Baltimore Magazine: Harborplace Remains in Receivership. Has the Ship Sailed for the Twin Pavilions?

Baltimore Harborplace

By Ron Cassie
August, 2021

The following is an excerpt from the original Baltimore Magazine article.

If you’re somewhat new to Baltimore and it’s not clear yet, Harborplace and the Inner Harbor are often used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. Harborplace is the 3-acre, privately owned, two-pavilion shopping and eating area. The city only holds the ground lease. The Inner Harbor stretches from the Rusty Scupper near the foot of Federal Hill, includes the Harborplace pavilions, and sweeps around past the National Aquarium to the Pier 6 outdoor convert venue. The Harborplace pavilions opened in 1980, but not until after a contentious, now forgotten, referendum battle. Many Baltimoreans didn’t want to hand over their newly accessible waterfront to commercial development. Others bought into the opportunity to change the city’s fortunes. Ultimately, the “festival marketplace” mini-malls were celebrated as the centerpiece of blue-collar Baltimore’s reinvention, landing Rouse on the cover of Time“Cities Are Fun!”—and putting a sagging Baltimore back on the map. They helped draw 21 million people to the Inner Harbor that first year and spark a waterfront renaissance from Fort McHenry to Canton beyond the business community’s wildest dreams, spinning off glittering Harbor East and, more recently, Harbor Point, and a thousand projects, big and small, everywhere in-between. Today, any native Baltimorean over 40 knows that Jim Rouse—with a building named after him at the nearby American Visionary Art Museum—was the developer who built Harborplace. But how many Baltimoreans know the name of the current owners of Harborplace—Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., a real-estate investment firm based in New York? How many know the Harborplace pavilions have been in receivership for more than two years? Or that, with a vacancy rate that now tops 60 percent, the future of Baltimore’s “centerpiece” is in the hands of court-appointed receiver Ian Lagowitz, the owner of a small Montclair, New Jersey-based financial group and associate men’s golf coach at Seton Hall University? It’s Lagowitz’s job to figure out what is in the best financial interests of his clients—Deutsche Bank and UBS-Barclays, holders of Ashkenazy’s mortgage on Harborplace—not Baltimore City.

Across the board, elected leaders and city officials, including Baltimore Development Corporation President Colin Tarbert—the city’s point man on the process—say they have virtually no input regarding the receivership. (Councilman Eric Costello, whose district includes the Inner Harbor, says he and former Mayor Jack Young were out of town on business when they first learned Harborplace was headed to receivership.) They all say their hands are tied regarding the likely sale of Harborplace given that Ashkenazy’s lease was extended to 2087 when they bought the pavilions in 2012.

It is easy to forget, given the blight and vacancy rates at Harborplace, that more people live and work downtown than ever before. But rather than attract those urban dwellers, the desolate pavilions stand as one of two massive concrete barriers between those residents—and all Baltimoreans, for that matter—and their waterfront. The high-volume, high-speed traffic that gets funneled from I-95 alongside the pavilions—via the Light Street spur and Pratt Street—is the other, of course. “Nothing should ever be placed between citizens and the water,” says Baltimore City state delegate Robbyn Lewis. “I learned that going to school in Chicago as a girl. I remember looking out the window, wondering why there would be a road [the Lake Shore Drive expressway] between Lake Michigan and the city parks on the other side, like Grant Park, the one where Obama gave his first acceptance speech.” As for the pavilions, Lewis says, “If they sank into the harbor,” it’d be fine with her.

A number of Baltimore architects and urban planners have recognized this for some time. In 2007, as part of the Pratt Street redesign competition hosted by the Downtown Partnership, the concept from Mahan Rykiel Associates and EE&K removed the Pratt Street pavilion and Light Street spur, turning Pratt Street into a two-way boulevard. In the place of the Light Street spur, their plan called for a new, tree-filled McKeldin Plaza extended into the Inner Harbor fold. (The subsequent demolition of the brutalist McKeldin Fountain by the city in 2017, in fact, makes this more possible.) Today, if you go stand at the far corner of Charles and Pratt streets and look back toward the Inner Harbor, it’s easy to envision how removing the spur and pavilions and returning the intersection to a basic grid opens up the potential in the area for a huge central park in the heart of downtown.

The removal of the Light Street spur was also a part of the city’s 2014 Inner Harbor 2.0 master plan, managed by the Waterfront Partnership. Ultimately, the aim of a Light Street spur and Pratt Street redesign is to encourage pedestrian, bicycle, and scooter traffic between Pratt and the Inner Harbor, but also up Charles Street, which has never happened—not even in Harborplace’s heyday.

A major issue, as Klaus Philipsen, the longtime past co-chair of the Urban Design Committee of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architect, highlights, is that the twin pavilions have always blocked the view of the water and presented their less than attractive backsides to the rest of downtown. This less than welcoming position seems even more critical given Harborplace’s decline. But any attempt to alleviate the issue runs into problems, like the need for dumpsters and delivery docks. Ideally, he says, both pavilions should go. “The urban design of Harborplace and ‘festival marketplace’ concept is obsolete,?” Philipsen says. “At minimum, everything could fit into one of them.”

The city, of course, would have to buy the pavilions from Ashkenazy in order to do anything like that. With Harborplace in receivership and the opportunity COVID presents for a reset, Philipsen says now is the time to act. Potentially, federal recovery money can be put toward demolition and transformation of property. General Growth paid $138 million for Harborplace. Ashkenazy paid $98.5 million, meaning the city could conceivably buy it out of receivership and hand the land back to taxpayers for significantly less than half ($80 million) of the aforementioned Chris Davis deal. Several city officials, including Colin Tarbert, the president of the Baltimore Development Corporation, and Don Fry of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said acquiring pavilions through condemnation or eminent domain has been discussed, but neither avenue is under consideration. “Too costly, and it takes too much time— years,” says Tarbert. ‘We’re waiting to see what happens with receivership. We’re just not in control of the situation.”

Read the complete article here.

Source: Baltimore Magazine

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