Donald Fry: Taking Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to the next level

By Donald C. Fry

The noun “transformation” gets thrown around a lot these days by architects, economic development officials and elected leaders in describing what would be accomplished by projects or initiatives that they support.

The Greater Baltimore Committee is using the same word to describe a three-pronged vision for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor that it announced at its annual meeting this week.

But in this case the word fits like a glove.

To transform is “to change the character or condition” of something. That’s precisely what the GBC’s new vision will accomplish for Baltimore’s 30-year-old waterfront jewel in its midst that’s still attractive, but in need of polishing.
Judge for yourself. Here’s what the GBC is proposing:

A new arena, a new hotel and an expanded convention center. The arena and the hotel would be located on the corner of Conway and Charles Streets – the current site of the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel. Both would be privately funded. The site is owned by Baltimore businessman Willard Hackerman, who supports the concept.

The existing hotel and parking garage would be torn down and a new 500-room hotel would be built on top of a new 18,500-seat arena. The arena’s concourse would seamlessly connect to a new convention center wing that would expand the center’s size to 760,000 square feet – more than twice the size of the existing convention center. The new expansion would be built on the site of the existing convention center’s east wing that is located on a Pratt Street site adjacent to the proposed site of the new arena. (Before and after images of the arena, hotel and convention center proposals.)

Preliminary cost estimates for these projects, including demolition, are $175 million to build the hotel, $325 million to build the arena, and $400 million to build an expanded convention center to open Baltimore up to more than 300 conventions that currently won’t consider coming to our city’s existing undersized facility.

Here’s the most compelling part of this proposal: Willard Hackerman has pledged to assemble $500 million in private financing for the construction of a privately-owned and operated new arena and hotel.

A world-class seven-acre waterfront park at Rash Field. The GBC is proposing three conceptual options designed by Baltimore’s largest architecture firm, Ayers/Saint/Gross. The concepts incorporate recreation venues, history, trees, outdoor sculpture and open space into designs that rival other similar sized urban parks in cities such as New York and Seattle, Washington.

One of the concepts for Rash Field includes a pedestrian bridge from the area adjacent to the Rusty Scupper across the harbor to Pier 5. Modeled after similar bridges in Europe, the pedestrian bridge would open to enable large ships to pass into the Inner Harbor. The bridge would complete a circular 1.5-mile Inner Harbor Walk.

Rash Field concepts also include walking connections over Key Highway to Federal Hill and the Visionary Arts Museum.

Few would argue that Rash Field is in need of transformation.

The GBC is working to obtain cost estimates for the Rash Field concepts.

A water and light show spectacular in the Inner Harbor. The GBC is proposing a concept for a compelling nighttime water and light show, coupled with projections on buildings and a “water wall,” LED lights, and lasers that would incorporate a much-needed new “wow factor” into the Inner Harbor after dark.

The original development of the Inner Harbor that began in the 1970s took a post-demolition expanse of vacant land around and near Baltimore’s waterfront and literally put the fledgling rebirth of a city into overdrive. That rebirth, by the way, was largely driven by private-sector investment.

The Inner Harbor’s creation spawned decades of major development, commercial activity and just plain fun along Baltimore’s waterfront. The GBC believes it’s time to implement a private-sector vision to catapult the Inner Harbor into a new, vibrant phase of development, growth and opportunity for Baltimore’s next 25 years.

Based on the deluge of feedback the GBC has received about these proposals that were announced only two days ago, it’s clear that many in the community agree that these concepts, together, would absolutely be transformative in nature.

The convergence of Baltimore’s need for a new arena and convention center — combined with Mr. Hackerman’s support for building, and financing, a new hotel and arena on his property and connecting to an expanded Baltimore Convention Center on the adjacent public property — presents a rare opportunity for the city and state.

Put simply, Mr. Hackerman’s financial support takes a $900 million capital project and reduces its potential cost to government to $400 million. This is what the term “public-private partnership” is all about.

We have to remember that these are still just concepts. But they are ripe for pursuing … now.

To convert these concepts into full-fledged projects will require timely and adept coordination between private-sector investors, community advocates, and city and state elected leaders sooner rather than later.

We must not let this opportunity sit. The Inner Harbor has provided recreation, entertainment and enhanced the quality of life for a generation of Baltimore-area residents. It’s time to take this incredible resource to the next level for the generations to come.

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