The difficult birth of Harborplace

Baltimore Glimpses

July 11, 1995|By Gilbert Sandler

THIS MONTH marks the 15th anniversary of Harborplace. So this is a good time to remember two things: first, there was life around Pratt and Light streets long before it was filled with shops and restaurants, and second, James Rouse's dream almost never came to be.

People say that Harborplace replaced "rotting wharves and decaying buildings." It's true that the area had fallen into a state of disrepair, but for much of the city's life it had been a bustling place typical of any gritty, old port city.

Two generations ago, the Inner Harbor was alive with the sounds of arriving cargo and passengers ships; cargo handlers barked orders as steamers arrived from the Eastern Shore loaded with produce and poultry. The quiet waters where tourists glide along in paddle boats today used to be the scene of a constant procession of ships maneuvering to the accompaniment of the music of the deep-throated whistles, haunting sounds of travel by sea.

Memorable names come out of the old, gritty Inner Harbor: the steamers Bay Belle, Tolchester, City of Norfolk (the overnight to Norfolk!), Dixie and the Smokey Joe ferries that ran to Love Point on the Eastern Shore (where you could get the train to Ocean City!). And the names of the great steamship lines: the North Carolina, the Old Bay, the Wilson.

In the early 1950s, as the highways replaced the waterways for pleasure-seekers and commerce, the area's function lost its importance.

But back to Harborplace and its 15th anniversary. The whole enterprise -- $16,000,000 worth of glittery shops, hotels, fountains and walkways -- all helped to rejuvenate what was once the sixth-largest city in America. It's now startling to think that the votes of 16,317 people made it all possible.

In November 1978, 59,045 Baltimore residents voted to build Harborplace and 42,728 voted against it. At that time, the unconventional shopping mall as entertainment and tourist attraction was very controversial.

"We don't want a Harborplace!" members of Citizens for Preservation of the Inner Harbor, a coalition of mostly South Baltimore community groups, screamed in public forums. "Hordes will descend upon this place of incomparable beauty and destroy it!"

"Utterly ridiculous," was the loud and forceful response from the pro-development forces. "It'll be like having a City Fair every day of the year."

Tempers flared at the public meetings where the plans were presented. Both sides had lined up authoritative endorsements for respective points of view. Eventually, the anti-development activists succeeded in getting the 12,000 signatures required to bring the question to the voters. Mayor William Donald Schaefer then got his own competing ballot question, insisting that the public needed more information about plans for the Inner Harbor. Some Harbor development foes said that Mr. Schaefer's question confused the voters, leading some to unknowingly vote in favor of the Inner Harbor development.

Mayor Schaefer and officials of the Rouse Co., which developed the 3.2 acres, presided over the grand opening of Harborplace on July 2, 1980. The Rouse Co. then predicted that the two Harborplace pavilions would draw more than 7 million visitors in its first year; the company now says the actual number was more than double that.

So mighty Harborplace, centerpiece of Baltimore's renaissance, a magnet for tourists, conventioneers and industry -- owes its very presence to only 16,317 voters.

So, to Harborplace: happy anniversary -- we love you.

And, to Baltimore's beloved old picturesque waterfront: We miss you.

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