Thursday, February 21, 2008

Proposed Shark Exhibit Could Kill Aquarium's Flashy Makeover

Here's and interesting story by Sarah Ryley of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. With permission, It is posted here in its entirety.

Proposed Shark Exhibit CouldKill Aquarium’s Flashy Makeover
Succession Movement Spurred By Funding Fight, Says Pols

By Sarah Ryley of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Marty Markowitz’s surprise push to separate the New York Aquarium from the Wildlife Conservation Society was just the tip of the iceberg, said several sources.

For years, Brooklyn politicians have accused the Society of treating the aquarium “like a stepchild,” and the battle has intensified recently as two expensive projects to vamp up the lackluster attraction: a shark exhibit and an exterior makeover, compete for funding, said City Councilman Domenic Recchia, chair of the Cultural Affairs Committee.

According to Recchia, the succession movement is anything but dead. “If I was going to run for borough president, this was going to be one of my big issues,” said Recchia, who is also considering a run for Congress. “I’m glad the borough president brought this up, we’ve been screaming about it for a while.”

Disguised as low-lying brick boxes, the aquarium is arguably Coney Island’s least noticeable attraction, yet is supposed to become the amusement district’s eastern anchor under the city’s flashy redevelopment plan. Two summers ago, the city Economic Development Corporation and the Wildlife Conservation Society launched a competition to refashion the aquarium’s exterior into something exciting that would attract passersby, not hide from them. A winner would be announced by the end of 2006, they said.

That date has come and gone, and although by all accounts the Wallace Robert & Todd (WRT) design was chosen, nothing has been announced. According to two Coney Island Development Corporation board members, the Society, which is based in the Bronx and also oversees the city’s four zoos, doesn’t want to pay for it anymore.

“The Bronx said no way,” said Community Board 13 District Manager Chuck Reichenthal. Another board member, on the condition of anonymity, said, “The Zoological Society will not put up the other half, so that’s most likely why, out of frustration, Marty called for breaking [the aquarium] away and forming a separate organization with its own board of directors.

“I applaud Marty Markowitz for exposing their lack ofcommitment to Brooklyn,” said the source.

Not everybody agrees that funding an exterior overhaul is the best way for the Society to prove its affection. The winning design covers the entire aquarium in a sloping blanket of high-tech lights, vertical gardens and a “breathing” mesh. Though it hasn’t been priced out, and the architects are working on integrating the shark exhibit and interior renovations into the design, according to a source close to the project just the exterior could cost up to $125 million.

“We have to get rid of the perimeter. We could use that money, it could be better spent in other ways,”said Recchia. “I want to build my shark tank. The shark tank is my No. 1 priority.” He said the tank, which would have ocean views, would cost $65 million.

Economic Development Corporation (EDC) spokeswoman Janel Patterson said the city has committed $69 million to the aquarium over the next two years, including necessary infrastructure work. "The Society has funded almost all of the shark tank design todate. EDC and [the Department of Cultural Affairs] are working with sister City agencies to move the project forward, but we also must take the time necessary to be sure it compliments the Coney Island redevelopment plan,” she said in an email.

According to a high-level source, Coney Island Development Corporation board members are even at odds with the heads of its parent agency, the EDC.“High-level officials at the EDC are asking, is that money better spent on building great exhibits or is it better spent building that enclosure?” The source said the Society considers the exhibit a more important priority. If anything, the exterior makeover would be pared down to something more affordable.

Recchia wouldn’t say where Markowitz stands on the issue, and the borough president didn’t return requests for comment, but he said they both agree that breaking away from the Society would make the aquariuma better institution. “First the yelling has to start,” he said, adding that the succession movement is just heating up.

Jon Dohlin, incoming director of the New York Aquarium, said in a statement, “I know that we here at [Wildlife Conservation Society] are enthusiastic about the great changes underway at the Aquarium. We are excited about working with our partners at [Departmentof Cultural Affairs], EDC and community leaders in Coney Island, as we continue to make the aquarium an outstanding attraction for all New Yorkers.”

A high-level official said of Dohlin, “Poor guy, he’s only been there for a month. Give the guy a break,” adding that Markowitz’s suggestion, first brought up last week at the State of the Borough address, “came out of left field.”

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