[Baltimore Sun] Baltimore City Council advances Harborplace rezoning; final vote slated for next week

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A sweeping redevelopment plan for Baltimore’s Harborplace moved one step closer to reality Monday with a vote from the Baltimore City Council to advance several needed zoning changes.

Over the course of multiple votes — the first to be considered by the full body — the council moved forward legislation to amend city zoning law, the city’s urban renewal plan and the City Charter, the last of which would also require voter approval in November. Only Councilman Ryan Dorsey voted against the legislation which each passed by a 13-1 vote. Councilman Antonio Glover was absent. All members of the Baltimore City Council are Democrats.

The votes were the second of three needed from the council to advance the legislation to the mayor and voters. The council will meet again next week and will likely approve the legislation. Mayor Brandon Scott, a Democrat, has supported the development plan for Harborplace.

Lawmakers say they are moving swiftly on the legislation in an effort to get all necessary charter amendments onto the ballot in November. The changes would enable a plan from Baltimore-based MCB Development to demolish the twin 43-year-old waterfront shopping and dining pavilions that for decades have symbolized the Inner Harbor attraction. MCB’s plan calls for replacing them with four taller, mixed-use buildings, including a conjoined tower with around 900 apartments, several smaller buildings, a large new park, a two-tier promenade and realigned roadways.

The project has already received a recommendation from the city Planning Commission and earlier this month earned a favorable recommendation from the council’s Economic and Community Development Committee.

Members of the public have testified at length at previous meetings both in support and in opposition to the plan. Discussion on Monday was limited to just council members, a standard protocol for the group when bills are considered on second reader. No members spoke for or against the plan.

The high-profile project has drawn scrutiny for its proposed density and removal of height limits, a road narrowing that could clog traffic, and the inclusion of hundreds of apartments on the site. Many brought those concerns to the committee earlier this month, urging members to slow the process down to avoid a plan that they believe would privatize the public Inner Harbor shoreline.

Supporters said they see MCB’s project as a way to reactivate an iconic destination that has become a place to walk by on the way to someplace else.

Dorsey said after Monday’s meeting that the city needs a complete plan in place for the redevelopment of Harborplace before special zoning provisions should be made. Dorsey pointed to testimony from the committee hearing when city finance officials said there is currently no plan in place to assist with funding the project. Officials with the Department of Transportation said they had not yet studied traffic in the area to look at the impact of the proposed roadway realignment.

“You can’t possibly have sat in the committee hearing and think that there is any detail to the plan,” Dorsey said.

The legislation advanced Monday included several technical and clarifying amendments, including one that would ensure pedestrian access to the promenade.

MCB’s 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 roadwork — the developer has said.

The company 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 past decade, with many attributing the problems to what they saw as mismanagement by the previous, New York-based owner.

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