Baltimore was founded on the shores of its harbor in 1729. Located in a strategic central position along the colonial American seaside, the harbor was accessible via the Chesapeake Bay as well as the navigable Patapsco River, and served as the city’s hub of commercial activity with a flourishing shipbuilding industry. In order to preserve shipping channels, the harbor required continual dredging to remove sediment of soil eroded from surrounding forestlands (cleared for shipbuilding timber) and the debris and sewage that rain washed into the harbor from the developing city’s streets. The area’s marshes were drained and filled for waterfront development, including housing adjacent to the harbor that served the shipyard’s working classes. In the nineteenth century, with the rise of the railroad as the dominant mode of commercial transport and the 1829 establishment of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, railside warehouses and factories began to displace shipyard housing. By the early twentieth century, large ships were docking downriver, and though the area persisted as a working harbor until the 1970s, it did so in a state of steady decline.
Meanwhile, in post–World War II America, cities across the country saw their predominantly white, middle-class populations move to suburbs. In downtown areas businesses closed, jobs were lost, tax bases dwindled, schools deteriorated, and social services diminished for increasingly ghettoized urban populations. Unlike other cities, such as New York, Chicago, and Boston, which were able to transition economically from industrial to service and financial sectors, Baltimore was not able to successfully make this shift. In Baltimore, economic decline, suburbanization, and racial segregation converged to render the city a national symbol of post-industrial American blight.
In the 1950s, a group of Baltimore business leaders concerned about the deteriorating downtown formed the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC). At the GBC’s lead were chairman Hunter Moss, who would later become the chairman of the Urban Land Institute, and director David A. Wallace, a Philadelphia planner. They secured federal and municipal funds to implement a strategy of attracting investors with subsidies, tax breaks, and infrastructure improvements aimed to undertake development projects that would provide evidence of a revitalized city and rebrand the city’s image. Their first project was to develop twenty-two acres of a central downtown area later named Charles Center (1962, Mies van der Rohe). By the early 1960s, the success of One Charles Center by Metropolitan Structures, successor firm of Herbert Greenwald, Mies’s longtime developer partner, served as a revitalization proof of concept. This paved the way for the next phase of downtown development: the Inner Harbor. The GBC hired Wallace’s firm, Wallace McHarg Roberts and Todd (later WRT), to produce an Inner Harbor master plan.
The new Inner Harbor project was to be carried out over the next thirty years—though it would take only twenty—on 240 acres around the harbor basin. A vision of blighted Baltimore as a tourist destination was implausible at the time, so the plan initially ignored this potential. Instead, the plan had three stated priorities: developing high-end, waterfront-facing office buildings; multifamily housing; and a recreational water's edge for local Baltimoreans that would “return the shoreline to the people,” as the city’s development director proclaimed. The plan was approved by the city and started with a $2 million voter-approved bond in 1964. In 1965, a private management company, Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management, Inc. (CC-IH), was created to carry out the Inner Harbor plan.
The site plan for the Inner Harbor took a tabula rasa approach: it retained only a few piers of the old harbor and called for the relocation of 700 businesses, including the city’s wholesale produce market, in order to acquire and clear 1,000 properties. The harbor was dredged and the toxic industrial sediments hauled away. WRT managed the architecture, landscape architecture, and construction contracts, and designed individual projects within the area. They were guided by a review board consisting of architecture deans from prestigious universities, who advised on the design of the new buildings that would frame the harbor which, according to the WRT plan, would have a continuous cornice and link the harbor with the city through view corridors.
Phase I of development established a public open space with a focus on water activities. New shoreline bulkheads were built to define the area and WRT designed a six-block-long, U-shaped, brick-paved pedestrian promenade. The first major office building, the thirty-story World Trade Center, was designed by I.M. Pei and Partners with a “prow” that symbolically stepped down into the water. A dock was added for the U.S.S. Constellation—a frigate built in Baltimore in 1797 and now restored as a publicly accessible museum—and a 700-foot stretch of bulkhead was designated a public wharf. There, eight tall ships famously docked for the country’s 1976 bicentennial celebrations, drawing unexpectedly huge crowds, demonstrating the viability of tourism in Baltimore. The 1976 bicentennial celebrations became a turning point for the Inner Harbor, as developers then began focusing on the tourist-drawing potential of the development. Major investments of public and private funds and city subsidies launched anchor tourist facilities and attractions, including the 1976 Maryland Science Center by architect Edward Durell Stone, the Baltimore Convention Center by NBBJ and the Hyatt-Regency Hotel (both in 1979), and the 1981 National Aquarium by architect Peter Chermayeff.
