While efforts to reshape Baltimore’s gritty Inner Harbor into a modern commercial district had been underway for decades, it was the opening of Harborplace in 1980 that transformed this former industrial landscape into a tourist destination. Developer James W. Rouse initiated the “festival marketplace” concept at Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market in Boston, with architect Benjamin Thompson. Festival marketplaces were essentially a reinvention of the enclosed shopping arcade or market hall of the nineteenth century. They were intended to create lively urban destinations seen as lacking in American cities by the 1970s. Rouse brought this successful urban redevelopment strategy from Boston to his home state of Maryland.
Harborplace consists of two long pavilions arranged perpendicularly near the corner of Light and East Pratt streets. This position at the northwestern edge of the Inner Harbor provided a transition between the commercial downtown and the recreational zone that emerged around the waterfront during the 1980s. Each two-story pavilion had inner and outer retail arcades, with spaces for storefronts, market stalls, cafes, and restaurants. While architecturally Harborplace resembles any number of the suburban shopping centers developed by Rouse and others, it also recalls the older forms of the urban market and represents a path-breaking willingness to invest in inner city redevelopment at a low point in urban living.
Rouse had been involved in commercial real estate in Maryland since founding a small mortgage firm in 1939. He established the Rouse Company in 1954 and proceeded to build some of the first enclosed regional shopping malls in the country. By the 1960s, Rouse tackled the more ambitious task of creating a model urban center based on New Town planning principles— Columbia, Maryland. With Harborplace, Rouse was seen as an urban savior, appearing on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Cities are Fun!” While Rouse was very much concerned with creating vibrant public spaces, festival marketplaces were first and foremost commercial endeavors that prioritized private sector development.
Rouse’s market-based approach to urban redevelopment had evolved from his early association with urban renewal, particularly the Charles Center development in Baltimore. Charles Center is considered a turning point in downtown redevelopment for Baltimore and closely linked to the earliest efforts to reclaim land around the Inner Harbor for public plazas and other new uses. The Inner Harbor Master Plan of 1964 was a direct outgrowth of the early success of Charles Center. Comprehensive planning and development for both areas was overseen by Charles Center–Inner Harbor Management, Inc., a Baltimore city agency created in 1965. By the 1970s, parks, a promenade, and a few key commercial projects such as the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Life Insurance Company’s 36-story tower (1970–1973, Vlastimil Koubek) and the 28-story World Trade Center (1973–1977, I.M. Pei and Partners) were located at the Inner Harbor.
The original idea was to reclaim the waterfront for Baltimore residents—few people conceived that Baltimore could attract large numbers of visitors. Attitudes began to change with the popularity of the visiting tall ships during the 1976 Bicentennial celebration, the opening of the Maryland Science Center (1971–1975, Edward Durrell Stone), and the docking of the USS Constellation as a permanent attraction. However it was Rouse’s controversial festival marketplace—the Harborplace project first had to prevail in a hotly debated public referendum in 1978—that provided a catalyst for the final transformation of the Inner Harbor into a tourist destination. The National Aquarium and Baltimore Hyatt Regency followed shortly thereafter, both opening in 1981.
Architect Thompson, a former dean of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, first tested his ideas for the festival marketplace with Rouse at the historic Quincy Market—a still functioning wholesale market that he saw as a destination for European-style gourmet shopping and sensory experiences. At Harborplace, the existing Baltimore public markets were bypassed to create a reimagined market experience from scratch, with entirely new buildings. The space at the corner of Light and East Pratt streets between the two pavilions became a public plaza and amphitheater that facilitated circulation between the central business district and the waterfront. For Rouse, the festival marketplace concept appealed to his interest in centralized planning and private management as key factors in development success. Rouse lamented the decline of cities and sought to lure suburban residents and visitors downtown again. Many critics pointed out that it was suburban shopping centers like those of the Rouse Company that had drawn the middle-class consumer out of cities in the first place. Rouse’s vision for festival marketplaces rather idealistically included local retailers, recreating the small-scale capitalism he viewed as the heart of urban life.
Initially Harborplace did offer a number of local businesses, particularly in the Light Street Pavilion, which emphasized fresh food, while many of the Pratt Street Pavilion tenants offered dry goods. However, this popular destination quickly became dominated by national chains, much to the dismay of many Baltimore residents. This ongoing criticism of Harborplace did not seem to diminish it in the eyes of the average tourist. Indeed, even as accusations of inauthenticity and questionable benefit to local business dogged festival marketplaces, they were widely recognized as effective late-twentieth-century downtown redevelopment tools.
Thompson and Rouse went on to build more festival marketplaces, including South Street Seaport in New York and Riverwalk in New Orleans. While these projects initially proved to be quite successful, the tenants tended to be major national chains and the overall atmosphere and demographics of the customers much like that of the suburban mall. Moreover, festival marketplaces represent the increasing privatization of public space in the name of urban redevelopment as well as the shift in urban economies from industrial to service employment.
Harborplace continues to be a major draw for Inner Harbor tourists even as most of the local businesses have been replaced by national chain retail and dining, with the original Light Street Pavilion Food Hall functioning more like a food court. The Rouse Company sold Harborplace, along with most of the rest of its portfolio to General Growth Corporation of Chicago in 2003. General Growth overextended and filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Harborplace was then sold to Ashkenazy Acquistion Corporation, a New York–based real estate investment firm, in late 2012. It continues to be a popular destination but only one of many in the continued expansion of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor as a recreational zone.
Bloom, Nicholas Dagen. Merchant of Illusion: James Rouse, America’s Salesman of the Businessman’s Utopia. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2004.
Hayward, Mary Ellen, and Frank R. Shivers, Jr., eds. The Architecture of Baltimore: An Illustrated History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Millspaugh, Martin L. “The Inner Harbor Story.” Urban Land(April 2003): 36-41.
Olsen, Joshua. Better Places Better Lives: A Biography of James Rouse. Washington, D.C.: Urban Land Institute, 2003.