The city within the city

Harbor Point makes Baltimore more attractive as a place to work and live

February 12, 2012|Dan Rodricks

Tuesday night in Harbor East, Baltimore's city-within-a-city, hundreds of men and women celebrated Valentine's Day, eschewing advice that the lovers' holiday would have been more enjoyably observed on the previous Saturday night. The sidewalks and streets, the restaurants and hotels were jumping after work, and the energy spilled across Eastern Avenue to Little Italy and the restaurants there. A colleague of mine trying to reach the CVS on Aliceanna Street had an Oh-my-God moment at the scene.

"It looked like fashion week in New York," she said. "There were well-dressed couples, hot-to-trot single women in red heels and a general bustle on the streets that I tend to associate with Manhattan. It was terrific to see, though I couldn't help thinking, 'Who are these people, and where did they come from?'"

A lot of people have had OMG moments in Harbor East, even on slow days, especially those of us who remember the lumber yard that was there, the old warehouses, the gray AlliedSignal chemical plant, and the sprawling parking lot where Big John Paterakis used to park his H&S Bakery trucks. It was the wealthy and politically influential Mr. Paterakis who developed the area, and it's all kinds of breathtaking. But when it started back in the 1990s, the whole thing smelled — and not only of baking bread.

At a time when the city needed a convention hotel to serve its taxpayer-funded convention center, Mr. Paterakis got a sweet deal on taxes and construction funding from the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to build a hotel in Harbor East — fully a mile from the convention center. Despite the outrage, accusations and skepticism, the cranes went up and construction began. The hotel opened in 2001, rising 32 stories above the Inner Harbor, with waterfront views from every room, more than 80,000 square feet of meeting space and the largest ballroom in the state. In just a few years, what we called the Big John Hotel became a booming success as a meeting center in its own right. That was the start of Harbor East as a city within a city.

Since then — well, have a look around: restaurants, stores, more hotels, apartments, office buildings.

For Baltimoreans who have always seen the Inner Harbor — and, specifically, the intersection of Light and Pratt — as the center of the city, Harbor East is still kind of a shock, an OMG. But these things happen, don't they? Once upon a time, Baltimore and Charles was seen as the center of city. Once upon a time, generations of Baltimoreans saw Howard Street as the main artery in city life. Things change; the ground shifts. We have seen the Baltimore waterfront transformed over 50 years from an industrial zone to a tourist attraction. Long-gone Baltimoreans would be amazed at it all. Harbor East seems now like the inevitable extension of what began 30 years ago — that is, the smart redevelopment of land made valuable by the gentrification of Fells Point on one end and the opening of Harborplace on the other.

Now Harbor Point has been selected as the location of a new Baltimore headquarters complex forExelon Corp., following its buyout of Constellation Energy. The complex will be built on the old AlliedSignal site, a place so contaminated from years of chromium production, it was hard to imagine the poisons could ever be contained and the land used again.

But, assuming it can be built in an environmentally sound way, the Exelon-Constellation complex at Harbor Point represents another big step in Baltimore's collective reclamation of land once used for industry. Exelon gets a big break on property taxes under an arrangement that goes back to when the city was desperate for new enterprises in old sections of town. Perhaps, if it wants to be a good citizen here, the highly profitable company should give up some of those advantages.

Is Harbor East the new downtown? Is it sucking away office space and jobs from the old central business district?

Certainly, the office vacancies above Pratt Street are a concern, but the Downtown Partnership came up with a smart plan to encourage conversion of a lot of that space to apartments and condominiums. That's a good idea. It always sounds like wishful thinking, but I'm among those who believe that the coming generations of educated professionals will want to live in this city and won't suffer from the same prejudices that informed their parents and grandparents, who opted for the suburbs. They'll want to live downtown. Already, we've seen successful conversions of old lofts and office buildings into residences. We could use more of it. Maybe the people who live in those buildings will work at Harbor Point.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR-FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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