Baltimoreans who valued the waterfront as a public open space objected to plans for Phase II that would commercialize the Inner Harbor with the construction of Harborplace: a 282,000-square-foot retail complex by the Rouse Company. James Rouse was a Baltimore native who, in 1939, formed a mortgage company with Hunter Moss, and in the 1940s, served on the city’s Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA), which was charged with combating blight. CPHA’s activities put pressure on the City to conduct block-by-block, police-led, “sanitation squad” surveys in order to enforce housing codes. Rouse also co-founded “Fight Blight”: a homeowner assistance program that funded housing improvements required by the City code-enforcers. In the 1950s, Rouse continued his quest to “refresh” urban social life by developing shopping malls. Most famously, in the 1960s, he secretly purchased land to develop the garden city-style town of Columbia, Maryland, from scratch. In 1980, the Rouse Company turned again to retail operations, opening Harborplace, despite public opposition.
For the design of Harborplace, Rouse turned to architect Benjamin Thompson and Associates, frequent collaborators on Rouse Company waterfront developments, including Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market in Boston, all of which emphasized social interaction, shopping, and dining in a so-called festival marketplace. Thompson designed two new twin pavilions that were meant to evoke the character of old market sheds typically found in older east-coast U.S. cities. They were backless—simultaneously facing both the city and the harbor—and lined with shops and restaurants. Surrounding the space, WRT designed an L-shaped paved plaza that formed a gateway to the Inner Harbor at the buildings’ intersection, with a stepped amphitheater facing the waterfront and a Brutalist concrete fountain called The Waterfall. Around the plaza, the open space was underutilized and lacked cohesiveness, with minimal plantings, a collection of small buildings, and a temporary at-grade parking lot.
As a result of citizens’ actions in the 1970s, plans to align I-95 directly through the Inner Harbor were subverted. Instead, the Inner Harbor’s surrounding streets became six-lane highways, despite WRT’s vision of pedestrian-friendly boulevards. The highways enclosed the Inner Harbor on all three sides, effectively halting the spread of development to the rest of the city and discouraging tourists from venturing into downtown once they were on the waterfront. Furthermore, the highways allowed suburban visitors to easily get in and get out without exploring the rest of Baltimore. Disconnected from the city’s cultural heritage and the lived experience of its residents, the Inner Harbor took on a Disneyland character that drew out-of-town visitors but held little attraction for Baltimoreans.
In its early years, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor makeover was praised widely by planners and urban designers as a glittering success and a model of urban waterfront development. The American Institute of Architects declared it “one of the supreme achievements of large-scale urban design and development in U.S. history.” This initial success fueled a speculative real estate bubble in the early 1980s, leading to frenzied Inner Harbor area development; but the bubble burst in the early 1990s. Just a few blocks inland from the Inner Harbor, Baltimore was struggling with problems of crime, drug abuse, social exclusion, and concentrated poverty. In 1994, dismal health and housing statistics prompted the U.S. Agency for International Development to designate Baltimore as the first U.S. city in need of “third-world” assistance. Despite three decades of redevelopment, the Inner Harbor had failed to spur citywide revitalization. Nonetheless, City Hall responded by calling for a second renaissance, pumping public dollars into a convention center expansion, hotels, and two Camden Yards sports stadiums. In 1998, Harborplace was expanded and the entertainment complex Power Plant opened.
Over time, the Inner Harbor suffered from a lack of formal updates, inadequate infrastructure maintenance, and underutilization of key nodes in the public realm. In the early 2000s, Harborplace was outdated and incapable of strong placemaking for prime waterfront real estate. Its local businesses were replaced by larger chain stores and its ownership changed hands: in 2004 it was sold to General Growth Properties Inc. for $11.3 billion, and in 2012 to Ashkenazy Group for $100 million. Each new owner made plans to upgrade the property in hopes of attracting new businesses that would appeal to locals as well as tourists. In late 2014, the City announced a six-year refurbishment plan they called Inner Harbor 2.0. Plans included the refurbishment of the promenade and other underutilized spaces; upgrades to lighting, awnings, and the landscape along Pratt and Light streets; plus the raising of Harborplace amphitheater’s grade level in response to rising sea levels and flooding.
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