For 11 years, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has played host to a beach volleyball league, which helps present a healthy, active image of the city to the 13 million people who visit the harbor each year. But instead of being celebrated, the league’s getting kicked off-stage.
Baltimore Beach Volleyball’s home in the Inner Harbor. Photo from BBV.
Baltimore Beach Volleyball (BBV) has 2500 weekly participants and plays games seven days a week from May to September. 87% of its players are millennials, or adults between 20 and 34, 88% are single (in case you’re looking), and 37% come from outside of Baltimore City, according to Todd Webster, who runs the league. BBV has been touted as the largest inner-city metropolitan league on the East Coast, hosted games for the International Olympic Committee, and become a permanent stop on the Toyota Pro Beach Volleyball tour.
Baltimore ought to give BBV the proverbial keys to the harbor. Instead there are plans to boot the volleyballers from the Inner Harbor to Swann Park, an out-of-site, out-of-mind location two miles to the south in the shadow of Interstate 95.
The city of Baltimore, Waterfront Partnership, and Greater Baltimore Committee recently released the Inner Harbor II plan, which looks at ways to improve and expand open space around the harbor. It proposes replacing BBV’s field and an existing park as well as the Pride of Baltimore memorial with a subterranean parking garage topped by an oval grass lawn and a small, sand “destination.” How this lawn will be programmed is unclear.
The plan will cost $40 million, though parking revenues will offset some of these costs.
The Inner Harbor 2 plan would displace Baltimore Beach Volleyball, as well as the Pride of Baltimore memorial. Image from the plan.
Baltimore leaders have concluded that the Inner Harbor and Rash Field need a refresher. But the results of a citizen survey about the area suggest that residents prefer more local retail in the area and want to address the lack of activity in some parts of the harbor. The plan doesn’t ignore those concerns, but its bigger proposals do overshadow them.
There are good ideas in the plan, like a pool barge. But unfortunately, leaders are rushing to start with Rash Field, a controversial and expensive part of the plan. How did the architects choose a grass oval lawn and sand lot for the top the garage? How is the proposed lawn not redundant with the similar West Shore Park and grassy feel of Federal Hill?
Baltimore and the Inner Harbor planners would benefit if they mixed in some of the affordable ingenuity demonstrated by Janette Sadik-Khan’s New York City project portfolio. Her mantra: “Do bold experiments that are cheap to try out.” She loves to talk about how Times Square was successfully transformed with lawn chairs and paint. All urbanists should view her TED Talk.
Instead of replicating amenities that already exist, there are ways to provide things that citizens actually want and retain an existing draw, all at much lower cost. Beach volleyball could become an anchor and destination for the area with the addition of local food and beverage vendors, water features, specialty kiosks, and tables overlooking the volleyball courts. The space could also accommodate other activities, like bocce, ping pong, yoga, Zumba, stationary bikes, and kayaks.
Meanwhile, the Rash Field garage is not only expensive, but unnecessary with the existing 45,000 parking spaces in downtown Baltimore. Has the city studied the possibility of valet parking service operating from the visitors’ center as an alternative?
A valet service might make better use of existing parking capacity, be more convenient for visitors, and provide jobs. To increase access, extend Charm City Circulator coverage. Creating a safe network of cycle tracks to serve bicycles and bikeshare, which will launch this July, on the bike-unfriendly roads ringing the Inner Harbor would help.
In addition, building the parking garage will disrupt an important public space for up to two years of construction. The view from Federal Hill is a very photogenic spot, and a popular site for tourists and visitors. An unnecessary parking facility isn’t enough of a compelling reason to take this space away when smaller changes would have a much shorter and less disruptive effect on the area.
This plan also would have an impact on the city’s millennial community. Many young professionals seek healthy and active social amenities. The data shows clearly that millennials are driving Baltimore’s growth more than any other generation. For young professionals, Baltimore Beach Volleyball is arguably the Inner Harbor’s top draw. Unceremoniously kicking them out will not be viewed charmingly by this opinionated generation.
Millennials heavily populate nearby neighborhoods and have brought new life to the city. Why not ask them to help program the harbor?
A version of this post appeared at Comeback City.