A remade Inner Harbor should be for locals

Tourists are great and necessary, but harbor needs to be for Baltimoreans first

November 23, 2013|Dan Rodricks

Be honest: You don't go to the Inner Harbor as much as you think you do. You go when you have visitors from out of town. You go when there's a big event, such as last year's Star-Spangled Sailabration, with all those tall ships and the Blue Angels. You might go during the holidays, or when your company springs for a dinner cruise.

Even people who live or work within easy walking distance of the harbor don't get there as much as they think they do.

Have I got that about right?

Of course, I'm addressing people who live in Baltimore or the immediate suburbs, but city residents in particular and downtown residents specifically.

Let's be honest: There's a good deal of been-there, done-that about the Inner Harbor, nice as it is.

We're proud of it. We love to see shots of the Constellation on national television during a Ravens or Orioles game.

But we think of the place as mostly for tourists, and for good reason — that's how the movers and shakers, from the time of William Donald Schaefer, presented it to the whole wide world: a cool place to visit, a nice place for a convention.

And that pitch worked for a while. Before a couple of dozen other cities got into the "destination" act — building hotels and convention centers in an effort to attract tourists — the corner of Pratt and Light was an East Coast gem, discovered and rediscovered by the meeting planners and travel writers.

It still attracts millions, including many from ZIP codes starting with 212. But it has lost some of its luster.

As touristy as it is now, there was a time — the early years of Harborplace — when it was more of a regular stop for locals.

Adam Gross, the architect whose company recently presented a master plan for an Inner Harbor makeover, moved to Baltimore 30 years ago, three years after Harborplace's opening.

"I walked most days from my home in Otterbein to our offices, which were then on the corner of Charles and Mulberry streets," he says. "In the morning, I would walk through Harborplace and get a pastry and a coffee. At night, I would come through Harborplace again, where there were several outstanding fresh fruit and vegetable vendors, a terrific fish place, bakers, butchers, and I think maybe a candlestick maker, all selling things that I, as a citizen, needed. The tourists came, in part, because it was truly a city market."

His point: A great good place, such as the Inner Harbor, needs to be for citizens first, and tourists second. It needs to be authentic — enough with the chain restaurants! — and a place the locals use a lot. We need to see more "bag people" there — that is, locals carrying shopping bags and gym bags as they move between work and home, home and work.

That's why the master plan Ayers Saint Gross created for the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Waterfront Partnership emphasizes the need for accessible and connected public spaces. That's why the additional greenways and greater public use of Rash Field. That's why the phenomenal concept of a landmark pedestrian bridge — one that can swing open for tall ships — connecting Federal Hill with Harbor East. It's about making the place more conducive to daily human traffic, the people who live here now and the people who will live in the growing Baltimore of the next three decades.

"A city which is vibrant due to a healthy residential stock, that favors the pedestrian and the bicyclist over the automobile, has great local restaurants, cafes and food and retail stores, beautiful parks for young and old alike, will also be the most attractive city for tourists," Gross says.

"Chicago, Amsterdam, Charleston, Portland — Maine and Oregon — Hong Kong, Brooklyn, Barcelona all qualify. They were built for residents, and lo and behold, the tourists and their tourist dollars followed."

Gross has been on this kick for a while.

"I have railed against the Baltimore Development Corp.'s reliance on tourism as the primary driver to develop downtown," he wrote in an email when we first communicated about this a couple of years ago. "My consistent plea was to instead create more housing in and around the harbor, which would in turn drive retail, create more foot traffic, more safety and a more civic and civilized downtown. More people living downtown would make Baltimore a more desirable place from so many different aspects."

In fact, downtown's population has been growing.

As I previously reported, the area bounded by Franklin Street on the north, Pratt Street on the south, Paca Street on the west and President Street on the east — Census Bureau Tract 401 — has been the fastest-growing area of the city for the last couple of years. More apartments were added this year and there will be more in 2014.

So the "bag people" are there, and there are more coming. I agree with Gross: Make the Inner Harbor their great good place first, and the tourists will follow.


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