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David Bramble: Harborplace developer aims to remake Inner Harbor

Jun 28, 2023

When P. David Bramble started out two decades ago, executing "small deals" buying and selling rowhomes, he was leery of developers.

"I laugh because I originally had a pretty negative view of real estate" he said. "My image of it was the evil developer taking advantage of poor people."

Despite his initial misgivings, Bramble became a developer himself, winning praise for his vision and for focusing on community impact and inclusion.

Now Bramble faces his biggest challenge: Remaking Harborplace , the retail and dining pavilions that helped make the Inner Harbor a huge tourist draw after their 1980 opening but which have recently struggled with vacancies, disrepair and an outdated feel.

Developer David Bramble leads the project rebuilding Harbor Place in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

The 46-year-old city resident is saying little about his early vision for what he calls the city's "crown jewel," other than that he wants to hear from the public and believes it should be a place that can be enjoyed by all Baltimoreans.

"This is great," he said recently as he walked the Harborplace promenade, with its picturesque views of the harbor, Federal Hill and the Domino Sugar sign. "You can't replace this."

His optimism now meets the reality of a once-dynamic center of city life that has spiraled after two previous owners did not fulfill promises they made for the property. Now downtown Baltimore is fighting to overcome the stigma that has lingered after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray and ensuing protests, the perception of rising crime, and an aura of post-pandemic abandonment.

Tony Hawkins, who was the general manager of Harborplace when it opened in 1980, said he hopes it again becomes as popular as it was in its heyday, when it was a festival marketplace that was a "fun place to be" and where people wanted to go.

Hawkins, who oversaw pavilion operations for 15 years, said the property began to decline when it was acquired by New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisitions Corp. in 2012.

"They were not paying attention to the business," said the 77-year-old Harbor East resident. "Nobody was minding the store. I was extremely disappointed."

Hawkins also said the city was partly to blame for allowing the decline. "The city wasn't watching," he said. "That's the whole problem."

Hawkins said he does not know Bramble, but added that the next developer has "a lot of work to do."

"Whatever categories they put in there, they have to be the very best in that category. If you have hamburgers, it has to be the best hamburger that Baltimore has to offer. Same with french fries. They [previous owners were] not about being the best."

Bramble, managing partner and co-founder of MCB Real Estate, said he understands the considerable pressure to get it right.

"It's going to be one of the most complex undertakings — as far as the meaningfulness with the city," said Bramble, as he walked past vacant retail space that once housed businesses such as H&M, Urban Outfitters and Ripley's Believe it or Not. "We want to remind everybody that this is Baltimore's front lawn. This is our connective tissue."

The redevelopment, he added, is also "critical" to revitalizing other parts of the city, including downtown.

Still, Bramble, whose company recently got the green light from the courts to begin the massive undertaking, said he is excited about the possibilities.

"We’ve got everything you need. That's why I’m fired up," Bramble said.

While the Harborplace redevelopment will draw a lot of attention, Bramble believes that Baltimore is only as strong as its weakest link.

"What distresses me is that the most distressed neighborhoods have gotten worse. It's time for that to change. It's time to think about Baltimore collectively," he said. "The reality is the city rises and falls together. We need to think like that."

Bramble's perspective was shaped by growing up in Baltimore, the son of a church leader and a journalist originally from the West Indies island of Montserrat.

His father, the Rev. Peter Bramble, served as rector of St. Katherine of Alexandria Episcopal Church in West Baltimore. The younger Bramble noted that U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume and the late Baltimore congressman Parren J. Mitchell were fixtures in his father's church.

"I consider myself lucky to be raised by that congregation. It was special. You had so many people that would take care of you," said Bramble, who was named after his father. Bramble said he didn't know his first name was Peter for a long time because his family always called him David — his middle name.

His mother, Joy Bramble, is publisher of the The Baltimore Times. Bramble said that Black Americans owe a lot to Black newspapers and other news outlets for covering community stories that other news organizations weren't.

Bramble's parents also ran a corner grocery store in West Baltimore for some time, selling various bodega-type items.

"My parents showed me what hard work meant," said Bramble, who lives in the same Madison Park West home where he was raised. He also has a sister, Jocelyn, who is a lawyer with the District of Columbia government.

The City College High School graduate said a math and science summer program helped prepare him for Princeton University, where he met his eventual Omega Psi Phi Fraternity brother and future business partner, Everett Sands. Bramble studied politics at Princeton and got his law degree at the University of Pennsylvania.

"I was always interested in business because my parents always had an entrepreneurial bent," Bramble said. "A friend introduced me to real estate investing when I was in law school."

