Harborplace changes hands

Our view: The sale of Baltimore's iconic waterfront retail pavilions could usher in a new era for the Inner Harbor — if needed investments are made

October 24, 2012

When Harborplace first opened, it was hailed as one of the crown jewels of Baltimore's renaissance, and millions of visitors from across Maryland and around the country beat a path to its door. On a typical Saturday afternoon, the Light and Pratt street pavilions were beehives of activity, crowded with tourists who came to the Inner Harbor to eat, shop and gawk.

More than 30 years later, Harborplace is still viable and still commercially successful, although not necessarily what it once was. There are any number of reasons for this, from competition elsewhere to the natural evolution of any attraction — but surely one big problem involved its owners and the lack of sufficient investment in the properties as ownership transferred from Rouse Co. to Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which subsequently landed in bankruptcy.

This week's announcement from City Hall that Harborplace will have a new owner, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. of New York, offers reason for renewed optimism about its future. While General Growth's financial troubles clearly limited its potential investment in Harborplace, Ashkenazy is not so hampered, and the company appears uniquely qualified to make those decisions as it owns similar high-profile, landmark retail properties elsewhere, including Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston and San Antonio's Rivercenter.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued a statement Tuesday citing that track record as reason to believe the company will be a "great fit" for Baltimore. She also pledged to provide whatever assistance the city can to "secure Harborplace's legacy as a source of great pride for the people of Baltimore for years to come."

We would echo that sentiment. This transaction could mark a fresh start for Harborplace, which has already been on the rebound over the last two years. Fewer storefronts are empty than before, and some high-profile tenants, including the Ripley's Believe It or Not Odditorium, are bringing more visitors to the downtown. The Inner Harbor continues to attract an estimated 15 million tourists each year — believe it or not — and that makes it not just a source of pride but jobs.

Despite a certain naysaying politician from the suburbs, claims that Baltimore's downtown isn't safe fly in the face of facts, as do complaints that parking has become too expensive. Violent crime is actually down in Baltimore, and while parking costs have risen, they've mostly just kept up with 32 years of inflation. Meanwhile, there's a lot more to see and do around the Inner Harbor than there was in July 1980, when Harborplace first opened its doors — nearby football and baseball stadiums, the Inner Harbor East development, Power Plant Live, and a free bus connecting the downtown with attractions elsewhere in the city, to name a few.

Not to fault General Growth, a company invested heavily in shopping malls, but Harborplace is simply not the typical retail center and probably shouldn't be populated by chain stores that can be found just as readily in other nearby locations. Surely, nobody knows that better than Ashkenazy. Washington's Union Station, also a retail center owned by Ashkenazy, might also be the model of an urban attraction with entertainment, dining, specialty shopping and a high coolness factor.

Why should anyone care about the future of a couple of shopping pavilions that happen to be on the water? The Inner Harbor remains a critically important economic asset for the city. For millions of visitors who come here on day trips, to see a sporting event or concert, or perhaps attend a convention or stay overnight on business, it is the face of Baltimore. Its success helps keep the Inner Harbor a success, which helps maintain downtown as an employment center, and so on.

So let's have a public conversation about what's needed to encourage Harborplace street performances and fairs, special events like Sailabration, food trucks and festivals, and give people a reason to go downtown, whether they are local or from out of town. If the Inner Harbor is to continue to be a major regional attraction, a certain amount of reinvestment, public and private, is needed — and a successful and prosperous Harborplace is a good place to start.

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