Chains dilute local flavor of Harborplace

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

On her first trip to Baltimore, Laurie Wertzbaugher of Canon City, Colo., made a beeline for The Cheesecake Factory. Why not try the fish at City Lights Seafood ("still owned by Baltimoreans," a sign says) or 'cue at Wayne's Barbecue, another local place? Because Wertzbaugher, 43, wanted an avocado egg roll like those she gets at a Denver Cheesecake Factory.

Sometimes people think they're getting a more local experience than they are. Sungmin Hong, a 28-year-old student from New York, enjoyed crab cakes at Phillips. The company started in Ocean City in 1956 and has been at Harborplace from the start in 1980.

Asked where he thought the crab came from, Hong said, "Around here, I guess."

When told the meat was an Asian import, he scrunched his face. "Is that right? On the menu it said 'from the bay.'"

What it actually said was "1956 Maryland Eastern Shore recipe." "Wow," Hong said. "Kind of deceiving, isn't it?"

Then there is the shirt that reads, "Harborplace Boat Builders - old world craftsmanship since 1931."

"It's made up," said Travis Turner, who manages the souvenir shop where the shirts are sold. "We have 42 stores all over the United States, and many of them have that shirt. It's just a design."

Before Harborplace was built, concerns about its effect on Little Italy's restaurants and the loss of open space fueled opposition that almost scuttled the project. To convince voters, city officials promised that the shopping venue would not turn into a suburban-style mall.

"It was one of our talking points when we ran the Harborplace referenda - there would not be chains," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, then housing commissioner and now president of the city economic development agency. "We would make every effort with Rouse Co. to find local [tenants]. It really did start off that way."

Rouse tracked down Wayne Brokke, then running the Soup Kitchen restaurant in Federal Hill. The company found Courtney Garton, who had just started Hats in the Belfry in Annapolis. Of the nearly dozen restaurants, only one could be called a national chain.

The local flavor has faded, even as favorites such as The Fudgery remain popular and a few new ones have been added. Robert C. Embry Jr., a former housing commissioner and president of the Abell Foundation, said he does not care whether a restaurant is local.

"To me, it's whether people go there and eat" and owners "pay their rent, don't go bankrupt," he said.

Some store owners say Harborplace became too expensive.

"We couldn't afford it anymore," said Mary Pat Andrea, who closed the Celebrate Baltimore store in February after 21 years. She now runs her Hometown Girl and NightGoods stores in Hampden. At the end, she said, her rent claimed 18 percent of gross sales, considerably more than the 12 percent she'd been taught to stay under.

Owners of Cafe Hon in Hampden or the Black Olive, a Greek restaurant in Fells Point, say they would not want to be at Harborplace because of the cost and the loss of control that goes with having a landlord - not to mention the authentic charm of their current locations.

Some local proprietors at Harborplace cheer the chain restaurants. Hats in the Belfry's Garton said "heavy hitters" like The Cheesecake Factory mean more potential hat buyers at his store in the Pratt Street pavilion. He needs to sell a lot of hats to pay his rent of $4,000 a month.

Brokke, whose Wayne's Barbecue is his third Harborplace restaurant, wishes Rouse could set aside space for local operations. At the same time, he does not fault it for bringing in reliable chains.

"I'm an independent that doesn't want it done," he said, referring to chain stores, "but I'm also the rare independent - I survived."

Sun staff researcher Shelia Jackson contributed to this article.

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