A rope bridge suspended over a shark tank is among features of a $45 million aquarium a developer plans to open in late 2018 at Union Station in downtown St. Louis.
Construction of the St. Louis Aquarium in what had been Union Station’s shopping mall will begin this fall, said officials of Lodging Hospitality Management, owner of the downtown landmark. The project’s formal announcement is scheduled for Tuesday.
Bob O’Loughlin, LHM’s chairman and chief executive, said Monday he believes the 75,000-square-foot aquarium will anchor Union Station and establish it as a family attraction similar to Navy Pier in Chicago. He said the company is discussing the aquarium project with three operators and is near an agreement with one of them.
“We’re very close to inking a deal in the next couple of weeks,” O’Loughlin said.
LHM also is interviewing contractors to build the attraction.
Union Station failed as a shopping mall but can thrive as a family entertainment center, O’Loughlin said. St. Louis Aquarium will have shops and restaurants intended to cater to families who want to spend a day visiting the Arch, City Museum and other downtown attractions, he said.
“It’s exciting,” O’Loughlin said. “You’re taking something that is very iconic in Union Station, and I think we can all feel good that it has a bright future.”
St. Louis Aquarium, to be open year round, will have fish tanks containing a combined 1 million gallons of water and display thousands of aquatic species, LHM officials said.
An exhibit with one of the largest shark collections in the Midwest will have what officials call the Shark Bridge, a rope-and-steel contraption that will suspend visitors inches above the water.
An LHM representative said that depending on final design, the shark tank will hold from 350,000 to 550,000 gallons of saltwater. The bridge over the tank will be 75 to 85 feet long. Its V shape made of steel will have rope suspension support. Rope mesh sides will allow the single-file walkers to see into the tank but will stop anyone from falling or jumping into the water, the representative said.
St. Louis Aquarium will be a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, LHM said. The facility will employ marine biologists and aquarists to care for the creatures displayed and oversee water chemistry, animal nutrition, veterinary duties, education, staffing and safety.
The association, based in Silver Spring, Md., has more than 230 members. Among them is the Butterfly House, which opened in 1998 in Chesterfield and, since 2001, has been a division of the Missouri Botanical Garden.
The aquarium, expected to get a million visitors annually, will be a draw for school groups as well as an entertainment destination, LHM said. An 8,500-square-foot event space with the shark tank as a backdrop will be available for weddings, social gatherings and corporate parties.
Union Station, a National Historic Landmark, opened in 1894, and for decades was among the nation’s busiest passenger rail terminals. It closed in 1978 when Amtrak relocated its St. Louis station.
A $140 million renovation completed in 1985 by the Rouse Corp., of Baltimore, redid Union Station as a then-trendy “festival marketplace.” Success faded after a few years as tenants and visitors drifted away.
LHM paid $20 million for the station in 2012 and began work to pivot it from shopping toward entertainment and hospitality. The company put more than $40 million in the station’s hotel, meeting rooms and vaulted Grand Hall.
Additional plans still include a 200-foot-tall observation wheel that LHM announced in January 2015. The wheel, planned for part of what is now a parking lot next to the train shed, will accommodate 180 passengers in 30 enclosed gondolas.
Also on the way is what LHM calls the Train Park, which will offer food and drinks served from train cars and shipping containers.
Train Park’s first phase — a fire-and-light show at the station’s small lake — will open by November, LHM said. The display will erupt from nine “fire pods” in the water, the company said. Lights hung from trees and a light show projected onto the underside of the train shed above the lake will produce a display synchronized to music.
Also coming is a new boardwalk around the lake and a “hammock-style” lounge from which visitors may watch the fire-and-light show, LHM said.
O’Loughlin said his company will coordinate Union Station projects with Metro Transit, which plans to rehab the MetroLink tunnel that runs beneath the train shed.
Also coming to Union Station are more hotel rooms. O’Loughlin said LHM will put 32 guest rooms in the clock tower on Market Street. Construction will start in January and be done late next year in the area where railroad companies had offices when the station opened. The $5.5 million project will give the hotel a total of 571 rooms.
LHM also plans to begin in January a $3.5 million expansion of the Midway meeting space on the station’s 18th Street side.