safety.
Please note that this vision in no way seeks to be a definitive pre-pick for the actual artists, specific ride designs, or featured graphics, but suggests only the scale and kinds of components I believe would together restore the Inner Harbor district and its waterfront to its most beloved, family-friendly, unique destination status. The public realm would be filled with quotes from Baltimore luminaries from Babe Ruth to Tupac Shakur, Billie Holiday to Elijah Cummings and Edgar Allan Poe, along with curious or funny facts about Baltimore. The goal is to fill visitors and locals alike with pride-worthy facts about this historic hometown. Here, we reclaim the best of our most positive qualities and achievements with joy.
PROPOSED COMPONENTS TO ESTABLISH THIS WONDERLAND:
1. Pedestrian Welcome Path on Conway Street, linking the Baltimore Convention Center and Camden Yards to the Inner Harbor: This link is essential. Before we spend hundreds of millions updating the infrastructure, let’s make sure each convention-goer falls in love with the five-minute safe walk to enjoy our Harbor Park. Add fun lighting consistent with the style of the renovated harbor and sidewalk quotes from Baltimore’s treasured heroes, such as Oriole Frank Robinson’s “Be anything you want to be, just don’t be dull,” or Babe Ruth’s “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from coming up to bat,” or football great Bubba Smith’s simple, “The ninth grade. I went from 5’9” to 6’8”.” Quotes from sports figures can be interspersed with those by other Baltimore legends such as Elijah Cummings, Edgar Allan Poe, Bea Gaddy and Billie Holiday (“If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all”), along with quirky thoughts about Baltimore as a City of Firsts, inventions, surprising facts, and humor. Our broad sidewalks will, from all of the key points to approach the Inner Harbor, serve as Walk of Fame, educational history and humorous surprise (think Ogden Nash). They will provide an engaging way to champion the unique spirit and character of Baltimore.
2. At the I-95/Key Highway entry point, high on a pedestal that gets traffic to slow down at the 45-degree curve, visitors will find a life-sized Pegasus horse sculpture with cobalt blue mirrored glass wings. Its presence will say in every language, “Pay attention, you have surely entered new magic territory.” At every key point of entry, there should some spectacular sculptural feature to herald entry into a place unlike any other.
3. At Pratt and Calvert streets, the north entry, a 12-foot sculptural salute to the “World’s Smallest Most Beautiful Lady,” Baltimore’s own “Princess Wee Wee,” with a smaller version on the same pedestal of her astonishing actual size — just 27 inches tall – and perfect proportions.
4. The WOW feature: St. Louis has its giant Arch; San Francisco its Golden Gate Bridge, and Chicago its Navy Pier Centennial Ferris Wheel. Let us light up Baltimore’s Inner Harbor with a one-of-a kind roller coaster, illuminated with Baltimore Blue neon and a concurrent pedestrian high observation bridge, reflected in the water. Note that Baltimore is home to Premier Rides Inc., a company that has designed spectacular roller coasters for settings around the world, but has never opened any in Maryland. We’ll also add another observational ride — the up and down shot like the “Golden Tower” at Tivoli. NOTE: I recommend that all citizens of Baltimore City be guaranteed discounted ride tickets year-round PLUS one month free access to each ride with proof of residency.
5. Instead of benches, I suggest covered gliders built for outdoor public use like the new orange ones outside Busboys and Poets in Columbia, Maryland. They would provide both protection from the sun and a soothing gliding alternative to just plopping down on a hard bench.
6. Add lush garden plantings and fast-growing Paulownia trees, which consume 11 times more carbon dioxide than any other tree and grow five to 20 feet in their first year. Reinvigorate our Sister Cities global relationships by arranging for trees from other cities to be represented in this new public garden. The garden maintenance force should be overseen by the local masters of urban farming and their youth apprentices. They should be paid and held to high performance standards.
7. Enliven the harbor-facing facade of the Maryland Science Center with a giant photographic fountain saluting local grassroots heroes, as in Chicago’s Crown Fountain by artist Jaume Plensa — it’s fabulous! This way Baltimore citizens can be our public face of beauty and honor on a changing basis. Also near the science center, there should be a giant head-and-shoulders sculpture of filmmaker John Waters surrounded by illuminated lightning ‘bolts’ radiating from his head along with his quote, “Come to Baltimore and Be Shocked!”
8. The National Aquarium should add a Butterfly Pavilion complete with floors of clear Lucite to reveal colorful Koi fish swimming just beneath visitors’ feet.
9. Sparkling streets: Anyone who takes Calvert Street north of the Harbor near Mercy Hospital knows it is a Pothole Pit – the worst. My suggestion is to fill and recap it with Baltimore Glassphalt — black asphalt infused with colorful, crushed recycled glass that twinkles in the streetlights and rain and patches seamlessly. Or follow the inspiration of Chicago’s rogue pothole filler Jim Bachor, a street artist who patches ruts in the road with mosaics. Besides protecting car suspension systems, the attention to detail and conscious design of all approach points for the new Inner Harbor would signal an expectation of what will surely become the foremost tourist and family destination for all of Maryland!
