Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Waterfront revitalization: The Wharf in DC and Baltimore's Harborplace

One of the problems with waterfront retail-oriented revitalization is that it tends to be highly touristified with ersatz experiences that aren't super authentic, so after awhile local residents stop visiting and then somewhat later, the experience becomes tired and may require frequent refreshment.

Photo by Hank Mitchell.

Baltimore's Harborplace (at left) is a good example.  For many years, the pavilions have been dominated by chain restaurants like Cheesecake Factory (a California concept) and Pizza Uno (a Chicago style pizza concept), and "local" companies like Philips Seafood, a Chesapeake Bay style seafood company, focused on buffet, and J. Paul's and Paolo's (Italian), restaurants based out of DC, with retail oriented to cheap items bought by tourists like branded shot glasses and tee shirts.

In addition to Phillip's, non-area seafood concepts there now are McCormick & Schmicks, a chain out of the Pacific Northwest and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, Louisiana-oriented and derived from the "Forrest Gump" movie. Other businesses include a Hooters restaurant and a Ripley Believe it or Not experience, which tends to locate branches in tourist communities.

Very little of Baltimore or Maryland is reflected within Harborplace or related properties on Pratt Street, other than its location on Baltimore's waterfront.  Still, the area is an anchor for the core, and home to the Convention Center, Camden Yards baseball stadium, hotels, and other retail and restaurants.

Retail and restaurant business around the Inner Harbor is in decline, marked by the closure of various businesses, and in response owners are making changes to Harborplace ("Proposed Harborplace redesign aims to add life to Pratt Street," Baltimore Business Journal) and nearby retail properties that aim to draw from the same customer base ("The Gallery at Harborplace is planning big changes," BBJ).

The new program seems to refresh the buildings but isn't aimed at improving the authenticity of the experience.

Interestingly, Baltimore’s waterfront revitalization program in the Inner Harbor is considered to be one of the world’s first significant efforts at port restructuring in the face of land use and location changes that resulted from the shift from loose cargo to container-based goods movement within the maritime shipping industry, and analysis of the city’s successes contributed to the plans created elsewhere (“On the Revitalized Waterfront: Creative Milieu for Creative Tourism," Sustainability Journal).

The Wharf/Southwest DC.  That's why I was surprised to see an article about The Wharf in the Washington Post food section, "At least 20 restaurants — and not a single national chain," which states that all of the restaurants opening in the new Wharf development in Southwest DC, will be independent ventures, albeit mostly from chainlets based in the area.

Note that The Wharf too is a "refreshment," of the old Maine Avenue seafood restaurant row, Seafood Market, and marina, which in turn had replaced the piers that once served the steamboats which provided transportation to cities throughout the Chesapeake Bay and up the Atlantic Coast.

It will be interesting to see if independent restaurants and The Wharf will be more sustainable--by that I mean longevity without having to be significantly improved--than the national chains that for the most part have taken over Harborplace.

Longitudinal research on Harborplace finds that for the most part, suburban residents don't go patronize it unless they have out-of-town guests.  Otherwise they are satisfied by retail and restaurant options closer to home.

One advantage chain brands have for tourists is familiarity--that's why in all likelihood most of the restaurants near the H Street and 7th Street NW intersection of Gallery Place, near the Verizon Center are chains, not "local" establishments.

The trick will be the mix of Wharf patrons between tourists and DC residents.  DC residents will be attracted to the independent restaurants while tourists may look askance at them.  A focus on independent firms, if not necessarily local, also marks the development of CityCenterDC and the Union Market food district in Northeast DC.

The Wharf is already doing a massive amount of activation programming and they are a couple years out from having finished buildings.

South Street Seaport.  South Street Seaport in Manhattan is another waterfront "festival marketplace" that faces changes as a result of similar trends to the waterfront districts mentioned above, the need to balance serving residents and tourists, and the difficulty of sustaining quality retail and restaurant amenities when tourists make up the bulk of the customer base.

But while Harborplace and DC's new Wharf District retain little in the way of original buildings, that isn't the case for the South Street Seaport District, which still has original buildings and some cultural attractions, including the South Street Seaport Museum. Sadly, the Fulton Street Fish Market moved to a new location about 10 years ago.

Because the Seaport district is proximate to major Manhattan office districts, it always must fight off encroachment and eradication.  Most of the changes proposed by the development community threaten the historic character of the area, which seemingly is the foundation of its sustainability as a cultural district and attraction ("Why NYC must save the South Street Seaport," New York Post).

Preserving South Street Seaport: The Dream and Reality of a New York Urban Renewal District by James Lindgren is a new book on the revitalization history of the district, and likely worth a read.

