Have we reached burnout on penguins, sharks, piranhas and otters? And what makes an aquarium that doesn’t tank two years after the splashy opening gala?

As city councils around the country look at the prosperity of reborn urban centers like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Boston’s Quincy Market, they wonder how to recreate similar gleaming examples in their own cities—all those tourists on foot, sauntering and spending.

Increasingly, they are pinning their hopes on aquariums—their numbers have grown more than 50 percent in the last decade, according to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. But the association also reported that aquariums, much more so than zoos, rely on tourism to succeed. Their draw is typically 80 percent tourists to 20 percent resident visitors. It’s interesting that zoo’s visitor figures are the reverse: 80 percent resident, 20 percent tourists.

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But there is a shadow behind success stories like Chattanooga’s aquarium, with an average 1.17 million visitors annually, that turned the city into a destination. The flip side of the aquariums for everyone phenomenon is fierce competition. Chattanooga’s 11-year-old aquarium is gearing up to compete with Atlanta’s planned 400,000 sf ark-shaped giant—benefactor Bernie Marcus (of Home Depot) has said he expects 2 million visitors the first year. Chattanooga draws a reported 25 percent of its visitors from the Atlanta region, and has announced a plan to double its size by 2005, the year the Georgia Aquarium opens.

Also, there are already some cautionary tales: Denver’s “Colorado’s Ocean Journey” opened in 1999 at a cost of $94 million: it was sold three years later in bankruptcy proceedings for $13 million.

So, have we reached burnout on penguins, sharks, piranhas and otters? And what makes an aquarium that doesn’t tank two years after the splashy opening gala?

One firm that has built a lot of ground-breaking aquariums is Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc.: they designed Boston’s New England Aquarium, the Chattanooga facility and Baltimore’s National Aquarium. Firm president Peter Kuttner and Associate Principal Steve Imrich, have a few ideas on what makes for design that works within its environment, and what architects can expect going in.

Are the Glory Days Over?

Thoughtful urban planning, a design that reflects a region’s personality, and increasingly, a substantial private investment are some keys to getting beyond master planning.

The trend toward business dollars, as opposed to municipal bonds, seems to be holding.

Kuttner mentions Boston, Baltimore and Osaka’s “Ring of Fire” aquarium as models for this kind of public/private partnership.

“Nobody goes in thinking an aquarium is going to be an enormous money-maker,” he said. “But it will be a destination for tourists, and a way to get area residents to return to the city.”

In other words, what surrounds the aquarium can make or break it. If it isn’t part of a cohesive whole, it’s not going to do nearly as well.

“In my experience, a lot of other complimentary things are happening,” Imrich said. Urban design, as opposed to plunking down a large storehouse for tanks, is where aquariums can provide “synergy and critical mass” to downtown revitalization projects, he said.

And that type of planning takes time, momentum, political support and private money—C7A got involved in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor back in ’69, Kuttner said. The aquarium didn’t open until 1981.

So the key to success lies not only in the design of the building, but also with underlying commercial and managerial structure, Kuttner said. Public relations, management and fund-raising have to be in place to make sure operations don’t suffer because of the debt load. Organizers need to recognize details such as the “need to hire a director a year ahead of time,” Kuttner said.

Imrich points out that the pre-and-post expenses for an aquarium are specialized, and the depth of work that must be done before the first bulldozer arrives requires a great deal of coordination—from permitting to adherence to regulations that govern an accredited institution.

One difference between a cultural museum and an aquarium is that a nice retired docent can’t feed the hammerheads. Aquariums require a lot of professionals, before during and after the building opens. And although they have public operating hours, the pumping, maintenance, clean-up and animal care makes them virtually a 24-7 staff undertaking, Imrich said, which adds to the unlikelihood that they’ll generate a lot of dollars.

Therefore, he doubts aquariums will ever give zoos a run for their money—they’re expensive to build and maintain, and lately they’ve been sited mostly on downtown waterfront, which is limited and costly.

But regional aquariums don’t all have to have blockbuster, budget-crunching buildings. “We’re seeing a lot more $30 million aquariums than $100 million aquariums,” Kuttner said. They can outperform zoos, according to the architects, since their footprint is smaller, there are more species comparatively, and they’re usually convenient to a lot of people. And they’re inside, something that makes a big difference for summer travelers
“Telling the story of the particular region is becoming more important,” Imrich said. “We’re dealing with a more sophisticated, mobile generation,” that expects more than barking seals and dolphins.

