Aquarium wants to expand

Larger seal tank, outdoor otter exhibit included in plans

New building proposed

Preliminary estimate between $50 million and $70 million

April 30, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Ike the seal may be getting a new home.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore unveiled plans yesterday for a $50 million to $70 million expansion that might include an outdoor otter exhibit, a larger seal tank and a building to house marine exhibits.

The goal is to convert bare concrete plazas outside the aquarium into shady parks with fountains, Chesapeake Bay marsh grass and perhaps live turtles, sea creatures and water crashing over rocks.

The proposal could create a greener and more welcoming entrance for the 1.6 million tourists who visit the 18-year-old aquarium each year and stay to stroll around the harbor, aquarium and city officials said.

The plans are in the early stages, however, and must be approved by the city, according to Mark Donovan, the aquarium's senior director of exhibits and designs, who presented the idea to the city's Design Advisory Panel yesterday.

"The aquarium has been a hugely successful institution over the years. But in a society where people are always saying, `What's new?' it's good to constantly freshen up and improve the exhibits," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm.

If the expansion moves ahead over the next 10 years, it would be the latest boost to the Inner Harbor.

Nine hotels are planned for the area, including the 31-story Wyndham International Hotel. Baltimore City Community College hopes to transform a parking lot into a mall. The once-vacant Power Plant building next to the aquarium has attracted a Barnes & Nobel bookstore and other tenants.

The aquarium's dreams for a bucolic park, however, may conflict with the ambitions of area developers.

The Baltimore-based Cordish Co., which renovated the Power Plant, has proposed a floating Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. seafood restaurant next to the aquarium.

City planners said yesterday that discussions are taking place on possibly moving the Bubba Gump boat to the far side of the Power Plant building, so that it would be less visible from the proposed park.

A Cordish spokeswoman said yesterday that the company might oppose the aquarium's expansion.

"Potentially, or conceivably, the expansion could violate rights we have under our development agreement with the city," Arlene D. Cho said in a written statement. "However, we do not have all the facts yet to make a conclusion."

Cho refused to say what part of the aquarium's expansion might intrude on the company's plans.

Mark W. Seely, director of capital planning for the aquarium, said the developer might be referring to the aquarium's plan to build a river otter habitat and wetlands on Pier 4 near the Power Plant.

Cordish has announced plans to tear down the Chart House restaurant building adjacent to the proposed otter exhibit and replace it with a multistory building. This could potentially intrude on the otters' home, Seely said.

The money for the aquarium expansion would be raised from private and perhaps government donations, aquarium officials said.

The city is discussing contributing money to the project, which is on city property, said Charles C. Graves, the city's director of planning.

In December 1997, aquarium officials said they were exploring a $15 million to $20 million expansion plan to create a new building north of the entrance to house rotating exhibits.

As part of the latest expansion proposal, the aquarium hopes to renovate the aging interiors of its buildings. It also plans to enlarge its lobby, improve the manta ray exhibit and replace the children's "touch tank," which has been displaced by the Amazon rain forest exhibit opening soon.

Expanding the seal tanks by at least 50 percent and moving them to the front outside the ticket booth would make the aquarium's exterior more inviting to the public, Donovan said. The seal exhibit might include a machine that would hurl waves over rocks.

This would provide a more realistic home for Ike the seal, who has spent the past 18 years somewhat hidden in a rocky pool around the corner from the ticket booth.

"We have a wonderful building, but you really need to be inside to appreciate it," said Donovan. "We want to bring more of our exhibits to people on the outside."

Pub Date: 4/30/99

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