Baltimore mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah calls Harborplace proposal ‘backroom deal,’ pledges to fight it

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Baltimore mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah pledged Monday to block a $900 million redevelopment proposal for Baltimore’s Harborplace, calling it a “backroom deal” and an “exclusive resort for the wealthiest of the wealthy.”

Vignarajah, a Democrat who entered the race last month, was particularly critical of a portion of the proposal that calls for apartments at the waterfront site.

Baltimore-based MCB Real Estate has proposed demolishing the 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 building in a large new park, a two-tier promenade and realigned roadways.

“William Donald Schaefer would be turning over in his grave if he knew, if he thought, if he imagined that a future mayor might take this consecrated pubic ground and turn it over to developers to turn into luxury high rises for the sake of a few thousand dollars of campaign donations,” Vignarajah said, evoking Schaefer, the city’s mayor from 1971 to 1987 who dedicated Harborplace.

Speaking during a news conference from the adjacent McKeldin Square, Vignarajah said the proposal, which became public in October, lacked sufficient public input. Developers said they did public forums and door-to-door outreach in preparation for the plan, but the details and scope remained under wraps until the public announcement from developers.

Economist Anirban Basu, who stood alongside Vignarajah for the news conference, said he did not believe the public was the driver for a plan that includes $400 million in public investment, private residences and a reduction in the size of nearby roads. Developer David Bramble has said he expects the proposal to require $500 million in private investment as well as $400 million in public funds.

“That process was clearly a sham,” Basu said.

Vignarajah stopped short Monday of saying what he would prefer to see at Harborplace, arguing the city should form a blue ribbon commission to study the idea and seek widespread input from the public. Only after that process should a developer be selected, he said.

Since its public introduction, MCB’s proposal received the blessing of Baltimore’s Planning Commission in December after hours of testimony for and against the plan. Several charter amendments are still needed to alter the land uses in and around Harborplace. The Baltimore City Council is due to discuss those proposed amendments this month. If approved, they could be put to voters via a referendum in November.

Vignarajah repeatedly suggested Monday that Bramble received favorable consideration to develop the property as a result of his political donations. He called on fellow mayoral candidates Mayor Brandon Scott and former Mayor Sheila Dixon on Monday to join him in a pledge to block luxury residential units on the site. Both are Democrats.

If both decline, “then you know everything you need to know about who they answer to,” Vignarajah said.

MCB Property Services, an arm of Harborplace developer MCB Real Estate, gave Scott $6,000 in October, his most recent finance filings show. Peter Pinkard, MCB’s managing partner, and Drew Gorman, a principal, each contributed $5,000. Pinkard’s donation arrived in January while Gorman made his in November. Principal and Chief Investment Officer Michael Trail gave $4,000 in November.

MCB has donated to Scott in the past. The company gave the mayor a $6,000 maximum donation in 2022 and Bramble gave $1,000 in January 2023.

Neither the company nor Bramble has given to Dixon ahead of the 2024 mayoral race. Vignarajah said he has never taken donations from Bramble.

Nick Machado, Scott’s campaign manager, said Vignarajah has “zero” credibility on ethics and transparency.

“His whole career has been backed by special interest dollars aligned with Trumpism and racist tropes,” Machado said. “It’s no surprise that he’d take this opportunity to baselessly attack a Black developer from West Baltimore.”

“The fact is we’re making progress on a project that is long overdue, and this mayor’s commitment to ethics and transparency stand above all his competitors,” Machado added.

Dixon said during a campaign event last month that she has “mixed emotions” about the current Harborplace plan. She said she is more concerned, however, about nearby downtown streets which are “so dark and dreary.” The Harborplace plan should incorporate more of downtown, she said at the time.

Bramble and his company have donated thousands of dollars to members and candidates for Baltimore City Council. During the council’s current term, Bramble and MCB have given $7,000 to Council President Nick Mosby, $2,000 to Councilman Zeke Cohen, $2,000 to Councilman John Bullock, $3,000 to Councilman Mark Conway, $9,500 to Councilman James Torrence and $500 to Councilwoman Danielle McCray. Shannon Sneed, a candidate for council president, received a $150 donation. All are Democrats.

A spokeswoman for Bramble did not respond to a request for comment.

Opponents of the Bramble proposal argue it would essentially privatize the public Inner Harbor shoreline, a city park where charter amendments in the late 1970s locked in 26 acres of open space but paved the way for shops and restaurants in the pavilions. During two Baltimore Planning Commission hearings in November and December, opponents objected to the proposed removal of height restrictions, the addition of hundreds of apartments that would block views and road narrowing that they say would snarl downtown traffic.

A group called the Inner Harbor Coalition has organized to lobby city and state officials to reverse course on the project. They have threatened to try to place a competition ballot question on November ballots if necessary.