Middle Branch deal is sealed

After year's delay, aquarium commits to $110 million plan for expansion

June 15, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

After a yearlong delay, Baltimore development officials and the National Aquarium have brokered a deal that will allow a $110 million expansion on the Patapsco River's Middle Branch to proceed, a critical step forward for the once-desperate industrial area.

Under the arrangement, the aquarium will waive its right to back out of the aquatic life center planned for the site - solidifying its commitment - and, in exchange, will have until the end of this year to purchase a 140,000-square-foot city garage that will house off-exhibit animals.

The terms of the deal, which were unanimously approved by the city's Board of Estimates yesterday, are a significant break for a project that would bring a park and possibly convention facilities and a hotel to a long-forlorn quadrant of South Baltimore that is now making a comeback.

With the project "as the centerpiece, development along the north, south and west shores of the Middle Branch will begin to engage the water in very different ways than the development did in the Inner Harbor," said Andrew B. Frank, executive vice president and a leading deal maker for the Baltimore Development Corp.

"Green buildings, soft edges, restored wetlands and wind-powered boats will characterize the Middle Branch in the years to come," he said.

Originally, the agreement called for the National Aquarium in Baltimore to purchase 20 acres of city property - including a garage used to maintain city vehicles - for $8 million. Construction was to begin on a new garage by June 1 last year and the Department of Public Works was supposed to move its mechanics and fleet to that facility in August.

But city officials acknowledged last month that, a year after the initial proposal was approved by the Board of Estimates, the aquarium had never made the payment - a delay that raised questions about the organization's finances. Through the BDC, City Hall gave aquarium leaders until yesterday to reach an agreement or back away from the proposal.

Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration has been eager to settle the matter because the city's current garage on Dickman Street near the Middle Branch sits on an increasingly valuable parcel of land, and also because a construction firm, Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., was selected to build the new garage but could not start work until the payment was transferred.

The new garage, which will be used to maintain more than 5,400 vehicles and other equipment, is expected to be located at 3800 E. Biddle St.

Under the new deal, the aquarium will pay the city $5 million by the end of this year and another $3 million as early as next year. The terms allow the aquarium to further delay settlement on the property, but officials on both sides of the negotiation characterized the agreement as an indication of renewed enthusiasm in the project.

"To be able to build on the momentum that the aquarium has going nationally and internationally - we're very excited," said Clarence T. Bishop, O'Malley's chief of staff.

Last month, Molly Foyle, a spokeswoman for the aquarium, characterized the land transaction as in a waiting pattern but denied the delay had anything to do with the institution's finances. Even then, Foyle said aquarium officials were hopeful a deal could be reached on the Middle Branch location.

"We're really excited about it. The original attraction for this site remains," Foyle said yesterday. "It's sort of like when you're buying a house and it finally all happens."

The aquarium will convert the city's central garage to an animal-care facility that would be used to house off-exhibit marine animals and to quarantine and treat the sick. The new campus, called the Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation, was to be completed by 2008, but the schedule will likely be extended.

While the center would not be open to the public, the aquarium had envisioned adding a conference center, a hotel and possibly a fishing pier as part of the overall complex. Word of the development came as City Hall has worked to bring housing and other buildings to the Middle Branch.

Talk of Patrick Turner of Henrietta Development Corp. becoming an investor in the center might have partly prompted renewed interest in the deal. Turner, a developer who has helped lead the residential revival of the Middle Branch, did not return a phone call seeking comment yesterday.

The aquarium draws nearly 2 million visitors to the Inner Harbor each year, according to its own estimates.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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