From the 17th-floor offices of the Greater Baltimore Committee on South Calvert Street, one can see much of the Inner Harbor, from the pavilions, past the Maryland Science Center, around to the Rusty Scupper.
Glancing out at that landscape during a May press conference, GBC president Donald Fry announces that it is time for change.
"The Inner Harbor has been a tremendous asset for our city for 30 years, but it's worn," he says. "Quite honestly, it needs a little facelift."
He goes on to describe plans to reinvent Rash Field, the lonely space between the Science Center and the Rusty Scupper, as a park which would incorporate an open green area, a large playground, athletic fields, and performance space. As slides of the designs flash by, it becomes clear that, unlike previous developments at the Inner Harbor, which was transformed in the 1960s and again in the '80s, this one doesn't just focus on drawing tourists or visitors from the suburbs but on a different constituency: downtown families.
"We've really focused on, 'How can this park be really great for the citizens of Baltimore?'" says Adam Gross, a partner at Ayers Saint Gross, the local architecture firm that designed the plans. "First and foremost, I think it'll be a great park for Federal Hill and folks who actually live here."
For many longtime Baltimoreans, that still sounds like a strange idea. For a generation, the conventional wisdom has been that the Inner Harbor and other downtown attractions would lure tourists and suburbanites and help drive the economy. But for several years now, young people have been moving (or staying) in the neighborhoods closest to the harbor and having families.
In the past 10 years, the number of families living in a one-mile radius of the corner of Pratt and Light Streets has increased 12.4 percent—and that doesn't include Canton, Fells Point, Butchers Hill, or much of Federal Hill, where increases are thought to be sharpest. Developers are responding to the changing demographics.
"This gives a whole different family-friendly environment that we haven't always had downtown," Fry says of plans for Rash Park, which were introduced alongside plans for a new arena and convention center.
In fact, if Rash Park is built, it will be only one of several recent and forthcoming downtown developments geared to families.
In 2006, West Shore Park was introduced in the space between the Baltimore Visitor Center and the Science Center and was completed with the debut of the Walter Sondheim Fountain in 2009. Although still empty much of the time, West Shore Park has hosted family festivals like the Summer in the City Celebration and the Annual Harbor Harvest, complete with a pumpkin patch and petting zoo. The fountain's shooting water jets have been an instant hit on hot summer days.
In May, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Governor Martin O'Malley broke ground on Pierce's Park, a new space on Pier 5, which will include a grassy area and sculptures that local artist David Hess designed as play equipment for kids. It's expected to open in the fall.
The Rash Field project is still in the planning stages, but Fry hopes to begin construction in 2012. Currently, there are three related designs for developing the field, each incorporating a play area, performance space, and athletic fields in different configurations. The options are posted on the Greater Baltimore Committee website (gbc.org), where visitors can vote on which one they like best.
One option is to include a ramp coming out of the park that goes over Key Highway and connects it to the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM). The most ambitious plan incorporates a pedestrian bridge spanning the harbor itself, connecting Rash Park to Pier 5 and the Aquarium. The bridge would open periodically to allow ships into the harbor.
"Right now, when you get to the edge of Rash Field, there's the Rusty Scupper, the Visionary Art Museum, and you're at a dead end—you have to turn and walk back," says Gross. "This would allow there to be a 1.5-mile loop around the whole harbor and would make a stronger connection to Harbor East."
The projects have been spearheaded by a somewhat unlikely coalition, including the Greater Baltimore Committee, which represents business interests throughout the city, the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore Inc., which represents businesses near the harbor, and the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance (DBFA), an advocacy group of families who live downtown.
"We're always looking at what is needed to keep the harbor vibrant and active and serving a growing local audience," says Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership, which maintains and programs events for West Shore Park and collaborated with the DBFA on Pierce's Park. "Pierce's Park was driven by the growing number of families living on the east side of the harbor."
Judy Chung O'Brien, president of DBFA, says that, in surveys, her members note that one of their biggest challenges is the lack of green space, and that these new parks will go a long way toward easing their concerns.
"One of the reasons people stay downtown is because they love to walk," she says. "One of DBFA's core commitments is enhancing walkability, enhancing green space, and we couldn't be more excited about what's going on at the harbor."
It's a blustery spring day when Tom Balsley, the New York landscape architect who designed West Shore Park, returns to town to visit his creation. Munching on an ice cream cone from the nearby Rita's stand, he surveys the park's tidy green space, which is completely quiet, as it is on most days.
"It's like birthing a baby," he says of designing and building a public space. "I'm very emotionally attached to these things, and it's tough to hand them over to somebody else and see them not given the right opportunities in life. That's sort of this—it's not being given the right opportunities in life."
Balsley contends that West Shore Park has been underutilized since it debuted in 2006 and that unless the Waterfront Partnership or other groups create programming, it and the other developments will not realize their potential. While the fountain draws visitors on hot weekends, the large green space is largely dormant, outside of the handful of festivals and concerts held each year.
"The Waterfront Partnership has got to start thinking about programming and activities," says Balsley, who says a similar space he recently designed in Dallas has two to three events per week. "They have to stop worrying about, 'Oh we might ruin the grass.' Well, what's it for? It's meant to be walked on."
Waterfront Partnership's Schwartz acknowledges the problem and says the group recently hired a marketing manager, in part, to focus on programming there. Already, she says, they've started stationing "hospitality guides" in the park during summer weekends, armed with kites, balls, and hula hoops to encourage families to play there and would consider adding playground equipment.
"It's made a beautiful addition to the harbor, but grass alone does not attract people," she says. "We plan to program it for many more family activities and would even like to see if we can identify some tasteful play features we can add for kids."
The other problem, not just for West Shore Park, but for all the harbor attractions, is parking. After completing West Shore Park, Tom Balsley proposed a development for Rash Field that would build a 400-spot parking garage underneath a family-oriented park. The city was initially behind the project, but, as the economy soured, abandoned it as too costly.
"It's very expensive to do, and we didn't think enough revenues would be produced," Fry says of various plans to either build a parking facility below ground level at Rash Field or build the park on top of a surface parking facility. "We're looking to pretty much just replace the existing parking that is there."
And, in a way, concerns about parking feel outdated. After all, parking isn't a problem for downtown families. "The lack of parking doesn't affect people who live in the harbor area as much," says O'Brien of the DBFA. "The people who have the biggest problems with parking are the tourists and the families who live in Cockeysville and Ellicott City who want to come down during the weekend."
Schwartz, who also serves on the Baltimore Development Corporation review panel that is looking at proposals for other new attractions at the harbor, says that even with the new developments, making the Inner Harbor a welcoming place for local families, as well as tourists, will require constant attention.
"The harbor has several terrific anchors, especially in the Science Center and the Aquarium," she says. "In addition, it needs new free or low-cost activities and attractions for people. It needs to have a plan where, every two to three years, we're adding new features, new amenities, new reasons for people to visit the harbor."
If they keep that up, O'Brien says, even more families will be inclined to stay. "One of the reasons people move to the 'burbs is that they want to have a backyard," says O'Brien. "Having accessible, beautiful green space a walkable distance from our homes in an important incentive for families who are choosing to stay."