November 7, 2011

Ripley's Believe It or Harborplace

Ripley in Harborplace? Believe it or Not!
Put it in Camden Yards instead
An illustration of a proposed Ripley’s Believe it or Not! facade at Harborplace.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was right after all: Baltimore's recent Grand Prix was a "game changer". Or more accurately, the game has changed, and that crazy spectacle of 180 mph racecars careening around the Inner Harbor is now the Inner Harbor norm. Anything goes. And as the game changes, other incongruous scenes like a proposed Ferris Wheel, a billion dollar mega-arena convention center or a tent city encampment "occupying" McKeldin Square should be expected as opportunities present themselves.

In such an environment, a giant cartoon Chessie Monster adorning Harborplace would be consistent. Believe it or not, that is the question. Ripley's "Believe it or Not" Odditorium is the latest prospective client being wooed to Harborplace, Baltimore's front-and-center imagemaker.

Never mind that the city's powers-that-be had only recently declared that they were trying to make Harborplace more appealing to regular Baltimoreans and not just tourists, including the burgeoning population of downtown residents, as they gushed over the introduction of mundane but useful franchised suburban imports such as H&M and the Noodles Company. Obviously, an Ripley Odditorium is the kind of sideshow which would be precisely at odds with that. And never mind the recent controversy over whether Denise Whiting's "hon" empire represented a disparaging caricature rather than genuine Baltimore. The cartoon Chessie Monster goes way way beyond "hon" or a pink flamingo.

City officials think they can somehow straddle the fence. They obviously know there is a limit to how crass the Inner Harbor can get. They're just looking for that limit. A three dimensional Chessie Monster jutting out from the classic Harborplace facade has been declared unacceptable, but two dimensional is OK. A fierce looking monster is said to be unacceptable, but if he looks sufficiently playful, that's OK. Just as the previously proposed "Crash Cafe" was excessively fierce and three dimensional, especially for the 911 era, but a giant electric guitar on a smoke stack has passed muster. Somehow the powers that be think they can always find that magic elusive compromise between taste and commerce that turns off some people but not everyone.

How to Accommodate the Monster

OK, granted, Baltimore is still a big and multi-faceted city, so there should be room here for Ripley, Whiting and other assorted oddballs and iconoclasts to ply their trades. But Harborplace? The city's front door? The place customarily photographed to represent Baltimore the same way as the St. Louis Arch and the Seattle Space Needle? With a giant cartoon monster staring back at us?

This is exactly the kind of abuse that nearly a majority of voters were afraid of with when Harborplace was narrowly approved back in the '70s. Fortunately, developer James Rouse and architect Benjamin Thompson provided a dignified design befitting an icon, but the seeds were already planted by a civic mentality that had already destroyed much of the surroundings to build expressways that never happened. The descent into caricature-ism was then further foreshadowed when a gay-90s Mayor Schaefer jumped in the Aquarium pool with his inflated Donald Duck. But now Baltimore has gone miles and miles beyond that.

The bigger problem is why it always seems to be the Inner Harbor that is the focus of everything in Baltimore - the full gamut from the sacred to the profane? The powers that be seem to think that the rest of the city might as well not exist at all. Dense Whiting should be congratulated for applying her "hon" brand to Hampden outside of the city power structure, back when the Hampden neighborhood was really in need of a wholesome identity other than unmentionable undercurrents like "home of Baltimore's ku klux klan". Now of course, Hampden's image has grown all kinds of rich subtlety beyond the "hon" caricature, so she is less necessary but still a cute sideshow that is amusing to some.

So the Chessie Monster needs a home, somewhere in Baltimore where it can be nurtured like Whiting's "hon". Can the Chessie Monster adorn some local Main Street just as Whiting's giant pink flamingo adorns her Hampden restaurant? Does some neighborhood want to volunteer? Probably not, which is just as well because Ripley is a product of a giant multinational organization, not something amenable to Baltimore's home grown neighborhood quirks.

Camden Yards famous thousand foot warehouse, historic Camden Station and background skyline

Put Ripley in Camden Yards

Fortunately, there happens to be a place in Baltimore where such gigantism can be gracefully accommodated - Camden Yards. This is home of two giant stadiums where crass sports business hucksterism and quaint civic pride somehow coexist. It is also home of the incredible thousand foot warehouse, truly an architectural "believe it or not" even more amazing than a cartoon sea monster. Back in the '80s and '90s when planners inspired by Jane Jacobs were preaching of rich detailed fine grained street level urban tapestries, Camden Yards was able to create a new national trend of urban sports amusement districts dominated by giant stadiums. Yet it has somehow still not become as urban as it ought to be.

