The last time I went down to Harborplace to write about it, the date was November of 2017. A sign on the front door of the Pratt Street Pavilion immediately hinted at the pitiful level of attention devoted to the place once regarded as the heart of a great Baltimore renaissance.
The sign said: “Harborplace: A New Tradition Begins – Fall of 2016.”
You absentmindedly display a sign like that, a full year past its due date, and it shows the whole world you don’t even care enough to be embarrassed. And the Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., which has run Harborplace for the last seven years, is about to feel the effects of such outward indifference.
As the Baltimore Business Journal reported this week, a city judge has placed Harborplace into receivership. Another firm will run the place and look for a new buyer. Nearly halfway through 2019, maybe that “new tradition” will finally take place.
It’s about time.
Both the Pratt and Light Street Pavilions feel like ghost towns. Where there used to be a bustling food court, and packed restaurants and shops, there are mostly walls with nothing behind them now.
And the essence of the place – showing off the most flavorful goods of Baltimore itself – has been utterly lost.
“Used to be, this was a place where you showed off the best of Baltimore to all those tourists, and it made you feel proud,” Josh Hughes was saying on Tuesday morning. He manages Crabby Jack’s General Store, one of just three remaining Harborplace souvenir shops featuring Baltimore merchandise.
“Must have been 20 places that featured Baltimore,” said Hughes, who’s worked here for 15 years. “I used to come down here as a teen, back in the ‘90s, and there were so many people walking around, you couldn’t help but bump into each other.
“Now, I get customers coming in here for the first time in years, saying, ‘What happened? This place used to be great.’ It makes me sad every time I come in.”
Ashkenazy Acquisition is a privately held New York company with a $12 billion portfolio. They run both Harborplace and the Village of Cross Keys, which has similar problems – empty storefronts, lack of customers in its commercial square, and a sense that time has passed it by.
In a lengthy analysis in March, The Sun detailed Ashkenazy’s financial trouble. The company owed $67 million on Harborplace and $21 million on Cross Keys, and its loans were called “just one step away from default,” according to the real estate research firm Trepp LLC.
Meanwhile, a steady exodus of old Harborplace tenants was taking place as Ashkenazy was promising long-delayed renovations. Some of it can be blamed on Ashkenazy, but the founding Rouse Company wasn’t totally blameless. Even at its peak, some tenants complained of exorbitant rent hikes by Rouse. Many of these were small stores with Baltimore themes.
It’s now nearly 40 years since Harborplace opened. The Rouse Company built the place and owned it during its heyday, but sold it to General Growth Properties. Ashkenazy bought it in 2012.
When I spoke last fall to Stephanie Mineo, a senior vice president at Ashkenazy, she said the company was determined to “give the city back its jewel.”
Now some other company will have to make that attempt.
It’s one more shocking development for a part of downtown Baltimore struggling to get back some of its old luster. The disturbances last month, with hundreds of young people running amok, did not help.
Outside the Light Street Pavilion, there’s a reminder of better days. It’s a statue of William Donald Schaefer, the mayor who piloted Harborplace’s creation. He’s got one hand in the air, as though welcoming people or signaling for a fair catch.
Or maybe he’s saying, “Stop. Enough of this steady decay in my old city.”
The old man would have had somebody’s head rolling by now.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.