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A big renewal for Harborplace

Right now, there is sawdust and only a handful of retail stores and restaurants open for business.

Christopher S. Schardt, CSM, Senior General Manager of Harborplace & The Gallery

But come Memorial Day weekend, officials are hoping that an invigorated — and 95 percent occupied — Light Street Pavilion will greet Inner Harbor tourists.

That will bring the pavilion back to its 2007 occupancy level, said Christopher Schardt, senior general manager of Harborplace & The Gallery.

“All retail and commercial properties had problems with occupancy in those first few years of the [recession], but we’re very pleased with the way it’s turned around,” Schardt said Tuesday during a tour of the construction. “This is the largest amount of change to the center since it opened three decades ago.”

Some establishments, such as Ooh La La Cupcakery, have closed temporarily for the renovation, he said.

Changes to the Inner Harbor attraction, owned by General Growth Properties, include a renovated food court with added outdoor seating and access from Light Street, and several new tenants.

Most recently, permits were approved for the exterior design of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium. The 12,500-square-foot museum’s entrance will face the water and feature Chessie, the legendary Chesapeake Bay sea monster.

Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., the San Clemente, Calif.-based seafood chain, inspired by the hit film “Forrest Gump,” will open in the 13,000-square-foot space previously occupied by Phillips Seafood. It will be the first such restaurant in Maryland.

Phillips, an original tenant of the pavilion, left Harborplace in September and reopened in November in the former site of the ESPN Zone in the Power Plant building after $2 million in renovations.

Phillips Seafood Express and Phillips Seafood Buffet, the franchise’s two other Harborplace locations, also closed in September.

Schardt said the changes are part of staying contemporary.

“All properties evolve. If they don’t, they don’t last. We’ve tried to bring in new Maryland traditions,” he said, noting that Lenny’s Delicatessen opened in the Pratt Street Pavilion in April, and that a 3,800-square-foot McCormick World of Flavors and a renovated J. Paul’s restaurant are part of the additions to the Light Street Pavilion. J. Paul’s is based in Washington, D.C.

“We’re trying to keep some of the flavor while keeping current and bringing in retailers that we know the public likes,” he said.

While the majority of changes are happening at the Light Street Pavilion, the Pratt Street Pavilion is getting a new gelato place, an expansion of IT’SUGAR candy shop, Schardt said.

But some have criticized Harborplace for moving away from local businesses and filling the space with chain stores.

In a 2010 article commemorating the 30th anniversary of Harborplace, former Rouse Co. project manager Bruce Alexander, one of founders of Harborplace, called the development “disappointing.”

“There have been a series of short-term financial decisions made that, in my view, took away the ingredients that made the project special and authentically Maryland and Chesapeake Bay, like the market with fruit and produce and flowers, now disappeared, the architecture of the colonnade market with its cheese and fish and meat purveyors, which was destroyed in favor of fast food stands, the ties to the history and culture of Baltimore and Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay area,” he said.

Since Harborplace opened in 1980, the complex has welcomed millions of visitors.

Larry Mackin and Ryan Sebring, who were walking through the Inner Harbor on Tuesday, said they are hopeful the changes will bring more life to the area.

The two, who work at Wolters Kluwer, a Netherlands-based publisher with an office in the nearby Camden Yards Warehouse, said they walk through the harbor daily.

“On a day like this, it would be nice to see more people,” Mackin said.

On the uncharacteristically warm February day, there was “nothing going on,” he said, noting that lunchtime entertainment in the amphitheater would be a welcome addition, and that while the Light Street Pavilion undergoes remodeling, food carts could substitute some of the vendors

The pavilion will also include the return of Johnny Rockets, and an expanded 7,500-plus square-foot food court will include a Subway, Chicken Now and China Max.

Harborplace was built by developer James W. Rouse and the Rouse Co. near the former Light Street site of the Old Bay Line’s steamship terminal and docks.

General Growth took ownership of Harborplace in 2004 after acquiring Columbia-based Rouse Co.

GGP filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, but started to emerge from bankruptcy the following year as it gained $6.5 billion in financial investments.