San Francisco.  An incredibly well written book on San Francisco's waterfront, Jasper Rubin's A Negotiated Landscape: The Transformation of San Francisco’s Waterfront since 1950, makes the point that because the waterfront is so integral to San Francisco's identity and because many longtime residents value this connection, San Franciscans have worked harder to maintain the district's historicity and integrity, although with only some success.

Some redevelopment projects like the Ferry Building have been done particularly well--in part because ferry transit services are still located there--and the Market Street heritage streetcar line is popular and unique, but Fisherman's Wharf and Ghiradelli Square have long since been touristified.

Plans to build a new arena for the Golden State Warriors basketball team on the waterfront further stress the waterfront's historic character.  Opposition to the original location closer to the Ferry Building has led to the team shifting its interest to Mission Bay, although the plans there are also facing opposition from the hospital complex and other interests proximate to the site ("A Basketball Arena Battles for San Francisco's Heart," New York Times).

Site of the proposed Warriors arena (called Chase Center). New York Times photo by Max Whittaker.

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At 9:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

it is astounding to see how much US cities have turned their backs on our maritime assets when one visits places in Europe- where small boats carry freight traffic in a maze of river channels connecting many countries- in Germany Austria Hungary and Romania you see how the Danube [ Donau] river is still used as a major highway- as is the Rhine- and these are not huge container vessels either- most are family operated barges akin to trucker families in the states. We have turned our backs on rivers for commerce- we waste our resources whereas in other lands they would covet what we squander without any thought whatsoever. There are no excuses for this at all. A river does not have to be 40 feet deep to sustain commerce.

At 10:51 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

There's little reason to use our rivers for anything but bulk freight because the US developed a much more robust freight rail and highway system than the Europeans ever did.

The nature of Europe's geography (both in terms of rivers but also coastline) make water-borne freight more attractive, too.

At 11:40 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

There is a great photo in one of those history picture books about the Heinz Co. showing a boat leaving PGH to New Orleans. Yes, the rail and road network supplanted rivers.

I think about this a lot in terms of industrial consolidation. E.g., bathtubs and stoves are so heavy that they used to be manufactured "locally" by firms serving regional markets. E.g., there used to be a big Detroit Stove Co. (I have a postcard) and the Richmond Stove Works (their now abandoned building is still extant). Stoves, especially back then were heavy.

But with a railroad it's easy to ship a stove from western Michigan (home of Whirlpool) or a washing machine from Iowa (Maytag, Amana) virtually anywhere in the country.

2. I wasn't denigrating waterfront revitalization focused on consumption. But I don't think I made the point as well as I could have that when you are only focused on the location + water and you don't have much heritage building stock to work with, continual refreshment is likely necessary.

E.g., The Wharf and Harborplace will/are for the most part new construction.

Liverpool is another example of some incredible waterfront assets and revitalization in novel ways, that because of the existence of heritage buildings retain authenticity in a manner that Harborplace never can, and will be difficult for The Wharf.

Speaking of Alex B's point about the transportation relevancy of rivers in Europe, one of the cool things the Liverpool revitalization initiatives included was a reconnection of one of the canals to the waterfront.

I think that was particularly cool.

Although it might not matter, especially for The Wharf, if the spaces function well on the first two floors of the otherwise new buildings.

Definitely a music venue will draw more consumers spending money than a maritime museum. ALthough both are important, and there are more opportunities than DC has availed itself of to interpret and present maritime history.

3. The funny thing about the parks on the waterfront is that in some ways they disconnect us from the water more than they connect us. A more mixed use approach might have worked better in terms of making residents more conscious of the city once having a port. It also would better support ferry service. Except for Georgetown and to some extent Capitol Riverfront, the city's primary commercial areas are too far from the river to make ferry service viable.

cf. Alex Wall's line that "commerce is the engine of urbanism." Commerce is the engine of exchange, of connection. Commerce would give us more reasons to acknowledge the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

4. The thing that I worry that we forget about waterfront revitalization is the impact of climate change on water levels, tides, etc. cf. HafenCity, which takes a very "hardened" approach to preventing flooding.

At 12:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alex B I would dispute some of this argument you are making- ever driven on a German autobahn? I have driven on just about ALL of the major German autobahnen and I can tell you- they have a huge amount of truck container traffic- in fact- its seems to be the majority of autobahnen traffic in many areas/regions.Yes- true about the relative lack of rail freight traffic- much appears to go on trucks in Europe. In China a lot freight also still moves on water routes. Perhaps the denial of using our water assets is more cultural than economic?

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