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Maritime Aquarium presents theater plan to skeptical Council

Attorney Elizabeth “Liz” Suchy, left, and architect Christopher Cowan on Wednesday explain plans for the Maritime Aquarium.

NORWALK, Conn. — Funding for a new IMAX theater is still a question mark, even if Maritime Authority officials think construction should already be underway.

“Six months ago,” Maritime Aquarium President Brian Davis said at Wednesday’s Common Council Land Use Committee meeting, when asked when the work should begin.

Council members expressed a bit of consternation that plans for a new 4D theater have been submitted to Zoning, before they were consulted.

“We had authorization through the mayor’s office to apply,” Attorney Liz Suchy said, representing the Aquarium.

The rebuilding of the theater is connected to the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s plan to rebuild the Walk Bridge, the 121-year old railroad bridge over the Norwalk River. ConnDOT is looking to take the theater by eminent domain and demolish it to create space for construction equipment, such as a crane.

“If there were no Walk Bridge renovation would you be doing this anyway?” Council Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) asked, at the outset of the conversation.

“If the Walk Bridge doesn’t happen we don’t lose the land and the structure and we would not be doing it,” Suchy said.

“I don’t think anyone is completely sure what is going on so you get my point here,” Kimmel said. “So why now?”

“Since this process may happen with the Walk Bridge – hopefully, hopefully not, depending on your perspective – the Maritime Aquarium would like to be proactive and be in the position that should that Walk Bridge happen, it’s not going to be any further disrupted by virtue of programming, visitors coming to the site and having to construct this IMAX theater elsewhere while the Walk Bridge is underway,” Suchy said. “So, it’s our attempt to get ahead of that, be in a position to commence construction if in fact the Walk Bridge is to go forward. If it’s not going to go forward, if it’s not going to happen at all, then we stay exactly where we are.”

No, if ConnDOT doesn’t take the land, the Aquarium would not renovate the theater.

Asked Thursday if the building of the Walk Bridge is in doubt, Mayor Harry Rilling, in an email, said, “Nothing is guaranteed with the state financials in this extremely difficult situation.”

Construction is set to begin any day on two related projects, the Danbury Dockyard and the CP243 Interlocking, a set of switches in the Norden Place area. Gov. Dannel Malloy was expected here Thursday for a groundbreaking but that was postponed.

The IMAX Theater issue is complicated, as the Council discussion touched on amendments to the Aquarium’s lease of city property and the eminent domain issues.

Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo asked Suchy why ConnDOT would need a permanent easement on the property if they are going to own it.

“I don’t think anyone has come to final conclusion of how they are going to acquire land, or acquire easements, or what combination of those ownerships are going to have,” Suchy said.

That’s a problem because, “I think one of the worst things would be for the Aquarium to be coming through this process, starting its construction while this (Walk Bridge construction) is underway, as opposed to be in the ground when all the craziness starts further south, where the IMAX theater is currently,” she said.

The Walk Bridge construction is planned to begin in 2019.

Planned additions to the Maritime Aquarium are shown in yellow.

“We have all these components that we need to get accomplished before Walk Bridge starts,” Davis said. “These construction projects cannot occur simultaneously because of the current border lines they would need in relation to the project.”

The planned new theater will need Planning Commission approvals, the Redevelopment Agency approvals and the Council.

“There’s a lot of intricate parts to make this happen, just so the Aquarium can move forward and be in a position to be ready to go, and have no interruption to its programming, to its visitors, while the Walk Bridge is underway,” Suchy said.

“How do you fund it?” Committee Chairman Thomas Livingston (D-District E) asked.

“That’s not information that I have at this point,” Suchy said.

Architect Christopher Cowan explained details of the plan. The meerkats have to be moved because of the noise from the construction, he said, explaining that they’re going upstairs.

The new theater will be “quite a bit smaller,” he said. “It’s going to be a 4D theater, not a IMAX. That’s the latest, where you get sprayed with water, wind and all that fun stuff.”

“The seal tank is very small and it really needs to be brought up to standards,” he said. “…It’s going to get bigger. Actually, it’s going to be a taller tank, which is really a great thing. So, it’s going to be a bi-level tank which it isn’t now, and that’s indicative of what you see inmost aquariums.”

