Inner Harbor requires our vigilance Visitor hub: As building boom intensifies, public's watchdog role becomes more important.

July 19, 1998

THE FLAP over placing a Bubba Gump restaurant on a huge barge downtown is just a precursor of controversies to come. That's Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's view: "There is going to be new development in the Inner Harbor. These kinds of issues will come again, I think."

Knowing that, the mayor ought to make clear that while Baltimore welcomes new development and the tax revenue and jobs it brings, the city will not repeat San Francisco's mistakes at world-famous Fisherman's Wharf. Our downtown shoreline should not be allowed to deteriorate into a kitschy and overcommercialized tourist trap, its natural marine beauty all but obliterated.

The Bubba Gump chain's plan to build a restaurant on a fixed platform along the finger pier next to the National Aquarium underscores the need to protect the Inner Harbor's open water from intrusive congestion. That is one important issue.

Equally critical is the future of fallow or underutilized shoreline, from the Pier 6 Concert Pavilion on President Street to the old propeller yard near the Rusty Scupper restaurant on Key Highway. Unless subjected to careful review, ideas being considered could drastically affect water views and clutter the shoreline.

Here are a few examples:

The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association is trying to find a big-name national underwriter for a Welcome Center it hopes to build between Harborplace's Light Street pavilion and the Maryland Science Center. Depending on the demands of that corporation, the center could evolve into a major building.

The city has offered the Cordish Co. rights to build a seven-level garage at the eastern wall of Columbus Center. Cordish, which is discussing the offer, could also build three one-story retail stores on vacant land between Columbus Center and Harbor Inn Pier 5.

John Paterakis, chief backer of the controversial Wyndham hotel, is negotiating to buy and expand the troubled 71-room Harbor Inn, which contains three restaurants. He is also mulling over a takeover of the city-owned Pier 6 Concert Pavilion, which is having a disappointing season. As part of the deal, a new street would be built from Pratt Street to the inn and pavilion.

The future of the Joseph H. Rash Field along Key Highway below Federal Hill is up in the air. The multimillion-dollar outdoor sports and athletic complex, completed in 1975, may have outlived its usefulness. Various redevelopment plans have ranged from an underground garage to a park with a crab motif.

Harborview Properties Development Corp. is floating a proposal to build a five-star hotel on underutilized or vacant land along Key Highway south of the Rusty Scupper restaurant.

These examples show that the city is confronted with difficult development challenges. It is critical that officials follow clear processes and that the city adhere to uncompromising standards. If not, the potential for bad decisions is great.

Early steps must be taken to avoid such a disaster. This is particularly important in the heady atmosphere of today's boom economy, when past Inner Harbor business busts are easy to forget.

Over the years, City Hall has tried different approaches in managing the Inner Harbor. Initially, the idea was to build a public space. It may be a cash register now, but this was not the original intent.

When William Donald Schaefer was mayor, a separate, quasi-governmental agency dealt with the area's development issues. It conducted its business in secret and made its share of mistakes.

Early in his 11-year-old administration, Mr. Schmoke took steps to open up the Inner Harbor review and decision-making process. More recently, though, secretiveness has returned.

Much of the planning is being done by the quasi-governmental Baltimore Development Corp. or a task force headed by George Balog, the powerful public works director. Deals are usually signed and sealed before they become common knowledge -- as in the Bubba Gump case.

This is a dangerous way to conduct the public's business. City government should be as open and accommodating to the views of Baltimore citizens as it is to the proposals of developers. Taxpayers made the Inner Harbor possible; they deserve a chance to be involved early in development decisions.

Recent events suggest that more than ever, the Inner Harbor needs public watchdogs and civic guardians.

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