A slight shift, a big controversy Restaurant: Initial plans for barges in the Inner Harbor would have placed them in slightly different areas. But the National Aquarium requested a change.

Urban Landscape

July 16, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

THE CONTROVERSY over the Bubba Gump Shrimp Restaurant, which has pitted leaders of the National Aquarium in Baltimore against developers of the Pier 4 Power Plant, might never have flared up had Baltimore's downtown development agency stuck with its initial plans for locating new barges or piers in the Inner Harbor.

When they sought proposals from developers interested in recycling the Pier 4 Power Plant three years ago, officials with the Baltimore Development Corp. indicated they also would entertain proposals for development in the narrow waterways on either side of the Power Plant -- the inlets between Piers 3 and 4 and Piers 4 and 5.

But the areas where city planners first indicated they would be willing to permit barges or piers are not precisely the same as the three areas where the Power Plant developers subsequently received city approval to build fixed platforms.

Within the past year, one platform location changed, and that turned out to be the location of the 8,000-square-foot building now targeted for occupancy by the Bubba Gump restaurant. The change was approved at a public meeting of Baltimore's Board of Estimates on Dec. 12.

That change, in retrospect, largely seems to be what prompted National Aquarium in Baltimore executive director David Pittenger to voice strong opposition to plans for the Bubba Gump restaurant this week.

Developers of the Power Plant and the waterways, meanwhile, say they would have been happy to stick with the original plan. They say they agreed to change the platform locations in response to a request from the aquarium.

The original platform location was "very leasable," developer David Cordish of the Cordish Co. said this week. "The irony is, we were just trying to do what the aquarium wanted and we stepped into a hornet's nest."

The saga began when the Baltimore Development Corp. selected Cordish Co. in 1995 to redevelop the city-owned Power Plant as a multi-level entertainment complex.

In its proposal, Cordish expressed a desire to construct barges or platforms in the inlets on either side of the three-building Power Plant complex and fill them with restaurants or other businesses that would help animate the waterfront -- in the same way a sidewalk cafe adds life to the street.

After lengthy negotiations, city and Cordish officials agreed on three waterway sites where barges or platforms would be permitted. One was in the inlet west of the northernmost Power Plant building, where ESPN Zone is. One was west of the southernmost Power Plant building, where Hard Rock Cafe is. The third was in the inlet east of the northernmost Power Plant building. In early 1997, the Cordish Co. filed documents with state regulators seeking approval to moor barges in those locations.

After those plans were set, Cordish officials say, they received a request that required them to relinquish their rights to build on the east side of the Power Plant. The National Aquarium wanted to have the Coast Guard Cutter Taney shifted from its berth on the east side of Pier 4, to improve harbor sight lines.

The proposal was to move the Taney farther north in the inlet, to the area where the easternmost barge was to be located. Cordish officials say they agreed to do so, as long as another acceptable location could be identified for the third barge-platform. Without seeking competitive bids, the city offered a third site in the inlet between Piers 3 and 4, just west of the Chart House restaurant. Baltimore's Board of Estimates approved the change.

After that, Cordish firmed up its tenants for the platforms. Hard Rock Cafe was to occupy the one west of its operation. ESPN Zone was to occupy a platform west of its location. And Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. emerged as the tenant for the location in front of the Chart House.

Plans for the Bubba Gump operation were presented to Baltimore's Architectural Review Board on July 9 and drew opposition from Pittenger.

Cordish said he always thought the platform location east of the Power Plant was a good one, because it was accessible from Pratt Street and visible from Market Place. But at this point, he said, Bubba Gump has expressed interest in the location west of the Chart House, and the city has committed space for a `D platform to be constructed there.

He and Bubba Gump president Scott Barnett said the restaurant is not interested in switching to a different location.

The changes have led to a wrinkle in the licensing process, however. According to Quentin Banks, spokesman for Maryland's Department of the Environment, the developers cannot begin construction of the Bubba Gump restaurant until they receive:

* A license modification from Maryland's Board of Public Works to convert a floating platform (which has been permitted) to a fixed platform on pilings sunk in the harbor.

* A license from the Board of Board Works to build a "non-water-dependent structure on a pier" to house the restaurant.

Mark Pollak, an attorney hired by the aquarium, said his clients are "prepared to take whatever steps are necessary" to block construction of the restaurant. He declined to say exactly what the aquarium plans to do.

Pub Date: 7/16/98

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