Chains dilute local flavor of Harborplace

Complaints: Nationally known restaurants and stores have made the Inner Harbor attraction look more like anyplace USA, some people say.

July 01, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

On a balmy June day, Allyson Marley and her family drove to the Inner Harbor from Charles Town, W.Va., hoping to find the city's pulse at the green-roofed pavilions of Harborplace.

Instead, they found California Pizza Kitchen, Hooters, Pizzeria Uno and The Cheesecake Factory. Marley, 42, also saw restaurants familiar from Washington, where she works at a law firm: Paolo's, J. Paul's, Capitol City Brewing Co.

"It's sad," she said, boarding a water taxi bound for the cobblestone streets of Fells Point, a place mostly untouched by chain stores. "It's becoming like anyplace else. Who wants to see Hooters? It's a generic harbor."

It has long been fashionable for city residents to say Harborplace is for tourists, a place to take out-of-town relatives. But it wasn't always that way. In the late 1970s, city officials promised that Harborplace would showcase Baltimore shops and restaurants.

Today, the 22-year-old Rouse Co. development has little local flavor, critics say. The steady rise of chains, most visible among the restaurants, is distressing, more than a dozen visitors said in interviews. For many, there isn't enough Baltimore in what might be the city's best-known attraction.

Rouse, which is based in Columbia, strongly disagrees. But city officials, and tenants past and present, say chain stores rule in a way they never did before, largely because of the steep rent and their ability to weather seasonal business swings. Some city officials shrug off the change as an "inevitable" byproduct of national retail trends.

"That is what has happened across the board in a lot of tourism destinations," said Patrice Duker of the International Council of Shopping Centers. "They first started out being locally owned, but with the cost of doing business, for some mom-and-pops it's really hard to compete with a national chain."

Even William Donald Schaefer, the can-do former mayor who used Harborplace to jumpstart the Inner Harbor, seems resigned to a new reality that includes Starbucks coffee.

"I think it's the right thing to do," he said of his desire to see more Maryland-based businesses such as Phillips Seafood Restaurant, itself now a chain. "But I don't think Rouse is going to change their operation or motif."

The company's electronic sensors counted 11 million visitors to the Harborplace pavilions during the past year. About half of sales come from "overnight leisure visitors," the company says. In ground rent and property taxes alone, the city receives just over $1 million a year from the two pavilions.

Harborplace general manager Craig S. White said he wants local entrepreneurs in the two-level pavilions, where rent can reach $4,000 a month for a shop not quite 20-by-20-feet - more than five times the national median, says the shopping center association.

Many of the more than 100 shops are locally owned, White said, although he hopes to add more Maryland-themed shops as he works to reduce a 13 percent vacancy rate.

"We still like the concept of good local businesses," White said, "but it's hard for local businesses to compete." And he believes in a "level playing field" for local and national companies, meaning no discounts on rent.

The rise of chains is not limited to Harborplace. Shoppers who venture down the brick promenade to the Cordish Co.'s busy Power Plant find Hard Rock Cafe and Barnes & Noble books. At Cordish's Power Plant Live, people can drink and dance at national clubs such as Have a Nice Day Cafe.

A national strip-club chain called Deja Vu intends to open the biggest such venue on The Block, a short walk from the waterfront. Add it up, and Charm City starts to resemble Chain City.

"This could be anyplace," said Len Shapiro, 53, a lawyer from Bare Hills in Baltimore County. "It could be Boston or San Francisco." (There have been news reports of similar complaints about Boston's Faneuil Hall, another Rouse project.)

Shapiro and Marie Cooke were at Harborplace with his 12-year-old son, Zack. They had just said goodbye to a relative from San Diego who wanted to see the harbor.

"It's nice for a change of scenery," Zack offered, as powerboats prowled the picturesque harbor and a breeze rustled the American flag atop Federal Hill.

"That's about it," said Cooke, also a lawyer and 53.

Mark Peterson of Ames, Iowa, was taken by the harbor. He stayed at the Hyatt Regency Inner Harbor and had meetings at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel. He never left the area in between.

"Several of the shops here we have a few minutes from home," said Peterson, 37, who works at Iowa State University. "I've stayed out of the ones we have at home." He did stop by Capitol City Brewing, which boasts Federal Hill Humus and Fells Point Pesto Pasta.

The big chains exert a powerful pull, cashing in on a desire for predictability.

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