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Harbor Place at 30 years old needs you

Baltimore Sun photo of the Inner Harbor at night
Baltimore Sun photo of the Inner Harbor at night
Photo by Gene Sweeney

As the Baltimore Inner Harbor Examiner, coming back from hiatus, I would be remiss if I did not dedicate a post to Harbor Place turning 30 last month. Some in our area may never remember or have seen downtown Baltimore sins this iconic destination. I, on the other hand, recall being there July 2, 1980. Back then, there was a lot of talk of “white flight” out of the city, but you would have never known it by the estimated 300,000 people there that day and night. It was a symbol created by Bill Rouse and supported by Mayor William Donald Shaeffer of the city’s comeback – urban renewal and tourism. And that’s what it was for the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. The Orioles were not the O’s of the 60s through 1983, but the city still had the Harbor. The Colts left in 1983 but people nationwide still knew about our Harbor. It remained our crown jewel through some lean years.

I do not have to tell you that Charm City’s dynamics have changed: a middle class youth movement has pretty much conquered all the surrounding areas around the Inner Harbor, both sports stadiums are located in walking distance of it, and even though the Ravens won a Super Bowl last decade the country relates the city to McNulty, Omar Little, Stringer Bell or (insert your favorite “Wire” character here). And through this transformation we notice that Harbor Place may have been left in the wake. Yeah, the out-of-towners go there but the residents view it as sort of a thoroughfare between Harbor East and Federal Hill. This may be the reason for the amount of retail space currently available. To fill some of those vendor vacancies, General Growth Properties (the owners since 2004) believe that Harbor Place has to go into a new direction. No longer can it just be a seasonal tourist stop but it must be a regular destination for the inhabitants of the city.

The numbers do not lie. Over 400,000 residents live within a mile of the city and that does not take into account those working downtown. Gone are the days where the Harbor bordered high-rise tenements. However, it may be difficult to come up with the right formula. Power Plant Live and Harbor East both fill cosmopolitan needs – a playground for the young and high end retailing respectively. The mayor has stated that she is attempting to bring some national chains in to fill vacancies and organizations such as The Waterfront Partnership agree that will help. Some of the present shop owners believe that they need to concentrate on local vendors to attract local consumers.

So what do we want? In the end, it comes down to locals patronizing whatever is placed there to ensure its livelihood. This is when that guy or girl comes up with a brilliant idea that we all wish we would have come up with in hindsight. I don’t know if retailers that could be found in more “parking friendly” venues are going to solve this dilemma. The city needs to come up with a contest – Space at Harbor Place (it rhymes so that makes it cool). Let’s have a collective brainstorm as to what would get “you” – the Baltimorean – back to the Inner Harbor on a regular basis. Makes sense to me and that’s why it will never come about. But, I still have hope.

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