The next major expansion of the National Aquarium in Baltimore will be a campus, not a single building, so it's no surprise that aquarium officials have turned to one of the country's leading campus planners to design it.
Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore heads a team selected to design the $27 million Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation overlooking the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. Another Baltimore firm, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, will be the construction manager.
The Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation will house the aquarium's rapidly growing animal collection for current and future exhibits, and provide space for programs in animal husbandry, conservation education and research, including a waterfront park open to the public.
It will be developed on a nearly 20-acre waterfront parcel currently occupied by the Middle Branch Park and Baltimore's Central Garage and Fleet Maintenance Facility for city-owned vehicles. Plans call for the 143,000-square-foot garage at 101 W. Dickman St. to be recycled to house facilities for animal care and breeding. The renovated garage will replace a warehouse that the aquarium leases in Fells Point.
Proposed stages include: expansion of the aquarium's federallly designated Coastal Ecosystem Learning Center, expansion of its Marine Animal Rescue Program, construction of a research institute for visiting scientists and graduate students, a training school for aquarium and zoo specialists, expanded quarters for the aquarium's exhibit design and fabrication studio and a conference center that will be a model of sustainable design. The total build-out could represent an investment of $100 million or more.
The National Aquarium opened in 1981 on Inner Harbor Pier 3, expanded to Pier 4 within a decade, and now draws 1.6 million visitors a year. It is completing a $66 million addition, called Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes, that is to open this fall, featuring the re-creation of a river gorge in Australia's Northern Territory.
The aquatic life center primarily will be a backup facility to the Baltimore aquarium and its affiliate, the National Aquarium in Washington, and is not expected to draw nearly as many visitors as they do.
Still, it's seen as a catalyst for the responsible development of the Middle Branch because it will result in the cleanup of a polluted "brownfields" site previously used for vehicle repairs; its waterfront park will provide public access to the shoreline, and nearby wetlands would be restored.
"We're thinking of this as an urban nature center," said aquarium executive director David Pittenger. "It's a campus in the Middle Branch that wlll support the aquarium and have a broader role ... in the areas of conservation and science."
Ayers is campus veteran
Ayers Saint Gross specializes in the planning and design of buildings and campuses for educational institutions and cultural institutions with an educational mission. It is working on 40 different campuses. Its projects include a visitors center and other additions on the grounds of Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, and a master plan for the National Zoo. The firm also has extensive experience in adaptive reuse of older buildings and environmentally sensitive design.
The Central Garage property is at the north end of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge, previously known as the Hanover Street Bridge.
"This is a gateway site, and we're interested in how [the Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation] will look from Hanover Street and Interstate 95," Pittenger said. "But it also has to be a very utilitarian building," capable of being modified over time.
Though it's no architectural gem, the garage building lends itself to reuse because its structure is sound and it has high ceilings. Also, because the property is considered a brownfields site, leaving it standing actually could be less harmful to the environment than taking it down, excavating the soil and carting away the debris, Pittenger said. "We don't want to disturb the site more than we need to."
Adam Gross, Luanne Greene and Michael Barber head the design team for Ayers Saint Gross. Other consultants include Michael Vergason as the landscape architect, Rummel Klepper Kahl as the civil engineer, Hope Furrer Associates as the structural engineer, and Biohabitats as the environmental consultant.
New feel from harbor
Greene said the Middle Branch setting offers visitors a "very different sense of place" than the Inner Harbor piers, and CALC's design will build on that. "We see it as a great opportunity for expanding the experience."
C. William Struever, head of Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse, said he wanted to work on the Middle Branch project because he supports what the aquarium is doing there.
"The aquarium is bringing a whole new dimension to that part of the waterfront," he said. "They have a very strong set of goals in terms of what they're trying to accomplish, and we saw an alignment between their mission and the goals of our company."
Decades in making
Aquarium officials say they hope to complete CALC's initial phases by 2008, when their lease for the Fells Point animal care facility expires. The entire Middle Branch project could take 20 years to complete.
Pittenger said the aquarium considered more than 70 locations, from the old Columbus Center Hall of Exploration on Pier 5 to the Harbor Point property between Harbor East and Fells Point, before selecting the Middle Branch parcel.
Although the deliberations took longer than expected, Pittenger said, he's happy with the Middle Branch site. "This is absolutely the best location for the city," he said.