Michelle Deal
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Michelle Deal

Aug 10, 2023

Last weekend, Baltimore residents gathered at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum for a community listening session about re-imagining Harborplace.

Developer David Bramble, a managing partner of MCB Real Estate, wanted to hear what locals would like to see in the planned renovation of the twin pavilions and waterfront attraction that was once a centerpiece of the city.

I was in elementary school in Florida when Harborplace opened to much celebration in 1980, which means I can't claim to have any great historical context for input. But I have lived and worked in Baltimore, including as the owner of a small business, for over two decades. And so I have an idea.

What about a High Line for Harborplace?

A beautiful, landscaped and elevated pedestrian promenade that would take visitors from President Street to Paca Street, from Harbor East to Oriole Park. That's a bit beyond the borders of the 3-acre parcel that is Harborplace, but connecting some of Baltimore's most popular attractions and neighborhoods makes sense.

Pedestrians would also be connected to businesses, retail, hotels and other activities via access points that lead to areas of interest below or adjacent to the structure. The promenade would be a focal point for art installations, community events, teen activities, exercise classes, preservation walks and so much more. The Inner Harbor views would be a spectacular bonus. As would a Ferris wheel, actually.

It would be a robust, green and charming community gathering place where Baltimore pride could grow even greater. There's been so much talk and discussion about what's needed to save the city. Perhaps Baltimore doesn't need saving, but rather more development savvy — the kind Bramble brings as a successful innovator who grew up in Baltimore.

Artist Simone Leigh's "Brick House", a 16-foot-tall bronze bust of a Black woman, is on display on the High Line in New York. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/Getty)

I realize it's not an original idea. The first section of New York City's 1.5-mile High Line opened in 2009 and it took 10 years for the pathways to be completed along the abandoned freight rail line. Today, it spans three neighborhoods on Manhattan's West Side. A new connector leading to Penn Station is expected to open this summer.

An estimated 8 million visitors come out to enjoy the High Line each year; of those, nearly 40% come from nearby or from within 45 miles of New York City.

The venture is estimated to have cost around $200 million, with more than half raised from private funds, including by the donor-centered Friends of the High Line. New York City contributed about $122 million, according to a case study of public-private parks by the Case Consortium@Columbia University. "By 2013, the city's analysis put the cumulative economic benefit of the park at close to a billion dollars," the study found.

The original Harborplace investment was around $18 million. The redevelopment no doubt will cost a lot more. The Maryland legislature has set aside $67.5 million for making over the promenade and other public spaces near the Inner Harbor, part of a larger grant package that includes funding for downtown Baltimore but that is not earmarked for Harborplace, according to the Waterfront Partnership, a nonprofit that is administrating the grant.

That's clearly not enough to fund a project like a High Line, but it could be a start with help from other private-public groups like the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and the Baltimore Development Corporation. (Friends of Harborplace also has a nice ring to it.)

Even with such resources, a High Line-type project would be a high-wire act for the city — certainly not without financial risk, but rich in rewards.

Imagine walking paths lined with native Maryland plants and trees, bench swings, a splash area for kids, fountains, reading lounges, dining tables, art projects — maybe even a graffiti wall and an area for painting en plein-air. Create sections that could highlight conservation of the Chesapeake Bay and showcase local wildlife. We love our history, so tell the timeline of the Inner Harbor with historic photos and artifacts. Entice employers and reluctant workers back downtown by offering relaxing green "office" space that is within walking distance to their jobs.

I don't want to come off as naive to the vast challenges. Since the Inner Harbor does not have a handy elevated railway to build upon, this project would involve new construction and not a repurposing of very many existing structures. The pathway could provide an access point that descends to a public space on the rooftops of the pavilions. It would ascend as it crosses Light Street and proceed toward the stadiums.

Initial plans for the High Line in New York were considered by many to be an unrealistic dream. Once opened, even though successful, it suffered a backlash from some who saw the rush of development centered around the project as being feverish and holding too much sway. The debates giving rise to questioning if perhaps the urban park had been too successful. Imagine that?

A Baltimore High Line would need to work in coordination with retail, residential and commercial development, but those spaces don't have to be the main focus or an afterthought. Often when buildings are the starting point for projects, especially in urban areas, the green spaces are squeezed in between parking garages and signage. We can do better than that.

I’m reminded of a line from Maryland visionary and Harborplace developer James Rouse, whose son recently wrote about creating a task force for the renewal project. Ted Rouse said "my father used to say that ‘Cities are meant to be gardens in which to grow people.’"

The Harborplace High Line could be our garden. Let's build it — and grow Baltimore and its residents with a success story that's over-the-top.

Michelle Deal-Zimmerman is senior content editor for features and an advisory member of The Sun's Editorial Board. Her column runs every fourth Wednesday. She can be reached at [email protected].