NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Common Council members on Tuesday moved plans for Maritime Aquarium forward, while clearly stated that they don’t intend the city to fund the work.
The approval of the plans that include a new 4D theater on the other side of the aquarium, to replace the IMAX Theater ahead of its demolition for the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s Walk Bridge project, was needed because the city owns the land the aquarium sits on. As owner, the city needed to sign off to move Zoning approvals forward, should they be obtained.
It’s not obligating Norwalk to spend money, Land Use and Building Management Committee Chairman Thomas Livingston (D-District E) said. Any modifications on the agreement would have to come back for approval.
“I want to commend the Maritime Aquarium for doing this,” Livingston said. “We talk so much about the destruction that’s coming to the city because of the Walk Bridge project. Here, the Aquarium is getting ahead of it and I think they are doing the appropriate thing in planning and have come up with a very detailed plan, to address this. We can’t lose sight of the fact that the Maritime Aquarium brings in $25 million a year to the city, 50 million a year to state. I for one don’t want the city to risk losing any of that because they get delayed on this project.”
The plans, which include an enhanced entrance on North Water Street and expanded seal tanks, have already been submitted to Zoning. A public hearing is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 15., Attorney Liz Suchy wrote in a letter to the Council, explaining that the Redevelopment Agency and the Planning Commission have approved the plans.
Aquarium officials are looking to begin their project as soon as possible, to have a new theater built before the state demolishes the old one. The new entrance would be built first, to facilitate patrons moving through the building as construction is underway.
Council member Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) on Tuesday highlighted the funding issue, pointing out that no one at the Oct. 4 Committee meeting said how the work would be financed.
“I was hoping there would be some kind of signal from the state of Connecticut that they are going to cover the whole thing because we have been on the hook before when the Maritime Center didn’t pay for their other construction loans. We paid for it, the taxpayers,” Bonenfant said.
“We have to understand that the $25 million in revenue that comes to the city has helped keep taxes low. You pay for it one way or the other. The better the Maritime Aquarium does, the better the city does; the better the city does the better the taxpayers are doing. So, I think It’s in everyone’s interest to figure out a way to get through this very tough situation,” Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said.
“If we can help in any way, with the money, not coming out of city coffers but finding ways to finance it, I think the city should do that to preserve this, not only for Norwalk but for the state,” Kimmel said. “And like I said before, it is in the interest of our property taxpayers to have a thriving downtown.”
“We are not obligating ourselves to pay anything right now,” Livingston said. “We are approving plans, any requests of financing or anything else would come back to the Council. At which time, we would look at that in the context of cost as well as what they provide to the city.”
Council member Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) asked why the plans had already been submitted to Zoning, without Council approval.
Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said he expected a new lease for the Aquarium to be approved in November and he suggested this approach.
“We could always make the Zoning approval contingent on having the necessary city approvals for the property. What we didn’t want to do is not them not to move forward on the land use approval,” Coppola said.
“The Aquarium has really done a great job about being very proactive,” he said, pointing out that the state keeps changing its deadlines, forcing Aquarium officials to constantly adapt.
The current IMAX theater screen can’t accommodate every movie, costing the Aquarium in lost revenue, Majority Leader John Kydes (D-District C) said.
“In order to change the screen and update the technology, you’d have to remove the wall anyway. I am thinking this is actually one of the better things to come out of the Walk Bridge project,” Kydes said.
It’s a silver lining, Kimmel said in agreement.
He’s been in a 4D theater, he said.
“It’s actually kind of cool,” Kimmel said. “I think it would be a great addition to the Aquarium especially if you can link it to the Aquarium’s mission regarding the environment, sea life, all of that, and not just racing cars, something like that, something that’s integral to the aquarium’s goals.”
The vote was 12-1-0, with Bonenfant voting no. It was the unknown nature of the financing, he said, adding, “I am OK with the plans and the layout.”