This is not your father's Baltimore waterfront

March 10, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

I EMERGED from my winter's hibernation to revisit what the city planners call the Inner Harbor East, the section of Baltimore's waterfront that's mushroomed into the city's newest neighborhood.

In the past year, a handful of new buildings have sprouted up along streets with names like Aliceanna, Central Avenue and East Falls Avenue. To those who have been around here for years, it's where the old wholesale lumber yards once stood and the Pennsylvania Railroad had a freight yard.

It's as if downtown Baltimore has picked itself up and started racing in the direction of Dundalk. It's been a speedy move, so fast it takes exploration and detective work to assimilate all the sudden changes.

A little more than a year ago, there was a cute little traffic circle trimmed in cut stonework and dotted by street lamps not too far from the historic President Street Station near Little Italy. This traffic circle had nothing around it - it was as empty as a moonscape.

When I walked there this week, that traffic circle is now at the entrance to the new Marriott Waterfront Hotel, the big one, the place that is to Baltimore of 2001 what the Hotel Belvedere was to 1903 Baltimore.

There was a loud debate over whether such a tall building should have been placed here. There's no arguing with it now. The thing's up, and it's going to change the way we perceive downtown Baltimore. What was once a fairly compact central core of a city now stretches along the waterfront for blocks. The old downtown, which once stretched along Baltimore Street, with an arm for shopping along Howard, is now off and running along the harbor's edge.

And while the city has changed, so have living patterns. There are scores of people who consider themselves Baltimoreans who will never visit this part of town. Nor will they cross the new hotel's door.

The placement of these new office buildings, apartments and hotels (and let's not forget a new Fresh Fields grocery due, too) reminds me of the vacationers who stake out claims along the beachfront early in the morning. They arise early and battle the beach boy for the best spots for umbrellas and chairs along the surf.

Being an old-fashioned Baltimorean, it takes some getting used to - big hotels just shouldn't be built on a site behind the former sewage pumping station and the old city morgue. Or should they?

Baltimore's reclaimed harbor - now a full 30-some years in the remaking - is a treasure. Why should it be left for only the seagulls and the waterborne trash cleaners to enjoy?

Wasn't I taken to the top of Federal Hill in the middle 1950s? There, with my father and his mother and others, I was preached the gospel of the great port, its neighborhoods and buildings that spilled out in the foreground and distance.

It was a tremendous municipal asset, one that provided jobs and paychecks. Now that asset is being put to use once again.

I must admit that I, too, was skeptical of all this change. Shouldn't the hotel have gone elsewhere? Is it a good idea to stretch out the downtown like a rubber band along the contours of the old working harbor? Will people be able to find President Street?

I don't know. I'll leave that for greater minds. But, seated in the hotel's restaurant, and looking up at a long mural that revels in so many of the sights of the old harbor that I knew - the rusty freighters, the night boat to Norfolk, the little watermelon launch - I started thinking that it's not such a bad idea to make good use of our wonderful treasure. Then, a few minutes later, I walked along the broad corridors and surveyed our happy harbor.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

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