Ripley's Believe It or Not! plans for Harborplace draw concern

An illustration of a proposed Ripley’s Believe it or Not! facade at Harborplace.

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."

Around lunchtime Wednesday, a handful of people strolled or jogged along the promenade at Harborplace while others filled tables in Light Street Pavilion restaurants such as J. Paul's and Noodles & Co. Others emerged from H&M and Urban Outfitters, purchases in hand. But much of the pavilion's upper floor is empty, and one man wondered aloud where all the food vendors had gone.

News of Ripley's potential arrival and proposed facade drew a mix of reactions from tourists, downtown workers and local residents at the harbor.

"Oh, it's too gaudy for the Inner Harbor. I don't like it," said Rebekah Allen, a Lutherville resident visiting the harbor with a school group. "This should be left for Ocean City."

Robert and Kay Blundel, tourists from Liverpool, England, said they'd have no interest in visiting a Ripley's attraction — in Baltimore or anywhere else. As for the exterior design, it "belongs in Disneyland," Robert Blundel said.

Brothers Ronin and Micah Wood, students at the Maryland Institute College of Art who were buying rain jackets at H&M, had mixed reactions.

"Dragons are cool; dragons are gaudy and terribly great," said Ronin Wood, commenting on the proposal. "But I also hate it."

Both said Ripley's could be a good addition to downtown's changing mix and that a museum of oddities seemed to require an over-the-top entrance.

"I guess it's better than Walmart," Ronin Wood said.

Lawrence Manning, an IT worker for Constellation Energy Group on his lunch break, said he looked forward to Ripley's arrival and thought such a facade would be appropriate. Themed facades — such as the shark jutting out of an "odditorium" on Ocean City's boardwalk — are signatures of many of the 31 Ripley's museums.

"I've always been fascinated by Ripley's Believe it or Not," Manning said, adding that the attraction would draw families. "I like that they have unusual and interesting things inside."

City planners are working through the design process with Ripley's and its architecture firm, Brown Craig Turner Architects, taking into account the recommendations of the architectural review panel. No date has been scheduled for Ripley's to return to the panel.

The Inner Harbor has other eye-catching commercial signs, including the neon guitar atop the Power Plant that promotes the Hard Rock Cafe.

But Martin Millspaugh, who headed a nonprofit that oversaw construction of Charles Center and the Inner Harbor, said the sea monster design is not what planners had in mind.

"It disrupts the design of the Harborplace pavilions," said the former chief executive of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Inc., a predecessor to the city's economic development agency. "The success of the Inner Harbor as a whole is dependent on the character of those two pavilions. I can't believe this is a concept that anyone would like to see imposed on all of Harborplace, and through Harborplace on the Inner Harbor as a whole."

Philipsen hopes General Growth will continue to build on the strength of the pavilions, which were designed to be scaled and oriented toward the waterfront.

"They were conceived in a nautical way, with a good view of the water from all places, and they were outward-oriented" with glass and terraces, he said. "You have to figure out, now that they have become tired, how they can be refreshed."