Ripley's illustration of proposed facade

An illustration of a proposed Ripley’s Believe it or Not! facade at Harborplace. (Baltimore Sun / October 25, 2011)

If Ripley's Believe It or Not! opens a proposed "odditorium" museum at the Inner Harbor, it will be hard to miss.

To lure visitors to its collection of "amazing exhibits" and "unbelievable & genuine artifacts from around the globe," the Orlando, Fla.-based entertainment company wants an attention-grabbing facade at its proposed site in the Light Street Pavilion at Harborplace.

But city officials are pressing the company to tone down the facade's design, which initially featured a three-dimensional sea monster bursting from the building, teeth bared, as its green body coiled around a three-masted ship. A later version, revised at the urging of officials, shows the fanged sea serpent, Chessie, wrapped around a two-story entrance to the pavilion.

"We're hopeful that a design will emerge that provides Ripley's the recognition that they need or want and is a design that doesn't overpower the harbor," said Laurie Schwartz , executive director of the Waterfront Partnership, a nonprofit that promotes the Inner Harbor. "We're hoping to see [the design] evolve a little more. The 'Chessie' piece is playful and can be a fun component, but I think one also has to look at the signage and the size and the dominance of that."

Ripley's representatives declined to discuss plans for Baltimore, saying the project remains uncertain.

"It all rests in the outcome of the Planning Commission's decision on our facade," Tim O'Brien, vice president of communications for Ripley Entertainment Inc., said in an email. "If we get approval and go forth with our plans, I will be happy to talk" about the proposed attraction.

So far, design proposals have been met with a lukewarm response from the city's advisory architectural review panel, the first step in the design approval process.

After reviewing Ripley's revised plan, panel members still worried that the signage would dominate the waterfront pavilion and pave the way for even bigger signs, according to minutes of the meeting. The panel also suggested the "Chessie" character could be made less "fierce-like."

Others say the larger-than-life "Chessie" — a reference to the legendary sea serpent said to haunt the Chesapeake Bay — has no place at the Inner Harbor.

"I find it rather crass, and the reason is, the Inner Harbor is, in my opinion, the living room for Baltimore, our Central Park, so we need to take good care of it," said Klaus Philipsen, co-chairman of the urban design committee of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The group had similar concerns this year when the city began reviewing potential future attractions for the Inner Harbor, among them Baltimore's "Eiffel Tower" and a 200-foot Ferris wheel.

"We're concerned about a tendency to turn the Inner Harbor into a carnival, and that seems to be exactly what this particular proposal is aiming for," Philipsen said of the Ripley's design.

But Schwartz said she is encouraged by Ripley's willingness to work with the city "to find ways to both project their image and fit within the larger context of Harborplace and the harbor."

Ripley's arrival at Harborplace would come amid a wave of new tenants, as owner General Growth Properties works to update the twin pavilions that helped spark downtown's waterfront renaissance in the 1980s. City leaders have encouraged the landlord to offer a mix of stores, restaurants and attractions that would appeal to the growing base of downtown residents and office workers while still offering something fresh for tourists.

A spokesman for General Growth, which has not finalized a lease with Ripley's, said company officials had no comment on the proposal. Plans presented to the city show Ripley's would have an entrance on the pavilion's first floor facing the promenade and an elevator and stairs leading to 13,000 square feet on the second floor.

The attraction would be a good fit for the Inner Harbor, said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. Newer tenants such as apparel retailers Urban Outfitters and H&M are part of Harborplace's new direction, catering to downtown residents and workers as well as tourists, he said.

"It's been necessary for Harborplace to change its image and move forward with the times," he said. "It's no longer appropriate for the pavilion to just have a bunch of kiosks for small food vendors."

Still, Harborplace needs to appeal to tourists, and Ripley's will help lure visitors, Fowler said.

"It's important to continue to shake things up at Harborplace," he said. "Adding tourist attractions like Ripley's improves the mix of the experiences at the harbor."