Aquarium annex rising at Harbor Point?

ARCHITECTURE

Construction once set for Middle Branch area could be closer downtown

Architecture Column

December 22, 2003|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

A proposed National Aquarium in Baltimore expansion that once appeared destined for construction along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River may rise closer to the Inner Harbor instead.

Aquarium officials have been negotiating with the city to acquire approximately 6 acres along the Middle Branch to build the Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation, a multimillion-dollar facility that would contain space for the aquarium's animal care and breeding programs, which currently occupy leased space in Fells Point.

The facility also would serve as a new location for the aquarium's marine animal hospital, now on Pier 4, and provide space for the aquarium's education and conservation programs, including classrooms for school groups and meeting space for the community.

In recent months, the aquarium also has been negotiating with developers of the 27-acre Harbor Point community - the former Allied Signal chromium plant property between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point - about building the conservation center there.

Harbor Point's developers have reserved approximately 2 acres for construction of a cultural institution or some other sort of public facility, and the aquarium's project is one of several candidates for that land.

David Pittenger, the aquarium's executive director, said the Harbor Point and Middle Branch sites are the finalists from about 75 that staffers have considered for the conservation center over the past several years.

He said aquarium board members will meet next month to select one of the two sites so more detailed planning can begin. The aquarium has been able to extend its lease for the Fells Point facility until 2008, but directors can't assume it will be available beyond that, he added.

Preliminary plans for the conservation center, by Hord Coplan Macht of Baltimore, have won design awards from the American Institute of Architects and the Maryland chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. The plans call for creation of a park-like setting and wildlife sanctuary that could help teach visitors about the fragile wetlands of the Chesapeake Bay.

Despite extensive planning, Pittenger said, questions remain about the boundaries and condition of the land that would be available for the aquarium's use along the Middle Branch. The land is on the north end of the Veterans Memorial Bridge, next to the city's Central Garage.

Pittenger said the aquarium does not want to violate laws that prohibit construction within designated "critical areas" along the shoreline. In addition, he said, it is still unclear to what extent the land is contaminated, how much the clean-up would cost and how long it would take.

The Harbor Point site, by contrast, has been cleaned up and is ready to build on. The development team is a joint venture of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse and H & S Properties Development Corp. The land is closer to the existing aquarium facilities on Inner Harbor Piers 3 and 4, which would shorten travel time for staffers and visitors, and it could be linked by a waterfront promenade and water taxis.

The Harbor Point area also has been targeted for much more intensive development than the Middle Branch site has, and that could change the nature of the aquarium's project. For example, there may be less opportunity at Harbor Point to create naturalistic habitats for wildlife than on Middle Branch shoreline. Another possibility for the Harbor Point site, Struever Bros. senior development director Lawrence J. White recently told Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel, is a museum that would house the works of one artist.

The family of the late artist Clifford Styll, a painter with ties to Baltimore, has long sought a home for his body of work. White declined to confirm whether Styll is the artist for whom the museum would be constructed.

Choosing a site for the conservation center will be an important step for the aquarium board, Pittenger said.

"We see this as more than just another facility," he said. "It really is going to give us a stage to do things we've always wanted to do but couldn't because of space constraints. It's the basis for what we're going to do in the future."

Davidge Hall

Congress has designated $350,000 in funding from the Save America's Treasures program to be used for the restoration of historic Davidge Hall in Baltimore, according to Maryland Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski.

The funding was included in the Department of Interior Appropriations bill for fiscal 2004, which was signed by President George W. Bush this month.

Davidge Hall, formerly known as the College of Medicine of Maryland, opened in November 1812 and survives as the oldest building in the United States continuously used for medical education. Chartered in December 1807, the College of Medicine of Maryland (now the University of Maryland School of Medicine) is the fifth oldest medical school in the United States.

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