Detroit Zoo envisions plans for large aquarium downtown

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

The Detroit Zoo is  working on developing a large aquarium on Detroit’s riverfront that they project will draw 1 million visitors a year, zoo officials said Tuesday. 

A location for the aquarium has not been determined, but one possible site is land where Ford Auditorium once sat. Hart Plaza also has been considered in the past.


Zoo director and CEO Ron Kagan said the idea of an aquarium  along the riverfront has been in the works for nearly 20 years. Now, after recession and city’s bankruptcy, they say they finally can move forward. 

“We’ve always envisioned it to be on the beautiful water downtown,” Kagan said. “It’s a large endeavor that requires many things to fall into place, and we have worked on this for a long time. What’s different now is that the city is out of bankruptcy.” 

The aquarium could cost as much as $200 million from a blend of private and public funds, Kagan said. Similar to the newly launched 33,000-square-foot Polk Penguin Conservation Center, Kagan envisions the aquarium with high-tech features and a modern, sleek look. 

Zoo leaders have not decided on a location along the riverfront, but Kagan said the site of the demolished Ford Auditorium and another on Hart Plaza have been considered since Kwame Kilpatrick was mayor. 

The proposal joins a list of other developments planned for the resurging city. 

This week, the Ilitch organization announced changes to six potential developments, a move that increases office and retail space in a nearly $200 million investment. 

Last month, the winning design was announced for a $50 million makeover of west Riverfront Park, which is now empty space downstream from Joe Louis Arena and the Riverfront Towers complex. 

And with Joe Louis Arena’s demolition slated for later this year, the city is planning infrastructure changes to make the isolated site more accessible to the riverfront and tie it to the burgeoning downtown area.

The city is in talks with major land owners — including the authority that controls the adjoining Cobo Center, the company that acquired the Joe Louis property during the city’s bankruptcy and DTE Energy — to come up with funding to “create a holistic development framework,” according to a study done for the city and private land owners near the arena.

While an aquarium would have a big economic effect for the area, joining other redevelopment plans along the riverfront, Kagan said, the main focus would be on environmental education and conservation efforts. 

“Our projections would be well over 1 million visitors per year, but attendance and economic impact is just part of our agenda,” said Kagan, who added the zoo in Royal Oak gets 1.5 million visitors per year.

“It depends where and what type of aquarium it ends up being and we’re still determining what it would have,” Kagan said. “It wouldn’t be like anything near us. I think the only comparison would be in Chicago or Toronto.”

Kagan said the  aquarium would be larger than the Sea Life Michigan Aquarium at Great Lakes Crossing Outlets in Auburn Hills and the Belle Isle Aquarium on Detroit’s Belle Isle Park. 

Sea Life opened in January 2015 as the largest Michigan aquarium at 35,000 square feet with sharks, stingrays, jellyfish, seahorses and more than 5,000 underwater creatures.

Belle Isle Aquarium, designed by famed Detroit architect Albert Kahn, opened in 1904 and has been considered the country’s oldest. The city’s economic struggles prompted its closure from 2005 to 2012. Attendance has grown as visitors flock to see its attractions, including one of the world’s largest collections of air-breathing fish, according to its website.

Belle Isle Aquarium officials said were not worried another aquarium would tempt visitors from their site.

“Its uniqueness simply cannot be replicated, and therefore will continue to thrive," said Michele Hodges, president of the Belle Isle Conservancy. "In fact, visitor numbers have only continued to increase since Sea Life opened.

"It also is free to visit, is small, and has a strong education component. No other facility can do what we do."

Hodges said one concern was the "need for cultural institutions to collaborate when figuring out funding scenarios and operational models that are sustainable.” 

Staff Writers Mark Hicks and Neal Rubin contributed to this report.