June 17, 2021

Wills Wharf lands on the water at Baltimore’s Harbor Point

By Jacques Kelly of the Baltimore Sun

The pages of a 1907 Baltimore map book describe a neck of land alongside the harbor today called Harbor Point. It was then, 114 years ago, the location of Jenkins’s and Kerr’s wharves. Nearby were the Lacy Iron Foundry, the Baltimore Chrome Works and Baltimore Pulverizing Co.

Brady’s coal yard also was close by as was something called Patapsco Storage. Lumber yards filled many streets.

Over the past two years, a $117 million mixed-use office and hotel building project has arrived. It’s called Wills Wharf. Any comparison to its once-gritty industrial antecedents is lost. Don’t look for any creosote-soaked wharf pilings and sheds.

A Central Avenue bridge leads into Harbor Point, the 27-acre neighborhood that seems to grow on an annual basis, office building by office building. Wills Wharf has taken its place among the Exelon headquarters and a Central Avenue neighborhood hub, the Whole Foods market in the Liberty Harbor East tower.

Harbor Point sits between Fells Point and Harbor East but bears little resemblance to the diminutive streets of nearby Little Italy or the labyrinth of tiny thoroughfares off South Broadway.

Harbor Point has a corporate ambience of polished steel and aluminum towers. The sidewalks have no out-of-place bricks, and there is an overriding sense of precision. It’s spotlessly clean and shows all the engineering work that went into creating a whole new neighborhood literally at the harbor’s edge, the very edge.

For sheer magnificence of old Baltimore harbor views, this is the place to have an office or apartment.

Wills Wharf brings a hotel too, the Canopy by Hilton. Cindy Lou’s Fish House fills a space on the brick promenade that wraps around the contours of the harbor. The restaurant appears well-tailored, trim and bearing all the grace notes of contemporary interior design standards. Do not envision a quaint Kent Island crab house.

Other tenants in Wills Wharf include Jellyfish, a digital marketing agency, Transamerica, Ernst & Young and a child care provider, Bright Horizons.

Next door is a public space called Wills Park, which faces the harbor. You don’t expect the quiet green oasis here between two office buildings. Its landscape designers have trained Virginia creeper and native plants along the perimeters.

It’s a spot to take a breather and sends a message that whoever designed this did not want to fill up every inch with steel and windows.

The spot overlooks Locust Point and the Domino Sugar factory, which feel so close you might try (on a good day) swimming over. There’s a water taxi, should that impulse strike.

Harbor Point has attracted other corporate Baltimore tenants. T. Rowe Price has signed up for a new headquarters, due in 2024, on one of the unbuilt parcels.

The city of Baltimore granted the developer a $107 million subsidy to get the Harbor Point project moving in what had been an old brownfields. The whole project is now in its 11th year.

What is admirable about the new Will’s Wharf component of Harbor Point is the way it fits so hand-in-glove with the rest of this corporate campus.

One minute you are traveling along Harbor East’s Lancaster Street and then, via the Central Avenue Bridge, you have crossed into this spacious, unhurried, quiet district surrounded by the Patapsco.

There is no underpraising the majesty of Baltimore’s harbor and the distinctive way it wraps around thoroughfares such as Thames Street and Key Highway.

Harbor Point, thanks to a blessing of geography, places a visitor in a kind of downtown crow’s nest. Tide Point and the old sugar plant have never looked better. On a humid day you can smell the sweet scent of the sugar cane and the baking bread at the Paterakis bakery a few blocks away.

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