Two decades of success

Harborplace: Downtown retail market is growing as Harborplace celebrates 20th birthday.

June 29, 2000

IT SEEMS LIKE it opened only yesterday. But today marks the 20th birthday of Harborplace, the waterfront emporium that gave Baltimore a glitzy image and changed downtown retailing.

The two Harborplace pavilions brought a year-round festival focus to the shoreline. As millions of visitors flocked to the harbor, other businesses realized the untapped potential of the tourist trade. First, the Gallery mall opened across Pratt Street, then the Power Plant.

Retailing is now expanding eastward. Two hotels are rising near Little Italy, along with a gourmet supermarket, an 18-screen movie theater and specialty shops. Price tag: $500 million.

Retailers are also looking for opportunities beyond the harbor. Plans are under way to revive Howard Street, which was Baltimore's retail hub until the 1970s.

Not all harbor-area merchants succeeded. The venerable Hutzler's, in a last-gasp effort to save its failing department store chain, opened a branch near the harbor. It bombed.

Overall, though, the decades since 1980 have been a smashing hit -- in good times and bad.

Harborplace was the idea of James W. Rouse, the urban visionary. He saw it as a "festival marketplace" that would fill the needs of not only tourists but nearby residents as well. Among early Harborplace merchants were a spice shop and meat and fish vendors.

That mix has changed over the years. National chains have replaced most local shopkeepers; the number of entertainment-oriented venues has increased.

Overall, harbor-area entertainment venues -- ranging from an ESPN Zone sports extravaganza to a growing number of night clubs -- are multiplying. This ensures that the daytime bustle continues well after dark.

In the 1970s, the Harborplace proposal spawned heated controversy. Restaurateurs in Little Italy feared the new attraction would kill their business. Other activists wanted to keep the embankment as a pristine park. Fortunately, Baltimore voters were more far-sighted.

The redeveloped Inner Harbor has been a tremendous asset to Baltimore. Just ask the hundreds of thousands of people who braved the heat, humidity and long lines there over the past week to see the tall ships.

With this success, though, have come some attempts to overdevelop the shoreline or cheapen it. Those gambits have been stymied so far and must be foiled in the future.

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