Discovery Place uptown considers major facelift under the new North Tryon Vision Plan

Conceptual rendering of facade enhancement at Discovery Place, for illustrative purposes only.
Conceptual rendering of facade enhancement at Discovery Place, for illustrative purposes only.

Discovery Place’s uptown science museum could be getting a major facelift and expansion as part of the plan to revitalize the North Tryon area.

The facility is one identified by the North Tryon Vision Plan as in major need of a renovation, and the nonprofit Discovery Place is seeking money to devise a new master plan. The plan will cost $950,000 and take about 18 to 24 months to complete, staff said Monday. They plan to ask City Council to fund the new master plan, paid for by hospitality and tourism taxes, at a Jan. 23 meeting.

Discovery Place officials said the 36-year-old facility is too small to meet growing attendance numbers.

“We scramble to find places to put our people,” said Discovery Place CEO Catherine Horne. “Our 1980s building was designed to educate adults with the science and technology of the ’80s and the ’90s...Today, our problem is one of space.”

The facility is expected to play a key role in overhauling North Tryon. The vision plan calls for a renovated facade facing North Tryon Street that will be “more permeable, accessible and iconic,” and adding a courtyard or plaza and cafe with exhibits and interactive elements.

Discovery Place wrapped up a $31.6 million renovation in 2010, funded by the city and county. But Horne said the buildings are confusing to navigate, have multiple elevators and lobbies that don’t connect and lack enough space for staff, exhibits and visitors.

“It shouldn’t take a graduate degree in science or geography to get in and out of our buildings,” said Horne. “From a 21st century perspective, our main entrance is not inviting...We’re missing the excitement when you walk up to our building.”

The $950,000 would cover planning and design. Further funding would be required after that, and the project to remake Discovery Place could take a decade. Horne said Discovery Place would seek private funds to supplement public spending.

“Are we starting down a path that’s going to lead to a $30 (million) or $50 (million) ask in the future?” asked council member Ed Driggs. He asked for more details on future spending. “This is preliminary money.”

The North Tryon Vision Plan is a non-binding framework – backed by local governments, property owners and Charlotte Center City Partners – that’s meant to guide development in large swaths of the northern end of uptown. Mecklenburg County commissioners endorsed the plan in September. It calls for pedestrian passageways and smaller streets bisecting large blocks and creating a pedestrian-friendly zone full of shops, restaurants and other appealing features at street level.

Major publicly owned sites such as Discovery Place, Spirit Square and the uptown library would be redeveloped as “catalysts” for the area, which has lagged the southern portion of uptown in recent years.

The city owns Discovery Place’s 160,000 square-foot science museum on North Tryon Street at Sixth Street, which saw 485,000 visitors last year. The museum opened in 1981.

“It must have seemed enormous at the time,” said Horne.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo