On an Indian-summer afternoon in September 1976, two men held a working lunch at the Inner Harbor. They chatted over tomato sandwiches, sipped Cokes, and watched a mini-armada of sailing dinghies tack lazily into the basin.
It was to be one of the most fateful luncheons in Baltimore history.
The setting was the fantail of the Nobska, an aged coastal steamer retrofitted as a floating restaurant. There just wasn't anywhere else to eat. And the Inner Harbor itself was somewhat desolate. The hoary, sloop-of-war USS Constellation was there, sitting silently in her mooring. Over by Key Highway, the Maryland Science Center gleamed brand new, and overhead, construction wrapped up on the 32-floor World Trade Center.
The city had spent more than $17 million acquiring waterside properties and knocking down rickety wharfs and warehouses. But outside of an occasional ethnic festival or the City Fair, the Inner Harbor was pretty sleepy.
Martin Millspaugh, who'd arranged the lunch, aimed to change that. He was head of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management, the quasi-governmental entity coordinating the city's waterfront redevelopment. His guest—the gentleman in a straw hat and somewhat frumpy green blazer—was developer James Rouse.
"I guessed that he hadn't been to see the Inner Harbor for years," Millspaugh recalls of Rouse, whom he'd met in the 1950s when they were working together on slum eradication projects. "I put in a call to see if I could get him to come by the Inner Harbor to see what had taken place there."
A scheduled 30-minute visit stretched to two hours. Rouse really hadn't been in downtown Baltimore for a while. The shopping mall magnate had spent the past decade turning nearly 14,000 clandestinely purchased acres of Howard County farmland into the planned city of Columbia. Where he had been recently was Boston. His company had just opened a hugely popular "festival marketplace" at historic Faneuil Hall.
And by now, to paraphrase broadcaster Paul Harvey, you know the rest of the story. Or at least a good chunk of it. Thirty years ago this month, on July 2, 1980, the doors swung open on Rouse's Harborplace—replete with a mammoth civic celebration that had then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer in photo-op heaven. He and Rouse arrived by clipper ship to dash between the pavilions, literally cutting some 15 different ribbons while the flashbulbs winked. More than 200,000 folks came that evening to hear the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra play the 1812 Overture while fireworks lit the night sky.
And the crowds kept coming. In its first year alone, Harborplace drew 18 million visitors, outpacing Disney World. Locals came, as did gawkers from far-flung ZIP codes.
Folks driving up from D.C. and down from Pennsylvania just to walk around Baltimore's harbor? Back in the 1970s, even the most diehard Bawlmer homer—someone with O's season tickets, a framed Unitas jersey, and a fridge full of National Beer—probably couldn't utter the words "Baltimore tourist industry" with a straight face. City planners were even surprised by it all.
Given the outcome, it's hard to believe that a vocal contingent of Baltimoreans—largely fearful of losing public space to Rouse's commercial interests—vehemently fought Harborplace and had its approval put up for a voter referendum in the 1978 election. Harborplace was approved by a mere 16,000 votes. Nothing seemed like a slam-dunk back in those days.
"It never occurred to anybody that we would attract people from somewhere else," Millspaugh says. "It wasn't our aspiration. We developed the Inner Harbor as a playground for Baltimoreans."
As this civic "playground" moves headlong into middle age, the crowds are still there. On sunny afternoons, the promenade is heavy with conventioneers in corporate polo shirts and dangling name badges. And if the Bosox or Yankees are in town? Fughetaboutit. The harborside teems with accents that make you wonder what town you're in. The pavilions and The Gallery still draw more than 11 million visitors annually.
But a lot has changed down at the corner of Light and Pratt Streets, and more than just the price of a Phillips crab cake sandwich (all of $1.95 in 1980). In 2004, The Rouse Company was gobbled up by a rival mall giant, Chicago's General Growth Properties, in a $12 billion deal that may have appeared fortuitous in go-go 2004, but has proved problematic amid the post-boom credit crunch and recessionary retail slump. Last year, General Growth filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and, currently, a consortium of companies has agreed to finance the company's restructuring.
A more palpable change at Harborplace concerns its very look and feel. "Festival marketplaces," as Rouse envisioned them, were colorful hybrids of old-school city markets and contemporary shopping centers—spiced with local artisans, entrepreneurs, and foodies offering a dazzling array of goods from pushcarts, stalls, and stores. "Chaotic variety" was how one architect described it.
Initially, some 90 percent of Harborplace merchants were from the Baltimore/Washington metro area. Take Phillips Seafood, the only original restaurant left from 1980. Mayor Schaefer himself helped get the Ocean City crabhouse to come to Baltimore, recalls company CEO Steve Phillips.
"Schaefer was a great fan of Phillips at the beach, and he became quite friendly with my mother and father," Phillips says. "He really wanted us to put a restaurant in Harborplace and we were very skeptical at first. There was no track there and we thought it was a lot of risk."
While the Phillips family served 8,000 diners a day at their multiple eateries at the shore, they operated only seasonally, and largely with college-student summer help. Now they were being asked to run a restaurant year round—and on the other side of the Bay Bridge. In the end, Schaefer's unwavering enthusiasm, and that of fellow Eastern Shore native Rouse, got the family onboard.
