Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Maritime Museum

The Admiral John H. Fetterman Maritime Museum will be the crown jewel of the entire maritime park project. As a mother and a scientist with a passion for education, it is the part of the project that excites me the most. I want an economical viable park that acts as a magnet for drawing people of all types to one of our greatest assets, our downtown waterfront. Some will come for work, others for ballgames, others for a nice walk, but I believe the largest group will be coming to visit the maritime museum. However, I believe that we must consider the museum as part of the whole and think that creating the best park might entail shifting the museum site.

The negotiations regarding the project as a whole. I began considering the museum in the context of the overall site as our negotiations with the Master Developer evolved. (And steady progress is being made in making this project a reality.) Incredible effort has been going into crafting a Master Developer agreement that will provide incentives for retail uses of the private development (as opposed to offices on the ground floors) and other elements that will make this a economically viable, exciting park for all of us to visit.

The park is a three-leg stool: maritime museum, multiuse stadium, and public park. The master developer agreement governs the construction of the multiuse stadium, the public park, and development of the private buildings (along with the environmental cleanup of the site). A separate agreement, between the CMPA and UWF, governs the construction of the maritime museum.

Maritime Museum site. The maritime museum has always been envisioned along Devilliers Wharf. It seems fitting that a maritime museum have some element of water frontage. However, I believe that the activity we all have come to expect, the pretty pictures we were sold on, will not occur if the museum consumes the entire frontage of Devilliers Wharf.

Certainly, the entrance should relate to the waterfront. The entrance of all great museums sets the tone for the experience you will have inside, looking at the museum collections. Still, museums are by nature inward-looking—the curators expect visitors to enjoy the exhibits rather than the views (though occasional nice views can be integrated into the experience). Once a visitor enters the museum, they have left the public realm and do not add vibrancy to the street. And that’s a critical issue.

Activity on Devilliers Wharf limited by single use frontage. Currently, under the CMPA contract with UWF, the museum is proposed to consume the entire stretch of Devilliers Wharf that has buildings (the southern half of Devilliers Wharf will front the park). So the only reason to walk along Devilliers Wharf in this design is to enter the museum (assuming the museum puts the entrance on the wharf—their preliminary sketches have the entrance on the north side, by Devilliers Square). As I understand it, the museum will house the Trader Jon’s collection to add character to the museum restaurant. It would certainly be appropriate to have an exterior entrance to the restaurant, and perhaps they will have the restaurant stay open after museum hours. However, a museum entrance and one (potential) restaurant along Devilliers Wharf will not create the activity that will make this park successful. That is why I suggest some flexibility in siting the museum.

Additional uses on Devilliers Wharf. There are, I believe, changes that could be made that will improve the overall park design and success. Key to the park will be an active waterfront with a variety of attractions: restaurants, shopping, the museum. Perhaps we could create a narrower entrance for the museum on Devilliers Wharf with private development (restaurants/retail) on the first floor on either side and museum on the second floor. Perhaps shift the museum complex to the north to allow private restaurants/retail on the south side. I am not a planner nor a developer, so I don’t know what changes exactly would be most viable—I just feel that the plan as it is does not contribute to the level of activity needed for this project to meet the expectations of the community.

Collaborative Effort. This park has a number of participants, all necessary for its success. In all of the other agreements that the CMPA is entering (the Studer MOU, the Pelicans lease, the master developer agreement) there is wording that acknowledges that this is a multi-faceted agreement and that all parties will work together to create the best possible park. These agreements include wording like “a site selected by the mutual agreement of Studer Ownership Group and CMPA” and “in the general location at the Park.” The CMPA will have final oversight of all building placements on the park. Unfortunately, as I read the CMPA/UWF agreement, there is not the flexibility that would allow UWF and CMPA to work together and make adjustments to create the park we want.

What I would like to see. The UWF/CMPA agreement does not include any provisions for adjusting the site of the museum to create the best park for the community. In my conversations with many involved in the project and museum, there is a general understanding that the museum placement might be adjusted to conform to the overall plans. However, from what I know about contracts, if it is not written in the contract, it is not part of the agreement. I propose amending the museum contract to include language that allows flexibility in siting the structure. This would be consistent with the contracts governing the other pieces of the project. In addition, any considerations necessary for a move should be included—-the museum should have waterfront access/views, reimbursement for architectural charges paid by the museum in developing plans for a prior site, proximity to park, etc—-so that all of the parties know what the expectations are.

Am I undermining the project? I don’t believe so. By adding some flexibility, I believe the proposal helps strengthen the project as a whole. It can enhance the economic viability of the project by opening additional waterfront to commercial, revenue-producing, tax-generating activity. And it could increase the number of people enjoying the waterfront, bringing essential vibrancy to this wonderful community asset.