Toledo Zoo Aquarium to Undergo $25.5M Renovation
TOLEDO, OH (Toledo Business Journal) - As one of the final projects in the Toledo Zoo’s 10-year master plan, another WPA era building is getting a facelift. The aquarium, which opened in 1939, will close to the public in October and reopen in April 2015 after a $25.5 million renovation. Construction is scheduled to begin in mid-November.
The majority of the project is funded by Lucas County voters from its levy, as well as both private donations and Zoo revenue.
“It’s a huge project. It has multi-departmental coordination,” stated Jay Hemdal, curator of fishes and invertebrates at the Zoo. “It’s not just the aquarium, but it’s our construction / facilities department, maintenance, and education. It’s amazing how involved this has been.”
According to Hemdal, every animal in the building must be vacated by the time construction begins. “Even one can’t remain behind because they will be cutting the electrical power,” stated Hemdal.
The Zoo has an offsite holding facility it has built, which is housed in its warehouse facility across the Anthony Wayne Trail. The tanks inside were donated from a fishery facility in Ann Arbor. The room will hold approximately 10-15% of the animals from the aquarium and the rest will be moving to other Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) facilities across the country.
Because the cost to get an animal on exhibit is almost all transportation, the Zoo will be bringing in new animals before the aquarium reopens.
“To bring the same animals back would double the cost,” explained Hemdal. “These animals are also middle-aged fish. We have one black-tipped reef shark that has been here since 1989, but to move her out for two years and then move her back doesn’t make economic sense. We will acquire smaller, younger black-tipped reef sharks.”
He also explained that because the animals have different intrinsic values, he has worked out deals with the aquariums to acquire less-desirable fish in order to gain the more desirable ones for their exhibits.
“We didn’t want someone coming in and cherry-picking all the best animals and leaving us with the ones no one really wants,” he stated. Hemdal added some extra space was built into the holding facility in case a few are left over.
The renovation process has been started and stopped more than once. “The stumbling block was funding, which we’ve since had a better handle on,” stated Hemdal.
The aquarium features cement pilings, which reach 60 feet into the ground, preventing the building from significantly settling despite bearing the weight of thousands of gallons of water. It is still in its original 1930s format, which Hemdal referred to as a museum, or postage-stamp collection.
“You walk window to window and see some fish,” he explained. “Nowadays, aquariums are much more interactive and can do a better job of education. Things like touch tanks are night and day as far as kids are concerned.”
The renovated aquarium will feature diver feeding demonstrations where divers will be able to communicate with guests through a microphone in their masks. It will also feature two touch tanks and more interactivity, such as the ability for the public to change the light above the jelly fish, exposing different parts of the anatomy based on the shade of light.
“Right now our largest exhibit is 7,600 gallons,” stated Hemdal. “In the new aquarium, the largest will be 93,000 gallons. This is to allow us to exhibit animals that do not do well in smaller, confined spaces, as well as allow visitors a more expansive view.”
The outside of the building will be mostly unaltered.
“It is a WPA building and we want to keep it in its historic nature,” explained Hemdal. He mentioned that the Zoo will restore an original entrance to the aquarium which faces the amphitheater, which was closed in the 1950s. He also added that the Zoo is committed to reusing or recycling many of the items in the renovation, even including the fiberglass fish hanging from the walls. The wood doors will be refinished and used behind the scenes to cut costs as well.
When the building was opened in 1939 it was a freshwater-only aquarium featuring animals from the Great Lakes region. In the 1970s the Soo began to bring in saltwater marine life, which also brought diversity. The marine exhibits increased until they were about 30-40% of all the aquarium exhibits, according to Hemdal.
“Unfortunately, the saltwater caused severe degradation of the concrete, which wasn’t designed in today’s standards,” he noted. “The uncoated steel inside the concrete would rust and since rust takes up more space than concrete, the concrete would fall off. That’s where we had some severe structural issues inside the building. Some were addressed in the late 1990s, but we have actually taken four tanks out of service because of the weight on the floor.”
At the time of the interview, the project was approaching the 100% design phase and going out to bid. According to Hemdal, the quarantine will be turned over to the Zoo in June of 2014 when it will begin the process of getting the new animals into the 30,000 square foot space.
“You can’t open an aquarium and get the fish the day before,” he stated. “There are additional deadlines for getting the animals through the quarantine and getting the exhibit life support systems running.” He added, “If you rush an aquarium, it’s no good. If it’s rushed the public will come to the grand opening and the tanks are cloudy and there aren’t many fish.”
Hemdal also discussed that this is one of the most complicated projects the Zoo has ever undertaken.
“Some of our meetings consisted of lighting and temperature over one specific tank,” he explained. “The design process took over two years of solid meetings.”
The Zoo performed a survey of visitors and are bringing back popular animals such as alligator snapping turtles and piranha, as well as sharks, a giant octopus, and giant crabs. It also performed an additional survey with the public regarding the aquarium exhibits and how it impacted their views on conservation, nature, animals, and so on.
“We’re going to redo that survey after we open and it will document whether or not we did our job to educate our visitors,” Hemdal stated. “I think they’re in for a treat.”
In August the Zoo hosted a Bon Voyage celebration of the historical aquarium featuring educational kids’ activities, shark feeding, and a behind-the-scenes open house.