Harborplace, once a symbol of Baltimore's rebirth, turns 30 this weekend. It is showing its age and has lost some of the its allure, but it still has appeal.
On a quiet summer afternoon this week — probably a little too quiet for Harborplace merchants — patrons whiled away the time sitting in the Light Street pavilion eating crab cakes and taking in the striking view of the Inner Harbor. But it's hard to observe the scene without engaging in the favorite Baltimore pastime of naming restaurants that used to be here. The American Café, Shucker's, Flying Fruit Fantasy, the Bun Penny, Jean-Claude's, City Lights and the Soup Kitchen came to mind, as do Pronto Ristorante, the Black Pearl, Tandoor, Taverna Athena.
But the crab cakes still come from Phillips Seafood, a Harborplace original that now dominates the Light Street pavilion, serving crustaceans from the Far East and beer, Evolition, brewed on the Eastern Shore. It is a global economy.
Harborplace is much thinner than it used to be, and in world of retail, that is not a good look. Rows of tables sit in the Light Street pavilion in space once occupied by shops and eateries. According to a sign in the pavilion, there are now 120 merchants in Harborplace and its sister retail establishment across Pratt Street, The Gallery. When Harborplace opened in 1980, press accounts say there were 133 merchants in just the Light and Pratt street pavilions.
The debut of Harborplace, on a sweltering July 4th weekend, was memorable. A throng estimated at 100,000 jammed the new pavilions. A few of the businesses had pushed out construction workers mere hours before opening their doors. Restaurants sold out of food.
Never one for understatement, Mayor William Donald Schaefer invited "everyone in Maryland, in the United States and the world" to visit Harborplace, and that night an additional 200,000 people took the mayor up on his invitation and clogged the Inner Harbor to watch the fireworks. James W. Rouse, head of the company that built Harborplace, said it would inject "new life in a great old city."
In the summer that Harborplace opened, Baltimore seemed to be on top of the world, a position that made some natives uncomfortable. When ABC's Ted Koppel asked Councilman Mime DiPetro what was responsible for the city's resurgence, the East Baltimore councilman took note of the recent eruption of Mount St. Helen's in Washington state, and replied "We ain't got no volcanoes."
Three decades later we still have no volcanoes, and Harborplace is plugging along. It still draws tourists, especially to the compelling waterfront promenade. This week there were plenty of moms and dads carrying cameras and small children. There were gaggles of conventioneers strolling near the water. There were several silver-haired couples wearing sensible shoes. Business was brisk at the ice cream stands. The Cheesecake Factory was bustling. Lines of the young and the hip queued up at the cash registers in Urban Outfitters.
Yet compared with the glory days of its youth, the mood of Harborplace was subdued. There are many vacancies, especially in the Light Street pavilion. New restaurants and shops are needed. A Harborplace spokesman said deals were in the works that would bring a large clothing store to the Light Street pavilion and a sit-down restaurant to the Pratt Street pavilion. They will be welcome new life.
Harborplace is now owned by Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which bought the Rouse Company in 2004 and is emerging from bankruptcy. It recently fought off a takeover effort by Simon Property Group of Indianapolis. It remains hard to conceive that so Baltimore an institution, built as much out of civic duty as economic motive, could be just one more chit in a highly leveraged nationwide real estate portfolio, a status that surely doesn't help its prospects.
If the tight national economy has not helped the merchants at Harborplace, neither has the crime. Last Sunday a shooting around midnight after two groups of teen-agers bumped into each other at the promenade behind the World Trade Center once again raised concerns about public safety. Last June a spree of late-night assaults in downtown by roaming teens prompted Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III to hold a news conference in the Harborplace amphitheater and declare the area safe and "a wonderful place to visit, to bring your children." He also upped police patrols in the Inner Harbor. This week the alleged culprits of Sunday's shooting were apprehended, and officials promised more strong police presence as crowds descend on the harbor for this weekend's 4th of July festivities. The fight to keep the Inner Harbor, the city's jewel, crime free and family-friendly is ongoing.
Like its neighbors, the recently auctioned off waterside condominiums at HarborView, Harborplace is going to have to some "recalculating" to figure out its future market niche. The development at Inner Harbor East has siphoned off some of the glamour of Harborplace, but with its prime location and its 30 years of history, it remains the heart of Baltimore's renaissance.