Don Fry: It’s time to rekindle Inner Harbor vision

Listen to WYPR’s Sheilah Kast interview of Don Fry about Inner Harbor 2.0 plan.

It’s time to rekindle our vision for the Inner Harbor
By Donald C. Fry

In Baltimore, we’ve become accustomed to our Inner Harbor, the National Aquarium, Harborplace, the Science Center, the restaurants and the fun to be experienced on our city’s waterfront as if it has always been there.

For younger generations of Baltimoreans, it has. It’s our city’s jewel – an inestimably valuable social, recreational and cultural resource in our midst.

But Baltimore’s waterfront wasn’t always that way. More than four decades ago, when the city’s leaders – assisted by a newly-formed business advocacy group called the Greater Baltimore Committee – began revitalizing the harbor, it was a deteriorating amalgam of abandoned commercial and industrial piers. It was the entropic remnant of what had formerly been a vibrant working waterfront.

It was a place that time had passed by.

Now, 40 years after the beginning of its ultimate conversion into a pinnacle of urban waterfront development that was widely emulated around the world, the Inner Harbor needs our attention again.

The issue is straightforward. The Inner Harbor remains virtually the same as it was when Harborplace opened in 1980. At that time, it was a compelling development that directly influenced the designs of urban waterfronts in the U.S. and around the world at harbors including Long Beach, California; Sydney, Australia; and Rotterdam in The Netherlands.

However, since then we have taken our city’s downtown waterfront jewel for granted. While development has emanated from the Inner Harbor, particularly along the western shores and southern shores of Baltimore’s waterfront, there have been hardly any visible improvements to Baltimore’s core waterfront in 30 years.

During that time, other cities such as New York, Chicago, Dallas, and Vancouver have embraced new phases of creative concepts for urban parks – particularly waterfront parks – while Baltimore has stood pat. The result is that Baltimore is being eclipsed as a waterfront innovator.

That’s the reason for a joint initiative of the Greater Baltimore Committee, the Waterfront Partnership and the City of Baltimore to revitalize the Inner Harbor. Last Wednesday, I participated in announcing key concepts of an emerging plan, developed by initiative partners working with architects Ayers/Saint/Gross, for what we’re calling Inner Harbor 2.0.

Results of a recent study that measures the substantial economic impact of the Inner Harbor on the Baltimore region and state were also released.

Key components of Inner Harbor 2.0 include revitalizing Rash Field into a world-class urban waterfront park, enhancing green landscape throughout the harbor shoreline, identifying new free attractions and amenities, upgrading the promenade around the harbor and developing “green” infrastructure that supports the Healthy Harbor water quality initiative.

The plan also includes a potential pedestrian drawbridge from the southern shore to Pier Six that would be an iconic element of Baltimore’s new Inner Harbor.

The need for revitalizing the Inner Harbor amounts to much more than aesthetics, and whether Baltimore’s waterfront reputation is tarnished, because our harbor is now a major tourist magnet of immense impact on Baltimore’s economy.

Ironically, Inner Harbor planners in the 1970s did not originally think of the waterfront revitalization they were pursing as a tourist attraction.

Back then “tourism in Baltimore was an oxymoron,” said Jay Brodie, former president of the Baltimore Development Corporation who participated in Inner Harbor planning during the late 1970s. “The notion that hundreds, in fact millions of people would come to something called the Inner Harbor in Baltimore would have been seen as preposterous.”

But the hundreds of thousands of visitors who turned out for a visit by eight tall ships to the Inner Harbor in 1975 clearly demonstrated its tremendous potential beyond what planners had originally envisioned.

“All of a sudden, we were inundated with tourists,” urban planner Marty Millspaugh, who played a leading role in the development of the Inner Harbor, told MPT producers for a special program on global urban waterfront development triggered by the project.

“Afterwards we scratched our heads and said ‘maybe the Inner Harbor could attract tourists,’ ” said Millspaugh.

Indeed it did, and still does in spectacular numbers. Last year, 14 million people from outside the region visited the Inner Harbor. Sixty percent of all visitors to Baltimore last year went to the Inner Harbor at least once during their visit, according to data compiled by HR&A Advisors, a national economic development consulting firm.

The Inner Harbor supports 21,000 jobs and generates a $2.3 billion annual economic impact and $102 million in annual tax revenue for the city and state, according to HR&A estimates.

This kind of bottom line makes a business case for aggressively pursuing a fresh revitalization initiative and garnering public and private strategic and financial support for it. The Inner Harbor is more than simply a destination. It is a fundamental part of Baltimore’s cultural, recreational and economic fabric.

The Inner Harbor was born of a vision by city planners and business leaders that transformed a dilapidated waterfront into a unique asset that defines Baltimore and Maryland and adds billions to our economy.

It’s time to rekindle that public-private vision for the sake of future generations of Baltimore residents and for the city’s economic future.

Donald C. Fry, president & CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. This commentary appeared on November 15.

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