Exploratorium thinks bigger at waterfront site

Expansion plans for the Exploratorium may receive a significant boost today, allowing the science museum the flexibility to take control of both Pier 15 and Pier 17 along The Embarcadero.

The 39-year-old interactive science museum has been working with the Port of San Francisco in recent years in an effort to relocate from the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina district, which it has outgrown, to a custom-built facility being planned for Pier 15 at the end of Green Street.

The move could take place before 2012, Port project manager Jennifer Sobol said.

A previously negotiated agreement would have given the museum the option to expand 17 years later onto adjacent Pier 17. But under newly announced terms, the museum would have the option of leasing Pier 17 immediately.

Until officials are ready to expand the museum onto Pier 17, the Exploratorium might sublease some of the space to handpicked tenants, museum spokeswoman Leslie Patterson said. Pier 17 might also be used for non-exhibition uses, such as storage space and workshops, Port documents show.

“The ultimate long-term goal is to renovate and expand the museum into Pier 17 — but at the appropriate time,” Patterson said.

The new museum will incorporate indoor and outdoor exhibits, under draft plans revealed by museum exhibition manager Tom Rockwell in February. The entire site will be developed as a “natural observatory” that explores the Bay and the Bay Area, taking advantage of its new waterfront location, Rockwell told Port commissioners.

Specific exhibit plans are not ready to be released, Patterson said Monday.

The Port Commission is due to vote on the proposed new terms today. It will also consider waiving nearly $1 million a year in Pier 15 rental fees for 50 years — up from a previously agreed time frame of 35 years — to compensate the museum for rising pier-repair costs.

New figures suggest the Exploratorium will need to spend $175 million repairing the aging pier — up from a previous estimate of $97 million, Port documents show.

jupton@sfexaminer.com

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