Smoothing harbor waters

Agreement: With differences resolved, a floating restaurant, a Power Plant annex and an aquarium expansion are planned.

May 13, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

There was a threat of war on Pier Four last summer, with the smiling shrimp sign of the Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurant inspiring fear and loathing among the buttoned-down directors of the National Aquarium next door in the Inner Harbor.

Now there is peace, and Bubba is in retreat.

The directors of the aquarium and the company that developed the adjacent Power Plant retail complex said yesterday that they have reached an agreement on expansion plans that offered contrasting visions of Baltimore's waterfront.

Cordish Co., which attracted the Hard Rock Cafe to the vacant waterfront power building, planned to lure Bubba Gump Co. and a retail chain as part of a 180-foot-tall Power Plant Annex retail complex.

The aquarium wanted to re-create Chesapeake Bay wetlands on the same pier, with a river otter exhibit and shady gardens.

The agreement allows a floating seafood restaurant, which might not involve Bubba Gump, on the other side of the Power Plant from the aquarium.

"It sounds like peace has broken out in the Inner Harbor," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

The accord permits Cordish Co. to start building its planned office and retail complex this winter. It would be more than twice as high as the aquarium. The city also might transform a walkway leading to the Power Plant into a bridge for cars.

The aquarium plans to build an exhibit hall in 2002, construct a walkway where Bubba Gump had been proposed and perhaps create a river otter exhibit and seal pool shaded by marsh grass and trees.

Still to be determined is whether the brick-and-glass Power Plant annex would look jarring next to wetlands and whether a bridge for cars would detract from the pedestrian orientation of the Inner Harbor.

No harm expected

David M. Pittenger, executive director of the aquarium, said Cordish's plans to expand the Power Plant by about 50 percent would not hurt the aquarium or detract from its planned outdoor mammal exhibits.

"What we've agreed to do is cooperate for the good of both our projects and the good of the city," Pittenger said. "We are both expanding, but we needed to reach an accommodation."

David Cordish, president of Cordish Co., said the aquarium would benefit from the growing number of visitors to the Power Plant and that the retail complex would profit from an improved aquarium. "In the entertainment and education game that we're in, more is more," said Cordish.

He said the Power Plant and the aquarium do not compete for customers because they offer different but complementary products. "If we were selling shoes, then adding more stores would hurt each store," Cordish said. "But in this case, the pie just keeps getting bigger for all of us."

The aquarium's success has helped reinvigorate the Inner Harbor over the past two decades. The Power Plant's redevelopment over the past five years, after the failure of a theme park in the former utility building, has made it a major generator of business along the waterfront.

Not only does the Power Plant's neon guitar sign literally rise over the aquarium, but the retail complex's attendance is about double its neighbor's.

Perhaps 3 million people visited the Power Plant's ESPN Zone, Barnes and Noble bookstore and Hard Rock Cafe last year, Cordish estimated. About 1.7 million paid to enter the National Aquarium in Baltimore, aquarium officials said.

Walter Sondheim, former chairman of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Co., which helped redevelop the Inner Harbor during the 1970s and 1980s, said cooperation between the harbor's two most prominent institutions is important for the future of the city.

"A lot of people have shared the feeling that it would be good if the two groups got together and settled their differences," Sondheim said.

Schaefer concerned

State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who as mayor during the 1970s and 1980s helped boost the harbor, praised Cordish as a "very aggressive, very strong" businessman. But Schaefer said Cordish's expansion threatens to "overwhelm the aquarium."

Cordish Co. won an extension of its lease of city-owned Pier Four south of Pratt Street on April 21. The lease allowed the expansion of the Power Plant building to replace the Chart House restaurant.

The Chart House will remain in the new five- or six-story annex, which should be open by spring 2001, Cordish said. The annex will house a national retail chain and will have office space for a local company.

Cordish Co. recently signed an agreement with the city to manage the city's concert pavilion on Pier Six. Cordish said he plans to more than double the number of concerts.

Under the agreement between Cordish Co. and the aquarium:

The city is studying whether to transform a pedestrian walkway into a bridge for vehicles between the Power Plant and the pier where the now-closed Columbus Center is situated.

The aquarium plans to remove a wooden walkway between the aquarium and the Power Plant, and spend about $750,000 replacing it with a 10-foot-wide walkway between the Power Plant and the aquarium's Marine Mammal Pavilion.

The aquarium plans to build a hall for rotating exhibits north of the ticket booth in 2002 or 2003, and might build fountains and gardens and move its seal pool closer to Pratt Street.

A seafood restaurant would be built atop a floating platform east of the Power Plant, near the Pratt Street location of the former Connolly's restaurant.

The restaurant might be the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Cordish said yesterday, sounding more tentative than last year about that chain's chances of coming to Baltimore.

The restaurant needs a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, said Doug Garman, spokesman for the federal agency.

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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