The Baltimore Planning Commission began the process Thursday of reviewing sweeping land use changes for the Inner Harbor that would allow a mixed-use development, including two tall towers of housing, to replace the aging Harborplace pavilions.

The staff of the Baltimore City Planning Department recommended the commission adopt — with some changes — the zoning and other revisions that would pave the way for MCB Real Estate’s project during the commission’s first public hearing on the proposal.

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Department staff called for the city to put into place a new overlay zone, similar to those used in other city waterfront neighborhoods, that would govern features such as building height and uses along the Inner Harbor promenade.

“No recently enacted plans for the harbor contemplated residential or mixed-use of the Inner Harbor,” said Caitlin Audette, a design planner in the department. “However, recent history has shown the need to diversify the harbor’s economy and add population density that could support the area’s commercial tenants.”

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The Planning Commission put off a vote on the high-profile project, which has drawn scrutiny for its proposed density and design, until more people could testify at a hearing likely to be held Dec. 21.

The commission will be making a recommendation to the City Council on a set of companion bills that would allow the residential development and other new uses, remove height restrictions and expand both private and public space along the Inner Harbor arc from the Baltimore Visitor Center to the World Trade Center. The bills include rezoning requests, amendments to the city’s urban renewal plan governing the Inner Harbor, and an amendment to the City Charter.

The charter amendment, which would require voter approval on a ballot next year, would expand the area of the city’s ground lease with the developer to 4.5 acres from the current 3.2 acres.

Baltimore-based MCB has proposed demolishing the 43-year-old waterfront shopping and dining pavilions that for decades have symbolized the Inner Harbor attraction and replacing them with four taller, mixed-use buildings, including a conjoined tower with around 900 apartments, one smaller structure in a large new park, a two-tier promenade and realigned roadways.

The developer said the proposal involves about $500 million of private investment and would need an estimated $400 million in public funds — about $300 million for parks and public spaces and $100 million for the roadwork.

MCB began the city review process two weeks ago when it presented its master plan to the city’s Urban Design & Architecture Advisory Panel, a group of experts in urban design, architecture and landscape design. Panel members criticized the proposal, saying it lacked both an analysis of alternative options and a clear vision and design framework.

MCB has said it produced its plan after months of community meetings, during which residents prioritized safety, waterfront access and inclusion of small- and minority-owned businesses as tenants.

The developer wants to build two 200,000-square-foot commercial buildings on Pratt Street plus two apartment towers — 32 stories and 25 stories — on Light Street that connect and also have shops.

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One commercial building on Pratt Street, dubbed “The Sail,” would house food and beverage tenants and feature a tiered, amphitheater-like 50,000-square-foot, public rooftop park. The second would feature publicly available conference space on the ground floor.

Audette told commissioners that replacing the current zoning with an overlay zone “to provide that nuance necessary for this unique area … would be in keeping with what we’ve done in other waterfront areas, such as Canton, Fells Point, the Key Highway area and Middle Branch.”

P. David Bramble, MCB’s managing partner and a Baltimore native, struck a deal to acquire the mostly vacant pavilions out of receivership in April 2022. The pavilions have lost tenants and fallen into disrepair over the last decade, with many blaming the previous, New York-based owner’s mismanagement.

Bramble argues that only a densely populated project that mixes park space with commercial uses and housing is economically viable and will spark further growth downtown. He has said he hopes to start work as soon as possible, starting with seeking approvals.

Bramble told commissioners Thursday that his firm does not have to take on the project, “but it’s a project that we want to do, because it’s important for the future of the city and a place I proudly call home.”

He argued that the Inner Harbor Renewal Plan was established almost half a century ago and waterfront development has evolved.

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“The Harborplace that we all remember hasn’t been around for many years,” Bramble said.

Though dozens of people crowded into a planning department hearing room, several opted to hold off testifying until the next hearing.

Planning Commission Chairman Sean Davis said the commission had received 15 letters in opposition to the proposed project and one in support. Many of those opposed to it objected to design issues, said Davis, noting that the planning commission has “no control” over design.

Those who did testify strongly opposed the project.

David Tufaro, a Baltimore resident and developer in the city for 45 years, said he opposed the proposals on both procedural and substantive grounds.

“In my view, it’s a disastrous proposal in both the way this proposal’s being crammed down the throats of the citizens of Baltimore in its total lack of respect for this sacred public space, which is the Inner Harbor,” Tufaro said.

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He said MCB’s presentation at the end of October, surrounded by state and local officials, came “out of left field,” and was “an arrogant, orchestrated display of power intended to communicate to the public that this plan is going forward regardless of how the citizens of Baltimore feel.”

Nov 30, 2023 at 7:07 pm

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