Inner Harbor reaching end of its space

After 25 years of building, little room for projects

September 10, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Twenty-five years after it began as an experiment in urban redevelopment, the Inner Harbor is getting built out.

There's no available space left for major new developments from the Rusty Scupper restaurant on the south side to the Pier 6 music tent near Little Italy.

"We're reaching the end," says M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm.

A handful of projects is in the works, but "that's it."

The quarter-century of change has been remarkable.

In 1976, when the Maryland Science Center opened at Light Street and Key Highway, it was as isolated as a lighthouse on a desolate shore.

Decrepit warehouses had been razed and grass planted, but not much happened there other than fairs, picnics and kite-flying.

Today the land ringing the water teems with activity thanks to attractions, restaurants, offices and a hotel, as well as grassy areas and Rash Field that are deemed off-limits to building.

Last year Harborplace alone recorded 11 million visits. The water is more crowded than ever, too, filled with boats of all sizes.

One consequence of the growth is that available land is fast vanishing. A final burst of big projects is under way or coming, officials say: a $61.8 million expansion of the National Aquarium that broke ground Thursday; a new Science Center wing; a Pier 4 office building; a visitors center and a parking garage next to the Columbus Center.

"You won't see any more," predicted developer David Cordish, who controls the Power Plant complex under a long-term city lease. That is why he thinks his six-story Pier 4 office building, now under construction, has leased so quickly: "People said there won't be another chance."

A relative blink

If current schedules hold, the Inner Harbor overhaul will have taken scarcely 30 years. That is the blink of an eye in the life of a city, says Charles C. Graves III, city planning director. "It has really transformed the whole harbor," he said.

Waterfront construction beyond the Inner Harbor will not stop, of course. Development is sure to keep spilling away from the harbor in both directions - around Key Highway toward Locust Point, and past Inner Harbor East on through Fells Point and Canton.

In addition, key lots are vacant across Pratt and Light streets from the Inner Harbor promenade. The News-American newspaper building and McCormick & Co. spice plant once stood on the sites. Now they are parking lots.

A developer wants to put an apartment tower on the News-American lot; the fate of the valuable McCormick land remains uncertain.

But if Brodie and others are right, the basic look of the thin strip of land running between water and road soon will fall into place for years to come.

"You want to build new things, but you also want to make sure it's not overbuilt," said David Pittenger, the aquarium's executive director. "I think everyone's mindful of that."

The aquarium is starting construction on its second - and final - major Inner Harbor addition since the original building opened on Pier 3 in 1981 to acclaim and throngs of visitors. A 120-foot-high glass cube will rise north of the main wing, with a 35-foot waterfall and "multisensory" Australian river gorge exhibit.

After it opens, probably in spring 2005, the aquarium will need to rely on interior changes to keep the experience fresh for visitors, Pittenger says.

Change is a constant in the tourism business, and the aquarium already plans to spice up its Pier 4 wing with a Surf Zone family exhibit area.

Insecurity complex

Planning for the harbor's resurgence dates to 1965, but back then the notion that 37 years later it would be nearly built-out - or, rather, rebuilt - might have seemed absurd.

"There are a lot of people who don't remember what was there or the collective insecurity complex in the 1950s and 1960s," says Martin Millspaugh, the man who helped guide the Inner Harbor effort for the city from 1965 to 1985.

In 1965, Millspaugh recalls, this is what the Inner Harbor looked like: Beside Key Highway stood a trucking terminal, Pepsi bottling plant and fish-oil refinery.

Heading north, Calvert Street followed a path where today one sees the Light Street pavilion of Harborplace and grass. Calvert and Light were later merged south of Pratt to move traffic away from the water. Also in 1965, there was only water where the brick promenade now runs along the harbor; that area was created with fill.

Along the south side of Pratt Street, once-bustling piers stood abandoned and haggard in 1965 - the price, Millspaugh says, of having a harbor too shallow for modern ships.

"It was really a wasteland," says Millspaugh, who was chief executive of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Inc., a forerunner to Baltimore Development Corp. He is now vice chairman of Enterprise Real Estate Services, a development company.

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