Barging in on the Inner Harbor

Just as the tall ships sail in, Baltimore gives up a little bit more of its waterfront.

Architecture : Review

June 25, 2000|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Just in time for the arrival of the tall ships in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, and the 20th anniversary of Harborplace, a construction crew has begun covering over a prime section of the very waterfront people come downtown to enjoy.

The work is taking place in the narrow inlet between Inner Harbor piers 3 and 4. The project is a large platform that will serve as an outdoor seating area for patrons of ESPN Zone, a sports-themed, Disney-owned entertainment emporium inside the Pier 4 Power Plant.

According to records on file with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, the developer has permission to construct a platform in the inlet measuring 45 feet deep and 75 feet long. That's a sizable portion of the water's surface that will never again see sunlight -- roughly the same amount of floor space as a medium-size restaurant at Harborplace or a large house.

It will look like a big bar of soap in a little bathtub.

The irony of the timing is that over the next two weeks, hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected to visit Baltimore's waterfront while it's the setting for tall ships from all over the world. Still others will come for five days of festivities that the Rouse Co. has planned to celebrate the Fourth of July and the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Harborplace shopping pavilions, on July 2, 1980.

Over the next two weeks, these visitors will be able to watch the harbor shrink, as a crane positions the beams and planks that make up ESPN Zone's platform.

Not the first

The ESPN Zone platform is the second to take shape on the western side of the Power Plant since the Cordish Co. began to redevelop the Pier 4 landmark several years ago. The first platform measures 35 by 60 feet and was built for the Hard Rock Cafe as an adjunct to its restaurant inside the Power Plant. It provides an outdoor bar along with seating for 140 people, complete with umbrellas bearing the Hard Rock logo.

During Kurt L. Schmoke's last term as mayor, the Cordish Co. received permission to build up to three platforms as a way to increase space for tenants and enliven the area at the base of the Power Plant. Another platform -- actually the foundation for a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant -- was proposed in 1998, drew widespread opposition, and never materialized. (The city gets no money in return for granting the right to build these platforms; it's strictly a matter between Cordish and its tenants.)

These platforms are the sort of urban constructions that can make even the best planned city look like a shantytown. They appear seemingly overnight, with minimal public notice or design review -- as if they were put up by gnomes. They're typically small enough that they manage to stay under the radar of public awareness until they're foisted, full blown, onto the public realm.

Another harbor-marring example is the oversize visitors center on Constellation Dock that blocks views of the Constellation. Last year, it was the Golden Arches that suddenly appeared next to the main entrance of Port Discovery. Then it was the great white Boh-Dome that swallowed Bohager's last winter. (Not to mention the flurry of satellite dishes and telecommunications antennae that seem to be cropping up on every tall building in town with a previously uncluttered roofscape.)

City officials originally described the waterfront platforms as barges, as if they would be able to float in and out. That's what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowed Cordish to build in 1997, under a Maryland General Permit. For ESPN Zone, Cordish is actually constructing a fixed platform, a structure that does not float at all but is supported by piles driven into the harbor. Hard Rock has the same arrangement. It may not be as romantic as a floating barge, but it's probably a safer way to support Inner Harbor revelers.

Because the Cordish Co. did not have the proper permit to build a fixed platform for ESPN Zone when contractors began work this spring, the Army Corps of Engineers halted construction June 12. As of June 20, the permits have been amended and work can resume, according to Army Corps spokesman Doug Garman.

Impediment to navigation?

In granting permits of this sort, the Army Corps is principally concerned about whether a construction project will impede navigation, as defined by the federal Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, Garman said. Because the water between piers 3 and 4 already has several structures that make it unnavigable, including two pedestrian bridges and Hard Rock's fixed platform, the agency determined that another fixed platform would not impede navigation and allowed the work to continue, he said.

The reasoning is logical, as far as it goes. The waterway already was blocked so what's the harm if it gets a little more cluttered? The problem is that no one seems to be looking out for the harbor itself.

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