10. Figureheads: Place around the harbor partially-submerged, coming-out-of-the-water GIANT HEADS of famous Baltimoreans – Frederick Douglass; Babe Ruth; Barbara Mikulski; Billie Holiday; Divine; Poe; Joyce Scott; Tupac Shakur; Mamma Cass Elliot and others.
11. Baltimore-themed paddle boats: Redesign the rental paddle boats to be Pink Flamingos and Chessie sea monsters.
12. New performance venue: Add a floating clam shell stage for small performances, including concerts by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as part of the annual New Year’s Eve and Fourth of July fireworks displays.
13. Create a Crystal Pyramid Peace Pavilion in lieu of a plain gazebo.
14. Rethink the location of the USS Constellation, but keep in mind the Harbor’s grand sweep and make sure it’s where it won’t block vistas. The goal is to unite the greater Inner Harbor in a fun and playful spirit that will stand the test of time. Consider installing a living green-roof on the Harborplace pavilions and reclad their exteriors with red brick or mosaics to hide the concrete and rebar walls where rust from the rebar stains the concrete surface. I think our Zoo’s classic Dutch pavilions have stood the test of time far better than their 1960’s and 1970’s additions. Baltimore had America’s first public gaslights. Replicas might be considered in a nod to our history as the City of Firsts. Baltimore was also home to the Fuld Brothers, who first patented the Ouija Board, which could be the inspiration for a sidewalk graphic.
15. Merchants and music: Throughout the Inner Harbor, vendors should be one-of-a-kind, bespoke to Baltimore — not Big Box. Music, too, should be expressive of Baltimore’s rich history and provide opportunity for new talent to emerge. It can be everything from our National Anthem and Cab Calloway to Ethel Ennis; Tupac Shakur; Frank Zappa; Mink Stole and the musicals Grease and Hairspray. Emerging talent is a key: Who can forget, in the glory days of Rouse’s Inner Harbor, the fun of watching young, talented singers flipping and cutting slabs of molten fudge in the Light Street pavilion; one of those young men even went on to become the hit sensation Sisqo of ‘Thong Song’ fame!
Let’s create a true and beautiful Baltimore experience that trumpets our heroes in science, such as Abel Wolman, Vivien Thomas, and the pioneers behind the Hubble Space Telescope. Let’s celebrate the funny and fascinating facts about Baltimore so that strangers visiting, and even our own citizens, will cherish and feel rightfully proud of what we have gifted the world as a city of rich and diverse culture and innovation.
I agree with the late Jim Rouse, who said “Cities were meant to be gardens in which to grow beautiful people.” Maybe that’s why Tivoli Gardens has remained for 170-plus years the No. 1 destination in all of Denmark.
As the American Visionary Art Museum’s founder since incorporating in 1989, I have seen millions and millions of dollars spent in Baltimore on projects that failed, sometimes in under a year (think The Columbus Center and The Baltimore City Life Museums). I have repeatedly seen developers get offered the moon in tax breaks and infrastructure and then deliver little to bless the people of Baltimore.
I now share, with the great generously-donated graphic assistance of TBC, my vision for what can and should be, a template of possibility. Any redevelopment plan that seeks to spend millions without actively uniting the Convention Center’s and Camden Yards’ source of crowds with a renovated Inner Harbor is destined for a wasted opportunity.
I have no “dog in this game,” only a sincere desire to see Baltimore heal, succeed, and ascend to its very best, kindest and most radiant self. Perhaps some of this vision put forth will resonate with your own hopes, dreams, and imaginations, and make fine sense to you, our reader, too!
Rebecca Alban Hoffberger
The American Visionary Art Museum’s Seven Founding Education Goals and Jim Rouse’s Wisdom
1. Expand the definition of a worthwhile human life.
Rouse: “We must hold fast to the realization that our cities are for people and unless they work well for people they are not working well at all. As the people of the world learn what is possible, they will demand that their cities be geared to the humane and the beautiful.”
2. Engender respect for and delight in the gifts of others.
Rouse: “Surely the most civilized city would be that one in which the dignity of the individual human being would be so elevated that the bringing forth of his gifts and talents for his own fulfillment in the service of man would be the ultimate objective.”
3. Increase awareness of the wide variety of choices available in life for all—particularly students.
Rouse: “Approach the world out there confidently, optimistically, with brilliant expectations. It is a world full of exciting opportunities beyond anything that you can imagine. I envy you your futures. Pay no heed to the no-sayers, the preachers-of-gloom and the heavy-hearted who see the world dismally.”
4. Encourage each individual to build upon his or her special knowledge and inner strengths.
Rouse: “Thus, the most important single fact is that we have in our hands the opportunity to make our city—in our generation—the most livable, the most beautiful, and the most effective city in America.”
5. Promote the use of innate intelligence, intuition, self-exploration, and creative self-reliance.
Rouse: “The best way to attack any problem is to ask what things would be like if they worked.”
6. Confirm the great hunger for finding out just what each of us can do best, in our own voice, at any age.
Rouse: “The way to find new opportunities is to discover needs or yearnings of people that are not being satisfactorily met. The way to prosper is to do that well.”
7. Empower the individual to choose to do that something really, really well.
Rouse: “For many years I have worked with the conviction that what ought to be, can be, with the will to make it so. May we rise up in this country an army of thinking that this job ought to be done, can be done, will be done.”