Sands described the two as "knuckleheads" in those college years, but added that he got a glimpse of his friend's business acumen during an early venture together, an attempt to buy a 40-unit apartment building. The bid fell short, but the two clicked.

"Working so close together, you realize a different person's skill sets and gifts. That crystalized a kindred spirit. We had way more deals go wrong early on. Now we are in a different stage," said Sands, who estimated that the two have teamed on more than 50 development projects and have worked on thousands of loans through their company, Lendistry, a small-business lender.

"If there is anybody who can get it done, that's Dave," he said of Harborplace. "He knows the city and community. He cares about the city and community. You want someone who can execute and get the job done."

Peter Pinkard, principal and partner at MCB Real Estate, has known Bramble for 18 years. The two bonded over their shared Baltimore roots while Bramble was working as a lawyer in Washington, D.C.

Developer David Bramble leads the project rebuilding Harborplace in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

Pinkard called Bramble an intellectual, but with "a rare talent" to work effectively with all people, regardless of social standing.

He also loves Bramble's passion for Baltimore.

"He's passionate about making a difference in the city at a time when the city needs people to be passionate about the city and to make a difference," Pinkard said. "He's committed — as am I — to making that happen."

MCB's touch can be found on an array of developments around Baltimore.

Its portfolio includes Yard 56, a 20-acre site across from the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus that's now in its second phase. The area features Streets Market & Cafe, restaurants, a coffee shop and retailers. This spring, a health care center focused on underserved communities will open, according to Bramble. Remaining space at the $250 million project will be filled starting this fall.

Bramble is also working to revitalize Northwood Commons, a once-segregated shopping center near Morgan State University. Plans for the $50 million development include a new grocery store, a Barnes & Noble college bookstore, a public safety building for the campus, as well as various food and retail businesses, including the Slutty Vegan, a restaurant chain that has garnered a following nationwide.

And last summer, the company broke ground on a redevelopment of Madison Park North, once home to an apartment complex that was nicknamed "Murder Mall" because of the drug deals, shootings and other crimes that occurred there. The 9-acre site, near where Bramble grew up, will have approximately 150 townhomes, with sales starting this spring. The second phase of the $150 million project, which will include construction of a 300-unit mixed-income apartment building and a grocery store, will begin in mid- to late 2024.

"That deal almost took me 10 years," Bramble said. "It is so meaningful. It is my neighborhood. It's where I live. I feel really, really, really blessed that we are able to do that."

MCB has also developed properties in Hagerstown, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Florida.

Bramble stressed that MCB's projects are a result of "real collaboration" and the hard work of his team.

"These deals take so many ducks to get in a row to execute," he said. "I hate when things become just about me. That's not the reality."

Bramble so far has managed to generate a lot of goodwill in the community without ruffling too many feathers. It may help that he's a hometown guy who is invested in the community and its politics.

Mayor Brandon Scott noted that Bramble is a "fellow native son" who is doing work that is meaningful to city residents.

"The fact that he is a Black man who is committed to giving back to the city he loves is beyond admirable," Scott said. "David walks the walk not just by investing in communities here, but by remaining a Baltimore resident when it could be so easy for him to pick up and live elsewhere. That speaks volumes about his firm belief that Baltimore is experiencing a renaissance and it's a renaissance he wants others who look like him to enjoy through the emergence of thriving small businesses to the opportunities for residents and tourists to enjoy the green spaces and cultural venues there."

Shelonda Stokes, the president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, described Bramble as "a visionary."

"He's an incredibly smart, intentional and compassionate son of Baltimore," Stokes said. "He knows how to attract investors, build a team, and reshape spaces and places with the community top of mind. The opportunity to breathe new life into Harborplace is the chance to step back and rebuild a public space that is inclusive of all of Baltimore."

Nick Mosby, the Baltimore City Council president, said he's been heartened to see Bramble as a Black man thrive in real estate development.

"Dave Bramble is changing the game. He is putting his mark on transforming the city he loves," Mosby said. "He is a symbolic representation of what young African American boys in our city can become."

Mosby singled out Bramble's efforts to provide affordable mixed-income housing. "He's a person from the community," Mosby said.

Jackie Washington, a Black developer in Baltimore, said it's "wonderful" that Bramble will be overseeing Harborplace's transformation.

"I think that David will bring a new vitality and spur the redevelopment of the surrounding Central Business District also," she said.

Bramble said representation is extremely important when it comes to development, from the awarding of projects to diverse companies to ensuring that buyers have access to capital.

"When you are doing work in certain communities, people are more likely to trust you when they feel like you have an affinity to them. Particularly for the work we do in Baltimore. We are from here and we are really invested in this town," he said.

