City to unveil Inner Harbor master plan

Ideas include urban beach, pedestrian bridge

November 12, 2013|By Natalie Sherman, The Baltimore Sun

City leaders will unveil an ambitious long-term plan for the Inner Harbor Wednesday designed to restore pizazz to a vital area that's beginning to show its age.

The "Inner Harbor 2.0" plan calls for constructing a pedestrian bridge to connect Harbor East with Federal Hill, turning Rash Field into a grassy park and squaring Light Street to link McKeldin Plaza to the harbor amphitheater. Other elements include a kayak launch, bike share program and urban beach, featuring a floating swimming pool.

"It is specifically designed, I think, to push the boundaries a little bit of what we've become … satisfied with," city planning director Thomas Stosur said. "Part of the report is to bring attention to the amazing world-class open spaces that are happening on waterfronts all around the country. Baltimore really set that in motion, and it's past due time for us to take the next big look."

The Inner Harbor, some of which turns 40 this year, needs upgrades to its crumbling brick promenades, deteriorating bulkheads and unreliable light fixtures, said Laurie Schwartz, the president of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, which funded the plan along with the Greater Baltimore Committee. It also needs updates to remain a draw for local residents and the millions of people who visit the Inner Harbor each year, she said.

In 2012, about 14 million tourists came to the Inner Harbor, according to an analysis for Waterfront Partnership by the New York-based real estate and economic advisory services firm HR&A. The study found that the activity of visitors and 3,000 workers at Inner Harbor businesses helped generate $2.3 billion in economic activity for the region.

"The widespread perception and the long-held understanding that the Inner Harbor is central to Baltimore and the state of Maryland's economy is in fact true," HR&A principal Stockton Williams said. "As the magnet and primary attraction for so many people who come to visit Baltimore from out of town, it's critical not only that it remain … a well-maintained destination, but that it evolve and that it continue to offer new opportunities for out-of-town visitors."

The plan, which could take as many as 30 years or more to implement, does not carry a price tag. The designers acknowledged that their proposals would not be inexpensive.

Since 2003, the Greater Baltimore Committee has urged the city to focus attention on the Inner Harbor. Assorted problems, including overflowing trash cans and overgrown grass, detracted from the space, the group said.

Ideas in Wednesday's plan echo concepts unveiled in 2011, when the GBC issued a series of design recommendations at the same time that the city invited proposals for new harbor attractions.

Previous efforts were hampered by poor timing, said Schwartz, adding this is the first time the ideas have been tied together into a comprehensive vision.

"Each of them by themselves were interesting, but didn't add up to a comprehensive and common vision, so that's one of the pieces that we really wanted to achieve … to take the best of all these plans, knit them together and have a common vision between stakeholders, private entities and city government so we could all work together toward the same goals," she said.

Projects included in the new master plan range from "low-hanging fruit" that could be in place as early as next September, such as installing matching lights, benches and trash cans, to more difficult, long-range proposals.

For example, the designers recommend rerouting Light Street toward Pratt to create a "Grand Entrance" to the harbor. Such a realignment would alter commutes for those heading north on Calvert Street and east on Pratt Street.

That proposal depends on the outcome of a city transportation study, Schwartz said.

"That's a heavy lift for sure," said Adam Gross, design principal at Ayers Saint Gross, which worked on the GBC's 2011 proposal and designed the new master plan.

The pedestrian bridge, an idea put forward in 2011 to create a walking loop around the harbor, also would require formal study. In the meantime, the plan proposes a new, free water taxi route to connect the two sides of the harbor.

"Probably the biggest immediate opportunity that could have one of the greatest impacts is to redo the Rash Field areas," Stosur said. "Right now, that is a place that a lot of people kind of walk by to get somewhere else. It's not a place that, maybe unless you're a volleyball player, that really is something that stops and grabs you."

The plan calls for transforming Rash Field into a grassy park with gardens, playgrounds and performance space. The city has asked the Board of Estimates to contribute $65,000 for a study of the specific economic, technical and financial aspects of the field's redesign, which would include an underground parking garage.

Designers said they have deliberately created something that can be carried out in increments, with funding coming piecemeal.

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