National Aquarium planning to expand


The National Aquarium is on the verge of purchasing 20 waterfront acres in South Baltimore to build a $110 million campus that could transform the largely industrial shoreline of the Patapsco River's Middle Branch.

According to a draft of the deal, the aquarium would pay the city as much as $8 million to buy the land and help move the city's central repair garage from the site to a location in East Baltimore.

By 2008, officials plan to clean the polluted "brownfield" site, convert its vacated 140,000- square-foot garage into an animal-care facility and build a public park and conservation area. That would complete the first, $35 million phase of the complex to be known as the Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation.

The land deal, which needs city approval, goes before the Board of Estimates tomorrow.

The new facility and park on the South Baltimore site are not designed to replace the Inner Harbor aquarium. There was no mention in the draft version of the expansion plan about how many visitors would be expected to come or how much they would be charged.

Instead, aquarium officials outlined a facility more focused on caring for marine animals and serving as a launching point for ecological explorations extending into the Chesapeake Bay. Nearby wetlands would also be restored, officials said.

"I do think it's ambitious but it's such a great opportunity," David M. Pittenger, the aquarium's executive director, said yesterday.

A spokesman for Mayor Martin O'Malley, who sits on the Board of Estimates and has great influence over its decisions, said the aquarium project already has O'Malley's support.

The aquarium's proposed Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation would have sweeping views of Hanover Street's Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge to the east and the Middle Branch Park to the south.

As its core, the former city garage would be transformed into a 50,000-square-foot home for marine animals waiting to be displayed at the Inner Harbor aquarium. Remaining space may be used for indoor and outdoor education programs, officials said.

Over the next 10 to 15 years, other projects - an animal rescue facility, walking trails, a fishing pier, a research lab and possibly a hotel or conference center - could be added onto the 19.6 acres along the northern shoreline of the Middle Branch.

"We're going to phase it in over time," Pittenger said.

One of the largest tourist attractions in the city's Inner Harbor for the past two decades, the aquarium opened in 1981. It has served as an anchor for extensive residential and commercial growth wrapping around the harbor from Federal Hill to Canton and beyond.

The current structure has grown substantially, now spanning across two downtown piers and drawing 1.6 million visitors a year, officials said.

The aquarium's latest project to re-create an Australian river canyon will be housed in a 65,000-square-foot building. Budgeted at $66 million, it is expected to open no earlier than fall of next year, officials said.

The South Baltimore project will be the aquarium's most costly expansion, likely requiring a new capital fund-raising campaign from public and private sources, Pittenger said.

City development officials think the new aquarium complex off Hanover Street and just south of Interstate 95 will also act as a catalyst to spur other development along the Middle Branch.

"Imagine the Inner Harbor without the aquarium," said Andrew Frank, vice president and interim Inner Harbor coordinator for the Baltimore Development Corporation, the city's agency for redevelopment.

The new aquatic life center, he said, could have the same effect on the Middle Branch.

Developers broke ground last month for 105 new homes near Cherry Hill on the southern banks of the Middle Branch, expected to provide an unobstructed view of the proposed aquarium complex and the city downtown's skyline farther north.

In nearby Westport, an old Baltimore Gas and Electric building is up for sale and the old Carr-Lowrey glass factory has been purchased to be converted for residential and commercial use, Frank said.

Officials cautioned that the aquarium deal is subject to negotiations. The current deal calls for the aquarium to purchase the land for $250,000, even though the assessed value of the land is more than $2 million.

So the deal also relies on as much as $7 million in interest-free loans backed by the state and distributed by the Baltimore Development Corporation to help pay for the new city garage.

The final price tag for the aquarium would depend on the actual cost of building a city garage on Biddle Street in East Baltimore. It's now estimated at about $15 million, and the aquarium expects to pay about half the costs.

The expansion project has been in the works for more than five years, Pittenger said. His staff considered a variety of sites, narrowing their choice to the one on Middle Branch and other in the Inner Harbor.

Officials said they must now move relatively quickly to complete the deal. The aquarium's lease on its current animal-holding facility in Fells Points expires in 2008.

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