The upper level of the tank will be on the second floor, he said.

Much has changed on Marshall Street since the aquarium was opened nearly 30 years ago, and the new entrance planned to face that activity “is more of a focal point and it should be a focal point,” Suchy said.

Construction will be done in stages, with “checkerboard” techniques that, “We see that all the time in New York City,” Cowan said, mentioning “temporary tunnels to protect the public” and a plan to create the new entrance first.

“Who’s paying for it?” Council member Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) asked, going on to review the history of the aquarium – “The city was the ultimate co-signer on the bonds that the Maritime Authority was supposed to pay off and never did.”

The city paid off the building, and then, “It was time for center to pay rent,” but a deal was made so the Aquarium would take over maintenance instead, he said.

“My concern is if this is in any way locally related and you didn’t pay for the millions of dollars worth of improvements or rearrangements or whatever you want to call it, the city is on the hook for this,” Bonenfant said. “Unless you’ve got commitments from the federal and state government, that they’ll pay for it no matter what.”

“That is the big question,” Livingston said.

“That is beyond my knowledge. Others are negotiating with the city and the state with respect to this,” Suchy said.

Maritime Aquarium President Brian Davis talks to Common Council members Wednesday in City Hall.

The Aquarium is still working closely with the city and the state, Davis said.

“Those funds, we are working to ensure that the impact that we are having, the agencies that are causing those impacts, help us to get through that funding,” Davis said. “…. What we want to continue to do is contribute the $25 million in tourism revenue to the city of Norwalk and the $42 million in tourism that we contribute to the state. So, we are working diligently to ensure that this remains in operation, but as far as getting these things done, we are working to get that resolved that right now. I mean we are not looking for that to be additional funds from the city of Norwalk.”

The amendment to the lease is being structured to address these issues, Assistant Corporation Counsel Diane Beltz-Jacobson said.

“All of this construction is considered the ‘functional equivalent’ in the state/federal eminent domain law,” she said. “The way the negotiations are going at this point is, to the extent that there is money coming from the state to replace what’s taken in terms of the building, and to leave the building functionally equivalent… those moneys are going to go directly, well the negotiation is that the money will go directly to pay off the expenses. The city will then keep the compensation that is given from the state, in so far as it relates to the easements, the temporary construction easement and the permanent easement over the property. There is still some concern about what we do with the shortfall, and that is still being discussed, which is outside the scope of the lease.”

“So you know there’s a shortfall?” Livingston asked.

“No,” she said, “but just trying to anticipate any areas.”

Renderings show parts of the Maritime Aquarium that are to be removed in orange, and additions in yellow.

8 comments

Sue Haynie October 6, 2017 at 6:34 am

Mayor Rilling’s office didn’t inform the Common Council of the Maritime’s application for the 4D theater, why?

The 4D theater, according to Maritime Aquarium President Brian Davis,would only be built if the State of CT/Walk Bridge project destroys the theater there now. Where’s Norwalk’s leadership and advocacy!?

The Maritime Aquarium is a great asset to Norwalk. They are not the bad guys here, and that’s the way this article reads.

“Those funds, we are working to ensure that the impact that we are having, the agencies that are causing those impacts, help us to get through that funding,” Davis said. “…. What we want to continue to do is contribute the $25 million in tourism revenue to the city of Norwalk…as far as getting these things done, we are working to get that resolved that right now. I mean we are not looking for that to be additional funds from the city of Norwalk.””

carol October 6, 2017 at 9:13 am

lets not lose a valuable asset to the city over bickering. put everything in place to go forward should the need arise.

Mark October 6, 2017 at 12:05 pm

Agree with all above. This needs support, not skepticism. The Aquarium is a major asset to the city. Any method of improving that asset regardless of the bridge construction or not should be explored. There are only a few of these theaters on the east coast. Let’s see if they’re a novelty or if they’re the next wave, and stay ahead of times.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 6, 2017 at 12:31 pm

The Maritime Aquarium lists the buildings as assets on its tax returns. These buildings became assets because the city forgave the debt. But Norwalk paid for those structures. Nothing against the MA. I love it. My kids loved it. But I’d like to see how Mr. Davis arrived as his tourism figures. Also based on what I read above, it sounds like the MA is seizing this eminent domain Walk Bridge opportunity to upgrade its facilities on someone else’s dime. I’d do the same if I ran a non profit. Not sure I see the value in 4D over IMAX. Who wants to go to a movie to be squirted with water?

