Aquarium plans animal care center in Jonestown

In new twist on old idea, Aquarium plans animal care center in Jonestown

The National Aquarium said Thursday that it is moving forward with a plan to relocate its animal care and rescue center from Fells Point to a recently acquired property in Jonestown.

The aquarium purchased the building at 901 E. Fayette St. last month for $4.25 million, according to land records. Renovation of the roughly 50,000-square-foot property is expected to take 18 months, with a 2018 move-in date, the aquarium said.

The move will create a vacancy at the waterfront property in Fells Point, where the nonprofit has been leasing space for 22 years. It also introduces one of Baltimore's landmark institutions into a neighborhood east of downtown and north of Harbor East where many hope to see revitalization.

"The new center will add to the rich array of important cultural and historic institutions in the neighborhood," Joseph M. Cronyn, a member of the Jonestown Planning Council, said in the aquarium's release.

The plans for Jonestown represent a twist on an idea the aquarium first discussed more than a decade ago, when it proposed a new facility as the focal point of an ambitious $110 million redevelopment in Port Covington. The nonprofit purchased about 20 acres from the city in early 2007 and embarked on an environmental cleanup that eventually resulted in West Covington Park, which opened to the public last year.

But other aspects of the plans evolved. Months after buying the Port Covington land, the aquarium sold part of it, acquired from the city for $89,000, at a large markup to a development company associated with Patrick Turner. Turner did not do anything with the parcel, which is now part of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank's holdings in South Baltimore, where his real estate firm is planning a multibillion-dollar redevelopment.

Citing the economic downturn, the aquarium had shelved plans for the $27 million animal care and rescue center.

The lease on the current building, located on Wolfe Street between Aliceanna and Lancaster streets, is nearing an end, aquarium representatives said. The institution considered other options, but "these either weren't feasible or didn't align closely enough with our vision," Kate Rowe, media relations manager for the National Aquarium, wrote in an email.

"The opportunity to purchase a site in Baltimore City, with such close proximity to the aquarium, proved too good to pass up," Rowe said.

The aquarium "has funding plans in place" for the Jonestown facility, according to the news release. Rowe declined to share a cost estimate for the project or say whether money has been committed, saying designs are still in the works.

"Our greatest responsibility at the National Aquarium is to ensure the welfare of the animals in our care," CEO John Racanelli said in a statement. "After 35 years in temporary or rented facilities, we can now create a world-class care center for our animals and take our place as a permanent resident of Baltimore's historic Jonestown community."

The building housing the aquarium's current care center is owned by Elm Street Development, whose portfolio includes the 270-unit Eden apartment building in Harbor East. Russell Dickens, regional partner for the firm, said it knew of the aquarium facility's relocation and has plans for the Fells Point property, but the appropriate person was not available Thursday to discuss them.

nsherman@baltsun.com

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