Barging in on the Inner Harbor

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Administrators at the National Aquarium in Baltimore fought the Bubba Gump proposal, in part because it conflicted with the aquarium's own plans for a footbridge connecting piers 3 and 4. (It also would have been confusing to tourists to have a restaurant that features shrimp and other marine life right outside the National Aquarium.)

The aquarium hasn't mounted similar opposition to this platform, which is farther away from its entrances and altogether less fishy. But in some ways, the ESPN Zone barge is just as troubling as the Bubba Gump or Hard Rock Cafe projects, because of its location.

Hard Rock's barge is halfway up the pier and surrounded on three sides by water. Bubba Gump's barge would have been, too. But the ESPN Zone barge will be closer to Pratt Street and will appear to be more of a continuation of the "hardscape" of roads and finger piers that meet at the water's edge. When people stand on Pratt Street or Pier 3 and look across the inlet, they'll see less water and more man-made surface. It may be a nice faux barge, but the amount of water surface has once again been diminished. It will make the harbor seem farther away.

Construction of the barge also violates an important principle of development in Baltimore. Even before the first visit of the tall ships in 1976, Baltimore's renaissance was predicated on the idea that people should have free and continuous access to the water's edge. Because ESPN Zone will be operating the new barge, there's an implication that it's for ESPN Zone customers only, not the public at large. Those who don't buy food and drink from ESPN Zone may not be turned away, but they also won't necessarily be made to feel welcome. That's how more and more of the waterfront gets privatized.

Coup for developer

From a business standpoint, of course, this is a coup for developer David Cordish -- part of the ongoing Cordish-ization of Baltimore. Cordish is a local developer who has a national reputation for taking a "more is more" approach to design and pushing the envelope when it comes to urban entertainment. He plasters giant signs on his buildings to show what's inside. (See Towson Circle, Homewood Apartments.) He adds lights. He makes it easy to get to the front door.

For an shrewd entrepreneur, water can be a bother anyway -- so uncontrollable. You can't walk on it. Can't park cars on it. Can't lease it to tenants. Why not pave it over, in the name of "animating" the area? Just start with a nonnavigable waterway, and keep making it more so. For this sort of thinking, he gets awards from his peers for leadership in entertainment development.

There's a fine line between enlivening a dead zone and preserving the setting that attracts people in the first place. A barge can be one way to bring people to the water's edge. But if developers build too much, people lose the sense that they are near the water. The ESPN Zone platform comes precariously close to that line, if it doesn't actually cross over.

The lesson of Harborplace is that the water is the magic, not the land. That little lake in the heart of downtown makes Baltimore different from other cities. Once the Cordish barge is up, the damage will be done. A little more of the waterfront will be lost.

The tall ships will come and go. Baltimore's barge is here to stay.

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