Rick October 6, 2017 at 2:13 pm

{…}

But then again some have already had their hand slapped by involving themselves with the residents

Im not sure how Norwalk makes all this money off of the MA

300,000 kids are brought in by bus , they spend money at the MA and then taken by bus back out of the city.

Does MA give anything to Norwalk via each ticket bought?

Im sorry its when visitors come park receive a parking ticket is when Norwalk makes the money,

Where is Duff on all this his buddy you know the green cleaning solvent company who sells to Norwalk schools and the same guy who he worked with when the janitors at MA were booted and brought back , has he offered any help here?

This comment has been edited in accordance to the comments policy, which prohibits character assassination by innuendo.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 7, 2017 at 9:51 am

@Rick, that’s spot on. The MA is a popular destination for young families. And it’s an asset to Norwalk. But the tranlation of tourist popularity into 25 million in increased revenue for Norwalk is as murky as the river under the Walk Bridge. Norwalk owns the land, which the CDOT is seizing through eminent domain to facilitate the Walk Bridge project. The buildings belong to the MA only because the City forgave the bond debt. To my knowledge the MA makes no direct payments to Norwalk for anything. The revenue positive side of the MA is linked to increased tourist traffic in SoNo, and observationally speaking, I agree with Rick. The tourists come to the MA and spend there. And then they leave. They’re not walking up the road to Washington Street to spend money.

While no one was paying attention, the state DOT seems to have embraced the moveable bridge option. The Mayor, who was present at the last public meeting, had no questions for the presenters. And who knows, maybe this is another case of the mayor working “behind the scenes” as both his detractors and his fans like to say. Missing here is advocacy for Norwalk, its residents and taxpayers and businesses large and small. But the MA appears to be getting a new theatre—because the DOT agrees with the premise that the MA depends on IMAX revenue, even though the admission ticket includes the IMAX. Also the current IMAX is underprogrammed, and a new 4D IMAX—complete with wind, water and motion effects (say helllo to motion sickness folks) will be even harder to program. What are we thinking?

Mike Mushak October 7, 2017 at 4:14 pm

I highly doubt the claims made here by two other commenters that visitors to the aquarium don’t patronize other businesses in the area.

Why wouldn’t they want to stay in SoNo and go eat in the many restaurants or shop after a morning or afternoon spent at the aquarium? This is an attractive walkable neighborhood that is a great destination for folks from other areas of the region that don’t have this kind of vibrant historic district in their own towns. Folks I know who live elsewhere love coming down to SoNo and walking around and dining out here.

On Saturday morning, 10/7/17, I went to the aquarium with out-of-town house guests from NH who love visiting aquariums. They loved it and gave it high marks, and after watching the seals get fed raw mackerel at noon we got hungry to have our own lunch.

Afterwards we walked across the IMAX parking lot to Washington St., and ate at Mecha Noodle Bar. We saw 2 families from the Aquarium at the restaurant, and it was packed with a ten minute wait. As we walked back to the Maritime garage we saw a steady stream of folks on the sidewalks heading from the aquarium to Washington St probably to shop and have lunch like we did.

Again, what evidence is there that folks who go to the aquarium don’t stay awhile and walk around SoNo? Because based on what I know from experience, that is not an accurate assessment.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 7, 2017 at 10:12 pm

@Mike Mushak, your observational evidence is as valid as mine. I asked the MA to provide documentary evidence fo back up the claim that their presence contributes $25,000,000 in revenue to the city of Norwalk. I have asked how they determined the role of the IMAX on their revenue. Since the IMAX is not fully programmed and the ticket price is included in admission, the MA director might be able to tease out these figures so the people who live and work and run businesss in SoNo appreciate the urgency. The MA makes not direct payments to city hall. Their debt has been forgiven and they own the buildings. Why should their work be prioritized? Many businesses will be impacted by the Walk Bridge project. If the MA is a priority to Norwalk, I’d like to hear more convincing evidence than our anecdotal affection for seals.

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