A rendering of the Shedd Aquarium's tunnel. Credit: Provided.

SOUTH LOOP — Visitors to the Shedd Aquarium will be able to feel like they’re walking underwater as creatures swim around them as part of major renovations to the beloved facility.

The Shedd will see parts of its exterior and interior redesigned for its eight-year, $500 million Centennial Commitment initiative, a mission to update the aquarium and make it more accessible by its 100th anniversary in 2030.

“This is an incredibly ambitious plan with a lot of different facets to it. It gives us the opportunity to interpret and invite our guests into that space and into that work in a more visible way,” said Sarah Hezel, the Shedd’s vice president of Design and Exhibits.

A new ticket and entry pavilion, an expansion of the Shedd’s terrace deck and roof reconstruction in the north gallery are in the works for the facility, 1200 S. DuSable Lake Shore Drive.

The planning commission approved the plans last month.

A aerial rendering of the Shedd Aquarium’s entry way, which is getting a makeover as part of the institution’s “Centennial Commitment” initiative. Credit: Provided.

The initiative also calls for new exhibits, galleries and a learning commons, which will complement efforts to expand the Shedd’s educational programs.

Part of those changes: The Shedd will get a 40-foot underground tunnel that will give visitors an “under the sea” experience, Hezel said. There’s no set date yet for when that work will begin.

Bringing the institution into the 21st century means addressing physical accessibility, something that wasn’t “part of the architectural language” when the Shedd was built nearly a century ago, Hezel said. The Shedd is the third-largest aquarium in the world, hosting 25,000 aquatic animals.

Construction will be overseen by Valerio Dewalt Train and is expected to take four years, with work done piece by piece so as to not disrupt the visitor experience. Work would start early next year, pending City Council approval.

A rendering of the Shedd Aquarium’s Learning Commons, part of a $500 million plan to make the institution more accessible to visitors. Credit: Provided.

The Shedd’s 4 acres of green space are also getting a facelift, allowing visitors to interact with nature as soon as they set foot on the aquarium campus. Its horticulture team has already created migratory gardens, building an ecosystem that allows insects, birds and other creatures to stop and rest as they journey around the world.

“We have a migratory bird garden and five species of milkweed [for insects]. And, in our gardens that support migrating butterfly species, we have a hive and an area where we grow organic produce that feeds and provides enrichment for our animals,” Hezel said. “Our beloved penguins that everybody can’t get enough of — they use the lavender sticks to build their nests.

“The [Centennial Commitment] project will allow us to bring this work forward to our guests in more experiential ways.”

The Shedd will also partner with neighborhood groups “to bring neighborhood-level environmental discussions and solutions” to areas that get less investments.

“There are so many different avenues to unpack, from the way we manage our soils and the health of the lake,” Hezel said. “There are all these different ecological connections between the health of this incredible wilderness at our back door. Sparking people’s curiosity with that and building this rapport with nature, that’s what we’re here for.

“We can’t ask someone to save something they don’t know.”

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