Shame On General Growth For Slighting Inner Harbor

April 18, 2009|By JACQUES KELLY | JACQUES KELLY,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Ouch! On a visit to Harborplace this week, as the news was coming out about its owner's bankruptcy, I couldn't help but think about that brilliant summer day in 1980 when it opened. Some 29 years later, in the financially gloomy spring of 2009, it was hard not to feel concern for the hard times at the Pratt and Light Street pavilions.

What was the owner, General Growth, thinking - or more to the point, not doing? The place had many vacancies, and some of the places that were trying to do business were not at all what you might expect. There are good T-shirt shops and there are cheesy shirt shops, and I wonder about which has the upper hand at Harborplace these days. On Thursday, the escalator was not running.

And yet, Harborplace still has its crowded anchor restaurants - Phillips Seafood, the Cheesecake Factory and M&S Grill. It was a spring vacation day for what seemed like a million students on their field trips to Baltimore. A school band was playing in the performance space at Light and Pratt. On the outside, it was the tourist Harborplace of pre-recession good times. The little gardens were well planted, and it seemed that someone was trying to keep up appearances.

Visitors were not staying away that day, but were we trying to send them back with a shabby impression?

Like so many Baltimoreans, I gradually drifted away from Harborplace. The novelty wore off as Baltimore changed in the 1980s and 1990s. My feet took me elsewhere.

More attractions opened downtown - the National Aquarium, the two big sports arenas, and Fells Point, Canton, Federal and Butchers hills became highly competitive with the Inner Harbor. If you go to Harbor East, it has a cleanliness and sheen that I associate with Harborplace's early days.

And yet, I always marveled at how well the Harborplace model worked. Each August, at the end of a beach vacation, we would arrive back home and drive east on Pratt Street and turn north on Calvert. It seemed as if there would be more tourist commotion at Pratt and Light (especially if the Orioles were in town) than on the boardwalk at the Rehoboth Beach I'd just left.

A great deal of the initial Harborplace draw was the intangible James W. Rouse touch. Rouse and his energetic people seemed to require perfection. Little looked tired or worn. The window glass sparkled. I bought very little there in recent years (there was a great merchant mix at first, and I may be one of the few people who ever bought a small sofa at Harborplace, put it in a cab and got it home.)

My favorite time of the year was a cold and moody February night. I'd take a table overlooking the harbor and enjoy a tasty meal at the old Jean Claude's French restaurant.

Rouse's festival market concept - which he based upon old city markets such as Lexington and cannily updated - was a revelation in 1980. It endures nicely in places such as Belvedere Square.

In an apt example of old-fashioned Baltimore continuity, I often run into his son, Ted Rouse, filling his canvas bags with Maryland produce at the Saturday morning Waverly Market.

If anything, Baltimore has far more visitors than it did in 1980. There may be a smattering of competitive restaurants along Pratt Street, but not so many to challenge Harborplace. It still has that great location. Shame on General Growth for selling Baltimore's Inner Harbor short.

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