Aquarium designs are Coney’s latest freak show

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Will the next freak in the Coney Island be a 50-foot jellyfish, a phosphorescent whale with a gaping mouth or the architectural love child of a Beluga and the Cyclone?

In two weeks, city officials will select one of the three sea-themed design proposals as the new exterior of the New York Aquarium, a drab concrete-walled compound just beyond the boardwalk on Surf Avenue and West Eighth Street.

The renovation — the first since the aquarium opened in 1957 — is one element of Mayor Bloomberg’s $83.2-million plan to attract new visitors to Coney Island and its oft-forgotten attraction.

The final designs were drafted by West 8 Urban Design with Weisz and Yoes Architecture; WRT; and Smith-Miller & Hawkinson — and each touted its scheme at a Community Board 13 meeting last week.

All had positives, but one local activist hoped city officials would choose a design freaky enough for Coney Island, once the honky-tonk playground of the Western world.

“Give us something loud. Give us something comic,” said Dick Zigun, the founder of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow and a member of the board of directors for the Coney Island Development Corporation.

Zigun favored the “comic jellyfish” — his nickname for Weisz & Yoes’s 16-tendril tower — and dismissed WRT’s canopy as “ a blob” and Smith-Miller & Hawkinson’s design as “a conceptual prison fence.”

Whichever design is chosen, the city hopes to make the Aquarium a national destination. Right now, only 750,000 people visit it annually, most of them coming from the five boroughs.

Yet nationally, aquariums do big business.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, for instance, draws an average of 1.8 million people per year. The Georgia Aquarium, which opened less than a year ago, has already welcomed its three-millionth admission-paying tourist.

Planners hope to finish the aquarium facelift around the same time as developer Joe Sitt finishes his Las Vegas–style “amusement mall” — $1-billion retail, megaplex, hotel and indoor water park project slated to rise on Surf Avenue from 12th to 15th Streets.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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