City Board of Estimates approves sale of land to aquarium


In a move hailed as a touchstone for future waterfront development in Baltimore, the city's spending board approved yesterday selling 20 acres along the Patapsco River's Middle Branch to the National Aquarium.

The aquarium plans to use the land to build a $110 million campus for aquatic life that development experts said could help usher in a transformation of the largely industrial South Baltimore shoreline.

"The Middle Branch is a new frontier for the city," Andrew B. Frank, executive vice president for the Baltimore Development Corp., told the city's Board of Estimates, which unanimously supported the sale. "This could be a catalyst for more development."

As part of the deal, which still faces hurdles, including City Council approval, 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 waterfront site to an East Baltimore location.

By 2008, the brownfield site along the Middle Branch will be cleaned up and the vacated 140,000-square-foot garage will be converted into an animal-care facility. A public park and conservation area will be added. That would complete the first, $35 million phase of the complex to be known as the Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation.

Frank said the facility could also eventually include a conference center, a hotel and office buildings.

David M. Pittenger, the aquarium's executive director, said his organization had formally agreed to abide by the city's policy to include minorities and women throughout the entire 15- to 20-year development. He said the aquarium would make sure that certain percentages of construction, design and engineering contracts went to minority- and women-owned firms.

The cost of moving the city's garage raised concern yesterday when Public Works Director George L. Winfield said the proposed Biddle Street site could not accommodate all of the operations housed at the current garage.

The $15 million cost of building a new state-of-the-art garage on Biddle Street and relocating operations there has increased by $1 million because of a necessary change in the new site's design, Winfield said.

City Council President Sheila Dixon, the board's chairman, said the BDC would have to make sure the garage does not get "shortchanged."

"I don't want us to get amnesia down the road" about the commitment to the garage, Dixon said.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the BDC, said his group would do all it could to help find money to build the garage. Brodie then praised the aquarium.

"They didn't have to look in the city," Brodie said. "They could have looked elsewhere."

The aquarium's planned facility and park in South Baltimore are not designed to replace the flagship Inner Harbor facility. Instead, the facility would focus 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.

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 could be used for education programs, officials said.

Over the next 15 to 20 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. The land to be developed includes three parcels: slightly more than 7 acres at 101 W. Cromwell St.; 11.5 acres at 101 W. Dickman St.; and 1.04 acres at 2300 S. Hanover St.

One of the largest tourist attractions in the 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 structure now spans two downtown piers and draws 1.6 million visitors per year, officials said.

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

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