Different tack found a berth for Bubba Gump Locating restaurant outside boat traffic was key to approval

Non-navigable waters

July 24, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Edward Gunts contributed to this article.

Fourteen years ago, George Tserkis wanted to build a boat restaurant on the Inner Harbor shores of Fells Point.

Tserkis quickly abandoned the plan after learning that he would need federal approval. And city planners operated at the time under a standard for the prized harbor: if a project could be built on land, keep it out of the water.

That was then. Bubba Gump is now.

A debate is spilling across the Inner Harbor over a city-sponsored plan to place a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant near the National Aquarium. The 8,000-square-foot structure would be near the Chart House Restaurant in the form of a Louisiana shrimp boat replica from the movie "Forrest Gump."

What's the difference between Tserkis' proposal and the Bubba plan? A statutory distinction called non-navigable waters.

Because Tserkis planned to build in waters plied by boats, he needed cumbersome approvals from the Army Corps of Engineers. Bubba is planned for a rectangle of water between Piers 3 and 4 no longer used for boat traffic. Therefore, the project requires permits no different than for any developer building in a state wetland.

David Cordish, the Bubba Gump developer, knew about the navigable waters distinction when he negotiated the rights to redevelop the Power Plant two years ago. Cordish Co. viewed building on the water as critical to resurrecting the Power Plant, an entertainment complex that two previous developers failed to resuscitate.

Because of the building's dark, foreboding presence, Cordish saw extending piers into the rectangular lagoon as a key way to attract pedestrians.

"I would not have done the Power Plant without these approvals," said Cordish, a Baltimore-based developer whose family has built entertainment complexes across the country. "You have to have something going on outside that will let people know what's going on inside."

Cordish planted the seeds for the Bubba Gump restaurant 18 months ago. The city -- which owned the site -- supported extending three harbor "pier/barges" off the Power Plant property. Under the agreement, Cordish will pay the city $1,000 annually for 10 years, after which the city will get 22 percent of the development's operating profit each year for 65 years.

The plans for two floating and one permanent harbor barge went before the city Architectural Review Board and later the Board of Estimates, which votes on city contracts. The permanent barge, a deck lounge off the Hard Rock Cafe, already exists with patrons eating and drinking over the water.

So why now the hue and cry over the Bubba Gump proposal?

Cordish's chief opponent, the National Aquarium, supported the three barge plan, viewing it simply as a Power Plant extension. But when Cordish unveiled the Bubba Gump restaurant barge design -- with its smiling shrimp masthead sign -- aquarium officials blanched.

"What's in front of the Hard Rock I consider an extension of the pier," said the aquarium's director, David Pittenger. Bubba Gump is "a commercial development in a waterway. I can't tell you when it changed from a barge to being a story-and-a-half restaurant."

Six months ago, Cordish negotiated the contract with Bubba Gump -- a chain of restaurants created in a joint venture between Paramount Pictures and the California-based Rusty Pelican Restaurants. Cordish says he left no doubt with city leaders that a restaurant barge would exist.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke agreed that Cordish indicated the barge would hold a dining area. But the mayor acknowledged that he was unaware a restaurant would be built atop the barge.

"None of us knew when we did the [agreement] for the Power Plant what specific things were going to go in there," Schmoke said. "We just knew we were giving the rights to the developer to bring to life this old vacant building. It was then up to him to go and get the type of facilities that would bring it to life."

Aquarium officials had their own reason to oppose the Bubba plan: It threatened a proposed pedestrian bridge that the tourist giant views as critical to future attendance.

The two sides initially talked amiably about shifting the Cordish barge a few feet north or south to accommodate the aquarium bridge. But under the current proposal, aquarium officials fear their walkway will be eliminated.

"We're questioning what permits they have, and we're prepared to challenge them" in court, Pittenger said. "There is some question about the city's ability to grant rights in the waterway."

The city doesn't have the power to grant harbor building rights. ++ The water -- navigable or not -- belongs to the state. Cordish has already obtained a wetlands license to place the three barges in the harbor. The approval was granted without objection last year by the state Board of Public Works, made up of the governor, comptroller and treasurer.

"It went through a public process," said Harold Cassell, the state's wetlands administrator. "What we're seeing now is a series of revisions that are changing people's perspectives."

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