Without fanfare or advance notice, the Baltimore Department of Transportation today removed the fence that has separated the public from the National Aquarium’s West Covington Park for months.
A worker with Brawner Builders, who took down the fence and asked not to be identified, told The Brew this afternoon, “It’s open. We took the fence down.”
Meanwhile, documents on file with the city show that $7.3 million in public funds were allocated to build the park on the northern shore of the Middle Branch. These federal and state funds were in addition to $3 million that CEO John Racanelli said the aquarium itself paid.
The total figure of $10.3 million is more than twice the $4 million price tag previously disclosed by the park’s designer.
The National Aquarium is considering whether to sell the park and other land it acquired from the city in 2007 for a $110 million aquatic life center campus that never materialized.
The park was the only part of the project that was constructed. Earlier this week, The Brew disclosed that the aquarium is in violation of a 100-page agreement with the city to complete the first phase of the project by the end of 2012.
If a potential buyer was required to pay back the public funds spent on developing the park, the aquarium’s ability to sell the land would be impacted. Such a sale would also require city approval, according to the disposition agreement.
Sagamore Development, the real estate arm of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, had been considered a likely buyer of the property. Although Sagamore had “conversations” with the aquarium about the land, a spokesman for the real estate firm said last week it has no interest in buying the park.
Kevin Plank’s older brother, Scott Plank, a former Under Armour executive, serves as vice chairman of the aquarium board and is a member of its strategic planning committee, according to the aquarium’s website.
Another member of the board is Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Yesterday, a spokesperson for city DOT said that the park, located at Hanover and Cromwell streets, would open by the middle of this month.
“The fence is expected to be removed within the next week or two,” Kathy Dominick said in an email.
Today’s removal of the metal fence marks the end to a long period of limbo for the waterfront property, which was designed as a recreational area, wildlife sanctuary and place to teach children about aquatic life.
Construction Was Complete
When construction began in 2010, the park was scheduled for completion in 2011. The opening date was pushed back to the summer of 2014, then to this summer.
Construction has been substantially complete for months. The area contains hiking and biking trails, benches, bike racks and plants selected because they are maintenance free. The park offers picturesque views of the Hanover Street Bridge and the Baltimore Rowing Club in Cherry Hill.
The land is owned by the Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation, an affiliate of the private non-profit National Aquarium that operates in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Sold by Dixon Administration
The land is part of a 19-acre tract of city property that the Sheila Dixon administration sold to CALC at bargain prices in 2007 so it could build the aquatic life campus.
Even though the aquarium owns the land, aquarium CEO Racanelli said that only DOT could open the park.
The aquarium had to co-develop the park with a municipal agency in order to receive public funds, Racanelli said, and, in doing so, it lost the ability to make certain decisions about the park’s operation.
No one has explained why West Covington Park is so far behind schedule in opening. Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Rawlings-Blake, who oversees DOT as well as sits on the aquarium board, has not responded to questions about the delay.
When asked about West Covington Park’s hours of operation and how it will be maintained and monitored, DOT spokeswoman Dominick did not respond. Racanelli and other aquarium officials could not be reached for comment this week.
Federal and State Funds
According to public documents, the U.S. Congress provided $2.3 million to CALC for “infrastructure improvements” on the land. The money came in two Congressional appropriations. One was for $1.5 million and required a 20% match from the aquarium. The second was for $800,000 and required no matching funds.
According to other records, CALC also received $5 million from the state Department of Business and Economic Development and Maryland Economic Development Assistance Authority.
The money was to be used on the first phase of the aquatic life campus, as outlined in the land disposition agreement. The waterfront park was the only part of the first phase that ever got underway.
The land disposition agreement imposes various restrictions on the property. It states that no construction is permitted within 100 feet of the shoreline, a buffer zone created in accordance with Chesapeake Bay critical areas regulations, and that land along the shoreline must be open and accessible to the public.
It also states that the property must be used for the same purposes that the city required when it sold the land to CALC.