A prominent Baltimore developer says the city's planned $100 million makeover of a 16-block section of Pratt Street is not feasible and would exacerbate existing traffic problems and oversaturate an already ailing downtown with retail space.
David Cordish, developer of the Power Plant Live complex, called the plan to add up to 650,000 square feet of retail and commercial space "absurd."
"One, that's almost three Harborplaces," he said. "They are having enough problems. Two, physically there is no room on the north side of Pratt Street for that much retail. It's impossible, physically."
But others, including some merchants in Harborplace, say they would welcome more business downtown, despite the fact that business in Harborplace is slower than usual. Several businesses, including the California Pizza Kitchen, have pulled out recently.
"Any enhancement of Pratt Street is only going to help Harborplace," said Mike Durham, president of the Harborplace Merchants Association and owner of Stadium Sports and The Sport Shop. "If you have more traffic on Pratt Street, it's going to help."
City officials unveiled a conceptual plan for transforming Pratt Street last week at an annual meeting of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a civic organization that has led the drive for the overhaul. The plan would make changes to downtown traffic patterns, create a new public square with an extra acre of parkland near the water's edge and remove a half-dozen pedestrian bridges in an effort to create a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly downtown. The plan also includes reworking the intersections of Pratt and Light streets, and Pratt and Calvert streets.
National retail experts say downtown revitalization projects in other cities have had mixed results.
Sidney Donnell, an executive professor of real estate finance at Texas A&M University, said projects in New Orleans; San Antonio, Texas; and New York's South Street Seaport failed to realize their promise.
Location is critical, Donnell said, noting that the projects in San Antonio and New Orleans weren't in the tourist centers.
"I think the question of whether downtown retail is going to be successful has to do with what kind of viability does downtown have on its own," Donnell said. "Do you have people who live and work downtown, and do you have a vibrant tourism industry? You look at Baltimore and you have both."
Michael Beyard, a senior resident fellow for retail at the Urban Land Institute, said concerns about the oversaturation of retail are unfounded. "I don't think Baltimore is in any danger of that," he said. "The problem with retailing in downtown Baltimore is that it's not integrated well. There are different districts within downtown that have retailing but the main spine, Pratt Street, is completely retail-unfriendly."
Beyard said the plan would transform Pratt Street from a barrier into a connector.
But Cordish said the market in Baltimore does not have the demand for such an immense increase in retail space. "How many vacancies are there in Harborplace today?" he said. "There's a reason why. There's a lot of restaurants and retail space and you know, it's not easy to fill them up. So you're adding 650,000 square feet on top of it? I think that's silly. It isn't going to work."
Mark Millman, a retail consultant and CEO of Millman Search Group in Owings Mills, agreed, saying he doesn't think Baltimore can absorb such a large increase in retail space with the current economy and market. "I don't see it happening until the convention center hotel is up and running," Millman said. "I don't think the city is ready for it at this particular time. We're a little over-retailed. To add more retail now in a tough economic climate when we're over-retailed may be wishful thinking."
Sandy Fleming, manager of Destination Baltimore in Harborplace, said she's worried about the competition from more businesses.
"Harborplace in general has definitely gone down in business," said Fleming, whose store sells Baltimore-themed gifts and merchandise. "Shops have left and they haven't been replaced. We've closed two of our stores."
But Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, said vacancies in malls across the country are always going to exist and aren't an indication that there's no appetite for more retail. He said the Pratt Street project would likely create somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 square feet of new retail and commercial space, with possibly an additional 150,000 square feet coming from private development.
Harborplace has about 152,000 square feet of retail space and The Gallery, across the street from Harborplace, has about 132,000 square feet, according to company officials.
"We've been meeting with national retailers for years, and most have said we would bring more retail downtown if there were more spaces," Fowler said.
He said the problem is that the spaces are usually not big enough for large retailers and that the Pratt Street plan would open up such spaces.