Like many developers, Bramble has provided financial support to political candidates.

According to the state's campaign reporting database, Bramble has contributed to the campaigns of outgoing Gov. Larry Hogan, former Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., City Comptroller Bill Henry, and City Council members Mosby, John T. Bullock and Zeke Cohen. Others who’ve gotten his support include state Sens. Jill Carter and Cory McCray, as well as state Dels. Mellissa Wells and Marlon D. Amprey.

On a brisk winter morning, Bramble was running behind schedule for a photo opportunity at Harborplace. He explained that his wife, Jernee, was out of town and that one of his three children left a backpack at home, forcing Bramble to drive back and retrieve it.

"I’m up very early. I have three kids and we just got a puppy. Everybody knows that I am an early riser. People who work with me know that you can start getting emails from me at 4:30 or 5 in the morning. I have a pretty busy schedule," he said as he stood atop a stairwell of abandoned retail space in Harborplace.

That schedule has only gotten more complex with the Harborplace project.

"I need coffee to make it through the day for sure," he said. "There is a lot of hustle and bustle."

Developer David Bramble savors the view of the Inner Harbor from Harborplace. "You can't replace this," he says. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

Bramble said he knows that all eyes will be on his latest venture.

After Scott in April announced the proposed sale of the property to Bramble's group, another nine months would pass before a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge finalized an order to sell it in December, ending a receivership process. A judge had placed the property in receivership in 2019 after Ashkenazy Acquisitions defaulted on a mortgage loan.

Baltimore isn't the only city remaking its waterfront. In Washington, developers and the city spent $2.5 billion to transform the Southwest Washington waterfront near the 14th Street Bridge into a dynamic, dense mile of development that includes offices, residences, hotels, restaurants and shops. While its modern structures limit views of the Washington Channel from the street, residents and tourists have been flocking to the complex.

Derek Hyra, who directs the Metropolitan Policy Center at American University's School of Public Affairs, hopes that the redevelopment project in Baltimore is able to not only be an economic success, but offer equity stakes to small and minority-owned businesses, while also ensuring that affordable housing in surrounding neighborhoods remains.

"To make that happen, it will take more than the vision of a real estate developer," he said. "It will take policy from the city and state," he said.

Achieving all three goals, he acknowledged, is "a tough thing to do."

Matthew Bell, a professor of architecture and urban planning at The University of Maryland, College Park, said that redeveloping the once "groundbreaking" and "visionary" Harborplace is a fantastic opportunity for a developer.

"The timing is right," he said, with the pandemic waning and other changes. "It was a brilliant piece of planning and did tremendous good for Baltimore. But I hope that it will reflect Baltimore more than the first iteration did."

While the late developer James Rouse was widely praised for creating festival marketplaces in Boston and Baltimore four decades ago, Bell said one knock against Harborplace and the Inner Harbor was that they were geared toward tourists and didn't reflect the city as a whole.

"In great cities, the places the tourists like to go are the places the residents like to go," he explained, citing The Wharf in Washington.

Bell observed that the architecture of Harborplace now "looks very dated," and an important question is whether it's worth saving. He also said the redevelopment plans should include ways to address patterns of movements, the traffic impact and the city's views of the water. Flooding caused by climate change will play a major role in waterfront properties going forward, so that's a consideration.

"It's not a question of, it might happen. It will happen," he said.

Bramble said it is too early to discuss cost estimates, a timeline and design features. Many of those aspects will be decided based on community input and research. Bramble did stress that the project needs to prioritize the people of Baltimore.

He said MCB will immediately start the design process, which will take years. This will include engaging the community through online and in-person listening projects.

"If things are on track, in March [residents] will be able to give their ideas and talk about what they want to see," he said. "We’re going to move very quickly."

In the meantime, Bramble wants to make the best use of the existing Pratt Street and Light Street pavilions, filling empty retail spaces with small local vendors. One of the biggest obstacles is that some of the buildings have been left in "pretty significant disrepair for some time," he said.

"We want to make sure they are usable and accessible to get started," he said. "We don't want to spend a ton of money on anything interim. But we will make them usable and attractive and get people excited that things are coming to downtown Baltimore."

Bramble said he will also work with the Downtown Partnership's Boost Program, which provides Black businesses with grants for build-out operations, interior improvements, and signage. And Bramble's lending company will try to assist qualified businesses, with the goal of providing a permanent space for some at the redeveloped site.

"This has to work for so many different people for it to come together. It's my job as the developer to balance what people want to see, what they can use, and what I can finance," he said. "We want to balance all those things and come up with a great project."

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