New York City’s Times Square: famous for flashing lights, a singing cowboy, millions of tourists and soon, perhaps, penguins, sharks and tropical fish. That, at least, is the dream of Toronto developer Jerry Shefsky. Recently, the 76-year-old went public with a preliminary deal that his firm, Aquarium Developments Corp., reached with the landlord of 11 Times Square to build an aquarium in the bottom floors of the skyscraper. It would include 600,000 gallons of water, a collection of exotic fish and mammals, as well as a pirate museum. If all goes according to plan, the doors could open as early as September 2011. “It’s anything but an aquarium in the format you might imagine,” Shefsky told the Wall Street Journal.
But almost as soon as his aquatic proposal began to make waves, Shefsky stopped talking. “We’re still working on taking the preliminary agreement and turning it into a final agreement,” says John Piper, the spokesman for Aquarium Developments Corp. Though Piper says the company is “very excited” about the project, it doesn’t want its fate to be decided in the media. “We want to be careful going forward,” he says. (The building’s owner, New Jersey-based SJP Properties, declined to comment.)
The trepidation is understandable. Shefsky has a long history of pitching fantastical-sounding aquarium projects. In 1997, his was one of three bids shortlisted to build an aquarium in Paris’s Place du Trocadero, near the Eiffel Tower. (He lost.) Other plans have included aquariums in Las Vegas, Toronto and Ottawa. But only one, which opened in Newport, Ky., just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, in 1999, has come to fruition so far.
Shefsky’s current proposal is his most high-profile in more than a decade. Primarily a real-estate developer—he was a senior executive at Toronto-based Cadillac Fairview Corp.—his first foray into the fish tourism game came in the mid-’90s, when he joined forces with a group of mall moguls, including Arizona developer Amram Knishinsky and former West Edmonton Mall president Rubin Stahl. Their company, then called Aquarium Adventures, wanted to build a 7,900-sq.-m aquarium across from Toronto’s Eaton Centre where visitors could walk through translucent acrylic tunnels, surrounded by fish. Cadillac Fairview Corp. was part-owner of the Eaton Centre, and Shefsky helped negotiate with the mall owners. But in 1997, T. Eaton Co. Ltd. filed for bankruptcy protection, and the plan fell through.
Shefsky and his partners, however, had other irons in the fire, like plans to build an aquarium in the CBC’s Canadian Broadcasting Centre on Toronto’s Front Street. (Toronto-based lawyer Tom Wilson, who is still part of Shefsky’s team, was on the CBC’s board of directors at the time.) What began as a good business idea “really developed into a determination on [Shefsky’s] part that, by God, he’s going to have a world-class aquarium,” says John Trevor Eyton, a long-time friend and retired Conservative senator. But again, the proposal bottomed out. In 1999, the team, which by then included Eyton as well as prominent Toronto lawyer Ralph Lean and former CTV vice-president Arthur Weinthal, was rumoured to have landed a contract to design and run an aquarium in Ottawa. The 60,000-sq.-foot fish tank opposite the Chateau Laurier, however, also didn’t materialize. Says Piper, “Frankly, it never really got past first base.”
The one triumph came in 1995, when the company inked a deal with Cincinnati businessmen to bring a 100,000-sq.-foot, US$40-million aquarium to the banks of the Ohio River. The facility, which became the first for-profit aquarium in the U.S. when it opened in 1999, features 200 feet of see-through tunnels, a tropical swamp, and penguins. “By any measure, the Newport Aquarium has been a huge success,” says aquarium spokesman Rodger Pille. “It has been the tourism draw that it was conceived to be when it first opened.”
Though details on the proposed Times Square aquarium are scarce, this project is of Shefsky’s own design. Before the Newport Aquarium opened its doors, he parted ways with Knishinsky and Stahl. (They are currently working on “Odysea in the Desert,” an attraction planned for Scottsdale, Ariz., that features an IMAX theatre, a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum, and an Odysea Aquarium.) “I don’t know of anything that’s occupied his attention this much for this long,” says Eyton of Shefsky’s New York project. “He’s very determined.”
According to Piper, Shefsky’s past aquarium problems have more to do with the realities of the business than anything else. “These are not the easiest things to get going in the world,” he says. On top of the significant up-front investment, getting approval from municipalities can be a challenge, he adds. New York is no exception. In September, the city approved a $100-million renovation of the partially publicly funded aquarium at Coney Island, and some have suggested that officials might not be so keen on allowing a competing private facility to set up shop.
But despite the ups and downs of the aquarium business, Shefsky presses on. “He has a love of fish and the ocean and that’s what drives him,” says Piper. And for now, he’s cautiously optimistic that the Times Square project will remain afloat.