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Plans for New Scripps Aquarium Undermined

November 29, 1987|ANTHONY PERRY | Times Staff Writer

The long-awaited construction of a new aquarium and museum at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has hit a geological snag that threatens to increase the cost by $1 million and put the project six months behind schedule.

Scripps officials have announced that soil tests have revealed a "potentially unstable geological condition" at the project site, a wooded knoll east of La Jolla Shores Drive that is now used for a ship-to-shore radio station.

Architectural design work has been halted until officials decide whether the site can be reinforced or whether a new location will be required. Officials had hoped the aquarium-museum could open in 1990.

Disappointed, but Still Committed

"We are disappointed at these findings, but this in no way weakens our resolve to proceed with the new aquarium project," Scripps Institution Director Edward A. Frieman said.

Though Scripps is world-renowned as a research and educational institution, its museum and aquarium--the institution's main program for the public--has long been seen as less than ideal.

Scripps' current aquarium, built in 1951 west of La Jolla Shores Drive, is cramped, dark and drafty. Parking is severely limited. Seawater is seeping into the concrete of the 12,500-square-foot building and eating away at the steel framework.

Annual attendance had hit a high of 400,000, but fell to 250,000 in 1972 after an adjacent parking lot was closed to the public.

The aquarium has never fully rebounded in popularity (attendance is now slightly more than 300,000 annually)--despite a 40% increase in San Diego County's population in the last 15 years and a major increase in the area's lure as a tourist mecca.

Many of the school groups that once went to the aquarium now go to Sea World, the privately run aquatic theme park on Mission Bay, which opened in 1964 and attracts about 3 million visitors a year.

Scripps, and its parent, the University of California, began dreaming of a new aquarium in 1966, but funding problems and competing scientific priorities kept the project on the back burner. In 1981, the dream became an official part of the university's development plans.

Large Donation

Finally, a year ago, Scripps and UC San Diego announced the receipt of a $6-million donation from the Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation for a new $8.2-million aquarium and museum--to be called the Stephen Birch Aquarium-Museum. Since the announcement, an additional $1.4 million has been raised in private donations.

With fund-raising still under way for the aquarium and other campus needs, officials were quick to reaffirm support for the project.

"The aquarium-museum at Scripps remains one of UCSD's highest priorities," UCSD Chancellor Richard C. Atkinson said. "We intend to proceed as quickly as possible to minimize any delay in completion of the project."

If a decision is made to stabilize the current site, said Tom Collins, associate director at Scripps, the institution will probably seek funds for the job from the UC Board of Regents. Collins put the cost tentatively at $1 million.

Red flags were hoisted after routine drilling samples found a layer of clay between the bedrock and topsoil, indicating the site was once connected to the mesa located to the northeast and probably slipped to its present location thousands of years ago.

"We found no evidence of slippage in recorded history," Collins said. "We don't feel that there is any imminent danger to the public that this site will slide down and bury anybody."

Still, Scripps officials would prefer to buttress the site to guard against any slippage, however remote the possibility. "Scripps has been here nearly 100 years, and we figure we'll be here another 100, so it makes sense to plan for the future," Collins said.

In case reinforcing is not feasible, Scripps is looking at an alternative site on its property, 600 feet to the north. One drawback to using that site and leaving the other untouched, Collins said, is that such a decision could hinder Scripps' expansion plans by devouring precious land.

"It could significantly curtail the future growth of the institution," he said. "Our position is that we'll have to fix it someday, so why not now?"

The preferred 5.5-acre site affords a panoramic view of the ocean and beach, the Scripps buildings and pier, La Jolla and La Jolla Cove. On a clear day, San Clemente Island is visible and, on a very clear day, Santa Catalina Island can be seen.

Plans call for a 31,000-square-foot, one-story building, with 17,000 square feet of outdoor space for tide pool exhibits, picnicking, whale watching and other public activities. The new aquarium would include 36 tanks of up to 30,000 gallons each, displaying marine animals in habitats representing the coast of California and the Sea of Cortez.

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