Beware the 'Bohdome'

The giant tent about to rise over Bohager's new mega-bar raises a serious issue: Shouldn't the city better protect its waterfront?

November 21, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

"We Never Refuse Refuse" was the snappy slogan printed on a fleet of garbage trucks that served generations of Baltimoreans.

Now the scion of a competing trash hauling family, the Bohagers, is giving that motto a new twist by erecting a 62-foot-tall inflatable dome that will trash Baltimore's waterfront east of the Inner Harbor.

In the process, he's underscoring the need for stronger laws to protect areas where residents refuse to tolerate architectural refuse.

The "BohDome" is the name of the soaring, bubble-shaped tent that Baltimore businessman Damian Bohager plans to erect by Dec. 1 over Bohager's at Parrott Island, a tropics-themed mega-bar at Eden and Aliceanna streets.

Under a previous owner, Parrott Island operated only during warm months because much of it, including a thatch-roofed "tiki hut," was open to the elements. When he acquired the property last spring to replace an older facility a block away, Bohager explored ways to turn it into a year-round operation.

After considering several options, he hit upon the idea of erecting a giant dome over the property in the winter -- an inflatable white cover that could keep out rain and snow -- then taking it down in the spring. And despite vocal opposition from residents of nearby Fells Point, he's won permission to do it.

First dome for a bar

To construct the tent, Bohager engaged a Minnesota firm, Yeadon Fabric Domes Inc., which specializes in "air structures." Bohager says it's the Cadillac of its field.

According to the manufacturer, these sorts of domes have been used over tennis courts, swim clubs and other recreational venues. This is the first time one has been contemplated for construction over a bar with live entertainment.

The latest plans call for Bohager's $650,000 polyester tent -- supported by a skeletal structure of cables -- to rise high enough to clear the structures now on the Parrott Island site. The first 15 feet will be dark green; above that will be white.

Construction is expected to take a matter of days. When warm weather arrives, it will be deflated and stored for use the following winter.

The erection of the BohDome does not sit well with many residents of nearby Fells Point, a historic district with strict design standards and controls for buildings.

Many homeowners, already concerned about the noise from the club's concerts, say they don't like the idea of a giant "marshmallow" looming over their homes -- not to mention blocking views of downtown and the harbor for five months of the year. They'd rather see the bar stay topless.

They're right to be concerned. Baltimore hasn't had terrific luck with tents or canopies in recent years. The exhibition hall beneath the canopy at Columbus Center closed for lack of visitors. The Pier 6 Concert Tent gets discolored. The fabric shelter over the skating rink in Patterson Park is prone to collapsing.

Now comes the BohDome, potentially the biggest eyesore of all. Covering half an acre, it will be out of scale with its surroundings, and out of keeping with the character of the nearby historic district. It's more appropriate for a carnival midway than Baltimore's refurbished waterfront.

Bohager says he wanted to erect the dome in part so he can preserve the "tiki hut," a structure he says was built by Native Americans using thatch that only they can obtain.

He admits that the dome may look "tacky," but says he believes it will be good for the city, because it will enable Bohager's to stay open year-round and draw more people.

"Being able to walk into this tropical paradise in the winter -- it's unique for the city," he says.

Neighbors, though, have raised numerous questions about the dome, some of which won't be answered until it's up. Will it muffle the sound from concerts inside, or amplify it? Is the material fire- retardant? Is it subject to the same crowd controls as a concert hall or auditorium? What signs or advertising will be on the outside?

Despite the project's unprecedented nature and the neighbors' opposition, Baltimore's Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals ruled this month that Bohager may proceed with construction.

The board says it lacks the authority to block the structure on aesthetic grounds, and could turn it down only if it were deemed a menace to the public health, safety, general welfare or morals of the community. The dome, the board majority decided, was no more menacing than the existing operation.

The board may have made a very different decision if rules for the area were tougher.

Parrott Island was built on a former lumber yard that lies between Fells Point and the Inner Harbor East renewal area -- two waterfront districts subject to strict design review. But the former lumber yard is technically still in an industrial zone, where few design controls are in place.

So despite neighbors' opposition -- and the fact that the Boh- Dome will be visible from many vantage points around the harbor -- the zoning board had no legal grounds to block it.

A lesson in loopholes

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