An aquarium for St. Louis is part of the redesign for Union Station's former mall | St. Louis Public Radio

An aquarium for St. Louis is part of the redesign for Union Station's former mall

Aug 9, 2016

Developers are planning to build a $45 million aquarium is Union Station near downtown St. Louis and they say it will feature one of the largest collections of sharks in the Midwest.

The 75,000-square-foot St. Louis Aquarium will display thousands of aquatic species, such as stingrays and fish in 1 million gallons of water in the complex's former mall area. A planned v-shaped rope bridge will suspend visitors above the shark tank. It will also include a gift shop, 8,500- square-feet of private event space with the shark tank as a backdrop, and possibly a themed restaurant in the old Houlihan’s space.

Bob O’Loughlin, chief executive officer of Lodging Hospitality Management and Union Station owner, said the “thrilling” attraction will be family-oriented and “a centerpiece” for the location.

“We said, ‘What does St. Louis not have that St. Louis should have?’ And it kept coming back to an aquarium,” he said. “We felt it was the right move and so we’re moving forward with it.”

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay praised O’Loughlin’s “great vision,” saying the project will support “hundreds of construction and service industry jobs and boost tourism.

“This new aquarium will become a destination location in the heart of our city,” he said. “And it will no doubt kick start other investment in development in the nearby area. It will become an even stronger anchor for the central corridor and the western edge of downtown St. Louis. But most importantly it will be an exceptional educational experience exposing thousands of children to the wonder and beauty of the water world.”

A rendering of the new St. Louis Aquarium shows a stingray pool, while escalators take visitors to the second floor of exhibits.
Credit Lawrence Group

Construction is expected to start next spring and the project completed by the summer of 2018. The aquarium will be open every day from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and O’Loughlin said ticket prices may range between $12 and $20.

The plan is to attract people who don’t want to travel far for an aquarium and who are already visiting other downtown tourist sites.

“Right now, for an aquarium experience, you have to travel hundreds of miles from St. Louis to find a nearby aquarium — that’s Shedd Aquarium in Chicago,” said Brian Hall of Explore St. Louis.

O’Loughlin said he expects the new attraction will draw 1 million visitors annually.

“We hope this will be another attraction where you’ll spend an extra day or you’ll dovetail it into part of your visit,” he said.

But O’Loughlin said the new development isn’t just a fluke, but plays into Union Station’s broader plan to create a “family entertainment complex” akin to Navy Pier in Chicago.

O’Loughlin said the $45 million project will not cost any additional taxpayer dollars. Union Station previously received $18 million in tax increment financing and historic credits for its upgrades, which will be used in part to fund the aquarium.

The facility will be an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, but O’Loughlin said it will be up to the operator to hire the marine biologists and aquarists. One of three possible operators should be chosen in the next couple of weeks, he said.

More details on other developments

In a nighttime exterior view of the St. Louis Aquarium, the Train Park at Union Station will feature concessions and retail.

A previously-announced Fire and Light Show at the Lake will begin by this November. Fire pods in a pool will ignite in sync with music and a light show projected onto the ceiling panels of the train shed every 30-minutes. O’Loughlin said it will open in time for the winter holiday season and the Polar Express train rides that have been a “tremendous success.”

Other developments include a Train Park with concessions served out of train cars and a 200-foot observation wheel. A new boardwalk around the lake will connect to the Hard Rock Café and Landry’s restaurants.  

A Fire and Light show that syncs fire pods with music and a light display is expected to open by November at Union Station.

Union Station also will build 32 hotel rooms beneath the Clock Tower section on Market Street, at a cost of $5.5 million, and more than 15,000-square feet of new event space. Construction is expected to start in January and be finished by fall of 2017.

“This will hook up very well with what’s happening in the Cortex area and what we’re seeing in the Near North Side development and the NGA in the north, and some of the great things that are happening on the south side and into downtown as well,” said Mayor Slay. “This isn’t just an island. What this is is a connector of all kinds of other really good things that are happening in downtown and in the central corridor as well.”

Two years ago, Union Station restored its Grand Hall with a 3-D light and sound show.