Middle Branch Cleanup Planned

Aquarium Affiliate To Start Work In Fall, Open Park In 2010, But Puts Animal Care Facility On Hold

August 21, 2009|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

An affiliate of the National Aquarium plans to start an environmental cleanup of nearly 13 acres along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River this fall and open a public park late next year, but has put on hold more elaborate plans to build an animal care facility.

The aquarium's Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation Inc. said today it is seeking a contractor to clean up its contaminated waterfront property in South Baltimore, along Baltimore's lesser-known harbor.

The two-phase project will create a park with walking trails, some of which will connect to the Gwynns Falls trail, a 100-foot fishing pier and some wooded areas, said Tim Pula, the aquarium's senior director of capital planning.

But the aquarium, which bought the land from the city in 2007, has put on hold plans to build a marine animal care and conservation center to support its Inner Harbor attraction, and possibly a hotel, a development that had been estimated at $110 million.

"Because of the economic situation, we're not fundraising for that building at this time," said Denise Aranoff-Brown, the aquarium's senior director of marketing. "We are taking time to think about what we want to use that future space for and when and how to raise funds."

She said the aquarium was able to extend its lease four more years on its current animal care facility in Fells Point, which is used for breeding, rescue and a home for new animals.

Aquarium directors continue to explore ideas, in addition to the park, for the Middle Branch property on West Dickman Street, which could ultimately include an animal care center or other uses. The land, a former construction landfill that now contains arsenic, lead and mercury, is vacant and overgrown, and contains a three-acre parking lot.

The city adopted a master plan in 2007 for the Middle Branch, less than a mile south of the Inner Harbor but completely different in character, with shallow water, a mostly green shoreline and several waterfront habitat areas. But like the Inner Harbor, the Middle Branch has had to contend with water pollution, trash and contaminants from industrial development.

The master plan envisions "a new waterfront community that is completely distinct from the Inner Harbor, yet which will be equally vital to the city," as a natural shoreline accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists. It calls for making the water fishable and swimmable again by 2020, protecting and restoring wildlife habitat and linking existing parks and recreation areas with trails, some of which exist now.

"The ultimate goal would be a full connection and a unique water's edge," said Laurie Feinberg, division chief for comprehensive planning in the city's Planning Department. She called the plans by the aquarium "a natural addition that will restore the water's edge."

The aquarium is seeking qualifications from contractors who specialize in environmental remediation, which are due Sept. 4. Remediation will consist of capping the land with several feet of soil.

The aquarium, which did not give an estimate of cleanup costs, will narrow the list and invite several contractors to bid on the project, then select one by October who would complete work by spring. Funding is coming from private and public sources, including the Maryland Department of the Environment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other state and federal sources. The EPA awarded the center a $200,000 grant for remediation last year.

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