Roiling Inner Harbor waters Development: The National Aquarium opposes plans for a shrimp restaurant along the waterfront.

July 14, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

Baltimore has long sought to attract developers to its waterfront, but should the city be giving up the water itself?

That's the central question raised by one of the best-known local protectors of the waterways and one of the original symbols of the Inner Harbor renaissance: the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Aquarium leaders say they strongly oppose plans by the city and a local developer to allow a theme restaurant chain -- the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. -- to build an 8,000-square-foot barge in the narrow inlet between Piers 3 and 4, where the aquarium's landmark buildings stand.

The aquarium leaders say construction of such a restaurant as an adjunct to the Pier 4 Power Plant would set a "dangerous precedent" for the Inner Harbor and violate an agreement they have with the city.

They are so alarmed by plans for the shrimp restaurant -- and the city's support of it -- that they have hired attorney Mark Pollak of Piper & Marbury to advise them on possible legal grounds for a challenge to its construction.

"This dispute is not with tenants of the Power Plant," said aquarium executive director David Pittenger. "This is about plunking a restaurant smack dab in the middle of the waterway. . . . If they can build this restaurant, what's to stop others from doing it?"

Joseph Weinberg, a vice president of the Cordish Co. -- the developer of the $30 million Power Plant complex -- said in a public meeting last week that his firm is willing to work with the aquarium and city officials in an effort to reach a solution that would be satisfactory to all. But he said the city's Board of Estimates gave Cordish the legal right to build the three barges and it intends to do so.

"We have a tenant in Bubba Gump," Weinberg said last week. "We are very excited to have Bubba Gump as part of the Power Plant." Cordish officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.

City planners say plans for barges and piers in other parts of Baltimore's harbor typically would be regulated by the Army Corps of Engineers, but these barges did not fall under the corps' purview because the inlets are not considered "navigable waters."

They say the city is legally committed to honor its lease with the Power Plant developers.

No interest in moving

Scott Barnett, president of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., said the company wants to be a good neighbor to other Inner Harbor attractions, including the aquarium. But he said he would not be interested in moving the restaurant, the chain's first on the East Coast, to a different location.

"We have a strong reputation for being good corporate citizens and being good members of the community," he said. "We want to be part of the Power Plant because there's a lot of energy, a lot of excitement there. We want to be part of that."

The issue is politically sensitive because while the aquarium is run by a private board, its buildings are owned by the city. The aquarium has long been an "economic engine" of the Inner Harbor, with 1.7 million visitors a year, but the Power Plant has been grabbing the limelight recently with commercial tenants such as the Hard Rock Cafe and ESPN Zone.

The barge-bridge dispute is also a sign of an aesthetic clash of sorts between the older denizens of the Inner Harbor, such as the aquarium and the Maryland Science Center, and newcomers emerging during the "second wave" of the renaissance, including tenants of the Power Plant.

Flashier tenants

Characterized by unusual skyline markers such as a neon guitar and a smoking "sports kebab," the new commercial tenants are in many cases more flamboyant than their predecessors at Harborplace.

Some aquarium staffers and supporters also say they fear construction of a shrimp restaurant between the two aquarium buildings would be in poor taste and would reflect adversely on the older institution. Depending on exactly where the restaurant is built, they say, it would be practically impossible to photograph the aquarium without including the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant.

Hard Rock Cafe opened the first barge this summer outside its Power Plant restaurant, and ESPN Zone has the right to build one in front of the entertainment center it opened Sunday.

Bubba Gump, a California-based chain inspired by the hit Paramount movie "Forrest Gump," plans to occupy the largest of the barges.

According to plans presented last week to Baltimore's Architectural Review Board, the 185-seat restaurant would look like a working shrimp boat, docked in Baltimore's harbor.

As designed by Coleman Caskey Architects of Irvine, Calif., it would replicate the vessel depicted in the film when Gump goes into the shrimp business to fulfill the lifelong dream of a dead Army buddy, Bubba, but inside would be a full-service restaurant and kitchen.

Pittenger said the aquarium has been supportive of the Cordish Co.'s efforts to redevelop the Power Plant and has worked closely with its initial tenants.

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