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.
“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.
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.”