Tide flows against shrimp barge More join aquarium in opposing restaurant

July 15, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

Opposition is growing to the city's decision to permit a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant in a public waterway near the National Aquarium, with some of Baltimore's most influential business and civic leaders decrying it as a monumental mistake in the making.

Some liken it to paving the canals of Venice or building a taco stand in the middle of the Gettysburg battlefield.

On Monday, aquarium director David Pittenger warned that the city's decision to allow construction of an 8,000-square-foot shrimp restaurant in the water between Piers 3 and 4 sets a "dangerous precedent" for Inner Harbor development.

Yesterday, more joined the cause.

"I think it's a disaster," said Werner Kunz, managing director of the Harbor Court Hotel. "There should be nothing on a waterway that narrow.

"You wouldn't build in the canals in Venice, would you? There's got to be another place for this Bubba Gump."

Executives for the Cordish Co., the developer that plans to build a barge for the first East Coast branch of the Bubba Gump restaurant chain, say they are mystified and disappointed by opposition to the project now because plans have been in the works for months and they have the approvals they need to begin construction.

"Nothing was done under the table. Nothing's up our sleeves. It's been a public process -- public advertisements, the whole bit," said developer David Cordish.

"It was not quiet or surreptitious. All the leases have been signed by the city.

"What have we done wrong?" he asked. "What's illegal about what we've done? We've set out everything at a public hearing and it's permitted. They have a legally binding contract to build a barge where they're going to build it."

Scott Barnett, president of the 2-year-old Bubba Gump restaurant chain, said he has never faced opposition to a project before and remains hopeful that the restaurant can be constructed in a way that will satisfy everyone.

Barnett said his organization promotes conservation of the world's oceans on its menus and donates a percentage of proceeds from each meal to help save sea turtles.

The last thing he wants, he said, is to be on the wrong side of the National Aquarium.

"We're environmentally aware. Our hearts are in the right place," he said. "It's disconcerting to be in this position."

The barge dispute surfaced this week when Pittenger announced that the aquarium is opposed to plans for the shrimp restaurant because it would block harbor views and take up space where the aquarium wants to build a footbridge.

The dispute comes as interest in Inner Harbor development appears to be at fever pitch, with the openings of attractions such as Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood and the ESPN Zone encouraging others to open businesses in Baltimore.

The city's master plan for Inner Harbor development never envisioned nor permitted the sort of restaurant-barges that Cordish is building, in part because so much land was available for development, said city planning director Charles Graves.

But as additional waterfront property is taken for development, this issue is likely to arise more often, Graves said.

"We're going to be seeing more of these things, and we need to look closely at further development of the waterways," he said. "Otherwise, it's going to get rather crowded."

Yesterday, representatives for a half-dozen restaurants, hotels and other attractions around the Inner Harbor said they agree with Pittenger that building in the inlets may not be the best way to accommodate future growth along the waterfront.

"I'm not opposed to [Bubba Gump] coming in," said David Jenkins, regional manager for McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant on Pier 5. "I welcome the competition.

"I oppose the disturbance of the water and the beauty of what the Inner Harbor is all about. Putting any restaurant in the water -- even our own restaurant -- is not the right thing to do."

And then there is the city's plan to steer development eastward.

"Everything east of Pier 4 is struggling, starting with the Columbus Center, and yet the city's trying to plug up the area in front" of Pier 4 with a barge, observed Kunz, the hotel manager.

"It makes me worried about the planning process for the Inner Harbor," Kunz said. "The Inner Harbor is becoming like a used car lot.

"We're running, not walking. We're going too fast with concepts for expanding the Inner Harbor. I strongly feel that these narrow waterways should be left as canals, not plugged up."

One Inner Harbor restaurateur who is not troubled by plans for Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. is Todd Jarvis, general manager for the Chart House on Pier 4.

"I was here when the Power Plant was nothing," Jarvis said. "My customers used to have to walk down a dark pier to get here. Personally, I'm excited to see somebody get down here and do something that will work. I've got confidence that Cordish will work with us."

Joseph Weinberg, a vice president of Cordish Co., said his organization has worked hard to bring the best possible tenants to the $30 million entertainment complex it is creating in and around the Power Plant, and that Bubba Gump is no exception.

Weinberg noted that the Cordish company expects this effort will help draw 3 million visitors to the Power Plant this year -- nearly double the 1.7 million annual visitors who come to the aquarium.

Frank A. Gunther Jr., the first chairman of the aquarium board and now chairman of the aquarium's foundation, said he fears that the city is going too far in relaxing the development controls that have protected the Inner Harbor.

"I think it's inappropriate and out of place for what the Inner Harbor has become," he said.

"It's not in the best interests of the aquarium or the people who have worked so long and so hard to make the aquarium a special place."

Pub Date: 7/15/98

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