And in short order, Phillips Harborplace catapulted into the ranks of the highest grossing independent restaurants in the country, a perch it still enjoys.
But, these days, you've also got Hooters, Uno Chicago Grille, The Cheesecake Factory, and Johnny Rockets. The Light Street Pavilion houses a standard-issue food court and a noticeable number of vacancies.
"Over the years, what was Baltimore's main street got turned into just another mall," says Wayne Brokke, who ran Harborplace eateries, like Wayne's Bar-B-Que, for 23 years.
"While Harborplace has changed over the past 30 years to stay relevant, so have shopping behaviors, the economy, retailer strategies, and the city's demographics," wrote General Growth's senior manager for Harborplace, Christopher Schardt, in an e-mail. "Even before General Growth arrived at Harborplace, the center was evolving and changing. Harborplace has retained the original marketplace center vision of Mr. Rouse, and we are still the place where people come to celebrate. It is important to keep a center like Harborplace fresh with new merchants that attract new shoppers and visitors."
He added that leasing interest remains "strong" and his occupancy rate is above the national average of around 90 percent.
To be fair, what's happened at Harborplace is a microcosm of national retailing. Call it the Malling of America. From Georgetown to Soho to Haight Street, places that hummed with a self-styled, funky vitality have become landing zones for yet another Starbucks or Banana Republic.
"In the early going, the Rouse company celebrated the tenants and appreciated how we all put our blood, sweat, and tears in there," Brokke says. "After a while, they shifted focus more to the bottom line."
Millspaugh is now at work on a book about birthing the Inner Harbor revival and his subsequent global treks with Rouse, helping port towns from Barcelona to Sydney remake their waterfronts along the Baltimore model. It remains a viable blueprint.
One thing to keep in mind, he notes, is that Harborplace and the Inner Harbor are not synonymous. The former is a three-acre shopping and eating development, while the latter encompasses the waterfront and its collected attractions from the Pier 6 Concert Pavilion and the Aquarium, around to the Rusty Scupper. Plans to place dining and retail amenities along the water's edge long predate Rouse's involvement, going back to 1964. They just proved to be the crucial component.
"When Harborplace opened is when it all exploded," Millspaugh says. "That's when the Inner Harbor all started working together as a critical mass."
The ripples of that 1980 "explosion" were great. About every subsequent development within earshot of the water—a pair of stadiums, a growing phalanx of high-rise condos, a panoply of high-rent roof decks—owes something to Harborplace and its bold assertion that, as the cover of a 1981 issue of Time magazine dedicated to Rouse proclaimed, "Cities are Fun!"
Of course, one place people are now flocking for their urban "fun" is right next door, where the glitzy Harbor East development has risen out of an erstwhile jumble of surface parking lots and industrial wastelands.
"Harbor East is providing competition for the upscale portion of the shopping and eating and drinking market, but it is also generating a new source of visitors for the everyday leisure attractions in the Inner Harbor," says Millspaugh.
"A safe, active, and vibrant Harbor East is really in our best interest," says Ryan Seth, co-owner of Hats in the Belfry, which has four locations, including Harborplace. "I don't think too many people are going to Harbor East and not to Harborplace."
Another change of late concerns the city's overall image. Harborplace's opening garnered heaps of fawning press attention worldwide. We were the "comeback city" amid an urban "renaissance." More recently, perhaps in part because of David Simon's brilliant-but-grim crime drama The Wire, Baltimore's rep has gotten a bit of a black eye.
While stats show Harborplace is among the safest places in the city, violence does invade the area on occasion, such as last year's double shooting inside the Light Street Pavilion, thought to be gang related.
Mike Durham, owner of two Harborplace sports stores and head of the Harborplace Merchants Association, feels the crime issue is overhyped.
"When two teenagers fight in front of the pavilions, it draws cameras," he says. "If two teenagers fight in front of a school or anyplace else, nobody pays any attention."
Are better times ahead for the venerable venue? As the country slowly emerges from the economic doldrums, General Growth leadership is optimistic about a retail resurgence that could enhance Harborplace. Rumors floating around the pavilions say they are close to inking sizable new deals to tackle the vacancies (like adding retail store H&M to the Light Street Pavilion). And ongoing city plans to spruce up Pratt Street could make the waterside more inviting.
So how else might General Growth recapture some of Harborplace's buzzing early days? That's simple, Brokke says: "Make rents affordable so locals can make money."
While Brokke is a native Baltimorean, jewelry designer Robert Levine arrived at Harborplace from Boston. His Pratt Pavilion Fire & Ice store is among a handful of original merchants. The jeweler heard about plans for Harborplace from a customer in Faneuil Hall.
"I came to Baltimore and walked from Howard Street to Fells Point and didn't see any other silver jewelry," Levine says. "I knew there was a market."
His original store was all of 230 square feet. But from it bloomed a 12-store regional chain and web business. And Levine has still more to thank Harborplace for. During the store's first week, he says, a "beautiful, curly-haired blonde" came in. Then, he called her a customer. For 20 years now, he's called her his wife, Jan.
"In the world of retail, we call prime places like Harborplace 'the 50 yard line,'" Levine says. "We just need the support of General Growth and the city to help realize our future potential."