Don't give city's jewel a tacky setting Inner Harbor: Natural beauty, maritime links must be protected as city welcomes Hollywood glitz.

July 16, 1998

FIRST CAME the Walt Disney Co. -- owner of amusement parks, movie studios and ABC television -- which opened its ESPN Zone restaurant and virtual-sports extravaganza at the Power Plant. Now another Tinseltown conglomerate, Paramount, wants to squeeze a restaurant modeled after a Louisiana shrimp boat from the movie "Forrest Gump" into the channel next to the National Aquarium.

Eighteen years after Harborplace heralded the rebirth of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Hollywood dream merchants are discovering this trendy restaurant and retail area that replaced rotting piers and crumbling warehouses. City Hall is welcoming these multimillion-dollar investments with open arms, bending rules and improvising policies as new ideas are presented. The Schmoke administration's belief seems to be that, at the Inner Harbor, more is better.

But is it? Or is it more important to achieve a balance between popular commercial ventures and the natural beauty of the harbor? Bubba Gump is a case in point.

'Dangerous precedent'

The National Aquarium fiercely opposes the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant, contending its size and location would obstruct water views and interfere with a pedestrian bridge the institution has long planned to build. The conflict goes deeper than that. As the Power Plant's entertainment tenants move toward eclipsing the aquarium as the harbor's No. 1 paying tourist attraction, those at the nonprofit marine exhibit feel protective of their turf.

"We just think this is a dangerous precedent," aquarium Director David Pittenger said of the Bubba Gump eatery. He was particularly perturbed by the way the city endorsed the restaurant's location, invalidating bridge plans it had previously approved. (The aquarium's board chairman, Ralph H. Gibson, is the husband of Mary E. Junck, president of the eastern newspapers at Times Mirror Co., owner of The Sun.)

Harbor attractions depend on the goodwill of the city, which owns most of the ground beneath them. The aquarium, which attracted 1.6 million visitors last year, is no exception.

Not only does it need city approval for the pedestrian bridge, it must have City Hall's blessing for contemplated expansion of its main building. With powerful Hollywood conglomerates butting in, the aquarium's future -- as well as its influence -- is threatened.

Retaining local flavor

Aquarium officials are right to be concerned. Its signature buildings, topped with glass pyramids, are among the most distinctive -- and architecturally successful -- on the waterfront. They should be protected against encroachment by inappropriate structures, such as the fake, oversized shrimp boat that is proposed to house Bubba Gump's eatery.

The city and developers refer to the proposed structure as a "barge," but that is a misnomer.

Like the Hard Rock Cafe platform in the channel, it would not float. Instead, it would be permanent, supported by pilings.

When Harborplace opened in 1980, its shops and restaurants had a Baltimore feel to them. Ostrowski's kielbasa was sold there, along with Tulkoff's horseradish and locally grown produce and flowers.

Over the years, Harborplace has steadily lost its local flavor. Its pavilions are now dominated by national retail and restaurant chains, including Planet Hollywood and the Cheesecake Factory. the Power Plant, the year-old Hard Rock Cafe is raking in record receipts. As this Hollywoodization continues, the Inner Harbor becomes indistinguishable from mass tourist destinations in other cities. Many visitors, though, find comfort in these familiar brands, as long lines at the door attest.

Bringing late-night crowds

The Power Plant's ESPN Zone, Disney's prototype for a nationwide chain, has diversified Inner Harbor entertainment options, introducing a family-oriented attraction that stays open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. This is good. ESPN Zone's hours have already had an impact. The aquarium, in hot competition for the entertainment dollar, now lets visitors enjoy sharks and its tropical rain forest until 10 p.m. every night through August.

The Power Plant sits midway between Harborplace and Port Discovery, the children's museum scheduled to open in December. Its attractions continue the eastward redevelopment of the harbor. It also creates after-hour pedestrian volume that should make visitors feel comfortable at night as crowds venture further away from Harborplace attractions.

Crowd-pleasing draws at the Power Plant -- which will be supplemented before Labor Day with a big Barnes & Nobles book and music store -- are important for Baltimore. Convention promoters have long complained about the limited after-business-hours entertainment choices here.

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