Twenty years ago, city's ship came in

June 30, 2000|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

From his shop in the Pratt Street pavilion, Courtney Garton had just finished stocking the last shelves when he saw them - hundreds of people pressed against the glass outside, waiting to get in. Then the Hats in the Belfry owner sold out of hats.

At Phillips Harborplace, then-manager Peter Macnab watched in delight as his restaurant's line snaked out the door. That evening, after scooping ice cream through the heat of the day, Mary Garfield felt shivers watching fireworks as cannons roared.

With that opening 20 years ago this Sunday, Harborplace secured its place as a catalyst for an urban renaissance. Though the city had worked since the mid-1960s to transform the harbor's rotting wharves and abandoned warehouses into a waterfront park, the site lacked retail to draw large crowds and encourage private investors to ring the harbor with offices, hotels, shops and attractions.

Much of city officials' original vision has since come to life at the Inner Harbor and beyond. Some 15 million people a year visit the Inner Harbor, Rouse says.

Harborplace itself, which now also includes the Gallery mall across Pratt Street, has evolved into one of the most successful "festival" malls in the country, retail experts say. Though tenants still include locally-owned shops, the mix today also reflects increasing presence of national chains and full-service restaurants, as well as retailers' competitive needs to broaden their merchandise.

The "festival marketplace," with a heavy emphasis on eateries and impulse purchases, "was an innovative approach to re-introducing retail into the centers of older cities," said Michael D. Beyard, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. But two decades ago, the idea remained unproven.

"We'd been hoping to have something of a permanent festival attraction. We didn't know what," said Martin L. Millspaugh, who served as the first chief executive of the Charles Center Inner Harbor Management Co., formed in 1965 to oversee an ambitious Inner Harbor redevelopment.

By 1976, the city had a promenade, the Maryland Science Center and the Constellation. The same year, Columbia-based Rouse Co. opened Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston. "When [Faneuil] was so successful, we realized that was it," Millspaugh said.

But many citizens objected to Rouse's proposal for twin glass pavilions, and the project barely survived a voter referendum. Privately, Rouse officials never expected Harborplace to match the success of Boston's version.

"It was scary to go into the harbor at the time," said Garfield, who had opened Lee's Ice Cream in Towson a year earlier and was courted by Rouse as one of its local entrepreneurs. "We were excited, but none of us really knew for sure what it was going to be like."

Today, Rouse considers Harborplace the most successful of its festival marketplace malls, with average sales per square foot at more than twice the national average of $300 to $350 per square foot.

For the city, the shopping pavilions have meant more than property taxes and hundreds of jobs. "The intangible is what an attraction it has been for the city," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency. "It became part of the personality of Baltimore. People talk about it across the country and internationally."

Anthony Hawkins, a former Rouse Co. group vice president who now runs Hawkins Development Group., believes a key to the project's success was targeting local customers as opposed to the visitor market, for instance by bringing in locally known names such as Phillips.

"If you can make it work with Baltimore, they will bring the guests in," Hawkins said.

Today's visitors will find a different mix of merchants than two decades ago, although the number still stands at 125. Harborplace has more national chains now but a higher percentage of local retailers than most malls, with just 16 national chains out of 125 tenants, said Jody Clark, a Rouse vice president and associate group director. Harborplace opened with eight full-service restaurants, and now has 14, mostly larger ones.

"Harborplace represents where retail has gone in the last 20 years," Brodie said. "There were smaller, non-franchise tenants in earlier years. There was not a Planet Hollywood or Discovery Channel Store. Some might say, `Can't you find those in other cities?' You can, but this is what has happened across America."

Specialty shops say they've managed to compete by differentiating themselves from chains. Fire & Ice, a retailer of high-end jewelry, fossils and art glass, has outgrown its space three times because of a demand for its hard-to-find merchandise, said manager Doll Queen.

"I've remodeled three times and changed the merchandise mix six or seven times," said Mike Durham, owner with his wife, Geri, of The Sport Shop and Stadium Sports. "The merchants that are here a long time don't look like they did 20 years ago."

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