There has been some effort to turn Camden Yards into a well-rounded urban entertainment district. The dignified historic Camden Station has been turned into the Geppi Entertainment Museum and the Sports Legends Museum. Both of these were outgrowths of smaller nearby enterprises - the former Geppi comic book shop in Harborplace and the Babe Ruth birthplace and museum in the Ridgely's Delight neighborhood. But the critical mass for urban success has not happened.

The Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum would be a perfect addition to Camden Yards, and a perfect complement for the Geppi and Sports Legends museums. The elements of Camden Yards are already large-scaled enough and sufficiently singular so that something as incongruous as a Chessie Monster could fit in, or rather stand out, just as intended. A whole new building could be provided on the existing parking lot between Camden Station and the Warehouse so that the vision and impact of the museum could be built-in from the ground up. Alternately, a small piece of the warehouse could be adapted to fit the museum. The gigantism of the thousand foot warehouse could be a prefect milieu for the monster - a suitable sea of architecture, so to speak, which would absorb the requisite tackiness in stride.

This would also be the important first step in the true urbanization of Camden Yards, which is urgently needed to integrate Baltimore's other present and proposed future overscaled downtown elements - the convention center, the various stadiums and arenas, and the gambling casino (see previous posts).

Voodoo Balto-nomics

The only real question is whether "Balto-nomics" has now become so warped that rational development decisions which respect urban principals cannot be made. The powers-that-be appear to have realized that making real economic development decisions involving real money just doesn't have as much of the kind of impact they want as does making giant proposals with "funny money" - a billion here for a mega-convention arena, a billion there for State Center, a couple billion more for the transit Red Line, a slice of the trillion dollar federal "stimulus money" for the Grand Prix. This is the economic witches' brew of funding sources now commonly referred to as "public-private partnerships".

With all that gigantism floating around downtown and the Inner Harbor, Ripley is just a sideshow. Harborplace was once a big deal, but now it's just soooo 1980s - Baltimore's version of Boy George's Culture Club, INXS and Duran Duran. Maybe the reason why Ripley is destined for Harborplace is a result of the old economic "trickle down theory". Harborplace has had its time at the cutting edge with top tier rents and now it's time for it's adaptive re-use for lower tier tenants like Ripley. Now Harbor East is the happnin' place. Basically, Harborplace is going through the same life-cycle as rest of Baltimore. For example, Walbrook was once an upper crust neighborhood until its former mansions were chopped up into lower income apartments, then finally boarded up, abandoned and torn down. The trickle down theory can't be repealed. It can only be acknowledged and nurtured so that the proud past can be adapted for a productive future.

The alternative is to exploit the investments made by a previous generation, such as Harborplace over three decades ago, in order to squeeze out the last bit of value. Unfortunately, that appears to be what has is happening with the proposed Ripley Odditorium in Harborplace.

Ripley must be stopped. Harborplace needs to grow old with dignity.


  1. O! Say Can You See?December 17, 2011 at 3:00 PM

    'Grow old with dignity' you say? Have you visited Harborplace lately? It's old...30 years old...dull and dirty, decaying, neglected -- and practically vacant with only the memories of what used to be so much fun to enjoy when it first opened by Jim Rouse. Today. Harborplace needs to be re-invigorated with family attractions again. Whether it's Ripley's or not...there should be a viable balance and influx of new establishments at Harborplace to fill the vacant floor space that visibly exists. Where Rouse's Faneuil Hall and South Street Seaport remain upscale and thriving with entrepreneurial vendors after three decades..Harborplace lost it's glitter years before with increased rents that drove Baltimore-based store owners away. It's time for a change in Baltimore to compete again with other tourism-attracting cities. Bring on new attractions to the Inner Harbor for everyone to enjoy...3-D or not!

  2. I agree with you - But Faneuil and South St. have dignity - not Ripley !!!!!

  3. O! Say Can You See?December 17, 2011 at 4:35 PM

    'not Ripley!!!!' What other choices are there when it comes to any other business leasing 13,000 sq. feet of vacant Light Street Pavillion space? Maybe if the Rouse Co. still owned Harborplace and not its (Chapter 11) General Growth Properties successor...things would have been a little different and the 'place' would have maintained more of its original personality and a viable presence. Dignity is still abound with Willie Don's statue nearby....a distinguished alumus of his dignified 'Castle on the Hill' (Baltimore City College Class of 1939)