The smaller projects and budgets may reflect Imrich’s theory that the same competition that kills some facilities while they’re young may ultimately be the specialty’s salvation—backers and planners are seeing that sharks can only carry you so far. For a city’s aquarium to succeed, it’s got to tell a different story than the one the family saw last summer.

A current C7A project, upstate New York’s St. Lawrence Aquarium and Environmental Research Institute, illustrates the regional focus theory. It wouldn’t work on the Gulf Coast, or the Pacific. And it is a return to what used to drive many aquarium projects—a real link to scientific research, regional problem-solving, and partnership with universities.

The state university of North Carolina was behind the three aquariums strung along the state’s fabled coast that includes the Outer Banks and a complex estuary system.

C7A did the masterplanning for that system, which recognized if you let children pet a horseshoe crab, you’re creating an audience that pays while serving the original mission of education. The system partnered with the Dare County School system early on, and college students from all over the state work and learn there. Admission remains $6, as compared to the roughly $15 charged by most urban aquariums.

Although it would seem a given that green design would be a part of zoos and aquariums, that’s not always the case. Sustainability is something Imrich has pursued for some time, and he finds a plan with N.C. State University, “Sturgeon City,” promising. It’s a brownfield site near Jacksonville, N.C. that would part of a larger plan to again partner with higher education on efforts to rehabilitate the region’s Wilson Bay.

The Aquarium Roadmap

Although Kuttner and Imrich have been part of many private schemes that overall make money, aquariums rarely do so.

“I think the belief that aquariums are going to pay for themselves hasn’t proven to be true,” Kuttner said.

If retail tenants are the candy, aquariums can be the nutritional element, Kuttner said. Which is only fair, since in the case of most educational draws like science museums, “they’re not trying to turn those for a profit,” he said. In general, fees for C7A’s aquarium projects average 14 or 15 percent, Kuttner said, because that’s the balance between classic “empty room” architecture and the high-end exhibit space—a spectrum that ranges 10 percent to as high as 30 percent.

“We try and break out the exhibits and special areas out from fees,” Kuttner said. “We’re trying to provide a little more clarity for out clients.”

Even in the case of successes like Baltimore, ongoing costs can be phenomenal. Last year, Baltimore broke ground on an ambitious 65,000 + sf expansion. In these days of deficit state budgets, it’s not surprising the news was paired with a $15 million capital campaign. In June, the aquarium received a $800,000 challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation to support its largest expansion project so far.

Learning from Other Models

Aquariums have benefited from ideas from other educational and cultural institutions like children’s, science and art museums. More depth, more interactive exhibits and more species are trends that Kuttner mentioned. Imrich suspects there will be more partnering with K-12 as a way to drive attendance and increase revenues. Children are ambassadors—once they’re hooked on a school visit, there’s a good chance they’ll get the family back soon on a slow weekend, or when extended family visits.

Technology is changing things too. At the time the New England Aquarium was built it was groundbreaking in scope and visibility. But its tanks were glass, which physically can’t bear the load that the new acrylics can. Nor is glass as adaptable for things like cylinder tanks, which allow a 360-view, like at the new South Carolina Aquarium, which opened in 2000 on Charleston’s waterfront.

And the quest for the new and undone continues—the South Carolina Aquarium lies less than 100 miles from one archetype of the aquarium as the hub in a commercial setting. Ripley’s (“Believe it or Not”) aquarium has a Web site that proclaims “Open 7 days a week, 365 days per year, from 9 a.m -11 p.m.” The centerpiece is a conveyor belt, or “glide-path” that moves beneath the 750,000-gallon tank, “Dangerous Reef” where not surprisingly, sharks swim overhead.

Imrich has two school-aged daughters, and he’s conscious of the power of a child’s thrilling experience. They’ll tell friends about it and drag their parents there. A visit can inspire a life-long fascination or even a profession. Even if it’s only the discovery (for example, at the New England aquarium) that penguins are extraordinarily quick and graceful in the water, unlike their clumsy on-land waddle.

“There’s an amazing amount of power in the memory of kids,” Imrich said. “We try and create the iconic and memorable experience—the experience of being in the deep.”

—Lisa Ashmore