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Tim Steller's opinion: City Council saves Tucson's zoo from public resentment

This December file photo shows members of Save the Heart of Reid Park on Reid Park’s Barnum Hill. They are, from left, Lauren McElroy, Ingvi Kallen, Manon Getsi, José Muñoz and Les Toczko. A pause in expansion plans will likely save the zoo from resentment among people who enjoy that section of the park.

City Council member Paul Cunningham recalled Tuesday that when he went to the Tucson Convention Center as a kid, he thought it was the coolest place.

Then as an adult he learned about the barrio that was razed to make room for it, and of the lingering resentment about the TCC.

“I don’t want the zoo’s expansion to suffer the same fate,” he said.

"A weather event can always be exciting for the elephants, but a first snow is always special for a baby elephant," said director of zoological operations Sue Tygielski. "Penzi took the snowflakes as a cue to play in the stream and slip and slide in the mud. Even her older sister, Nandi, could not resist a roll in the mud on a snowy day." Video courtesy of Reid Park Zoo, taken on Jan. 26, 2021

It won’t, it appears, since the council voted 6-1 Tuesday to suspend the contracts for the zoo’s expansion for 45 days.

This is all, of course, about the 3ƒ acres of Reid Park that the city agreed to hand over to the zoo, only for a late wave of public protest to arise in the months before construction was to begin in coming weeks.

The expansion is paid for largely by a one-tenth of one cent tax increase that city voters approved in 2017, but the expansion was never mentioned in the ballot issue.

By suspending the contracts to reconsider the project, the council saved the Reid Park Zoological Society from itself. Responding to a call last week by Mayor Regina Romero to pause the project, the society’s chair sent a letter to her and the city manager on Sunday that oozed with entitlement and grievance.

“A ‘pause’ by the city now would not be in good faith, not in the best interests of the larger community, and probably is not legal,” society chair Shane Burgess wrote in the letter.

It was an absurd assertion. Of course, as is typical, the city had included conditions for canceling or suspending the contracts with the designers and lead construction company in the contract. City Attorney Mike Rankin spelled out the terms and costs at Tuesday’s meeting.

But Burgess was ambitious and didn’t leave it there. He called out Romero individually as having supported the zoo’s master plan in 2018 and warned that “state audits and litigation” will result from a pause.

“Do not let Pathway to Asia become the next Rio Nuevo debacle,” he wrote.

He was not only overstepping bounds with the comparison but making a faulty comparison. The better comparison than Rio Nuevo to this project is the Tucson Convention Center.

It’s another case of the powers that be trying to push through a project in spite of a groundswell of resistance. The result, if the expansion went ahead without a pause, would hurt the zoo for many years.

The city, too, would suffer. The tax that is paying for the expansion passed by just 633 votes, a margin of less than 1%. The ballot said it was “to fund capital improvements, operations, and maintenance at the Gene Reid Park Zoo, and providing for free zoo admission for reserved school groups.”

It did not say anything about an expansion, certainly not into an area many Tucsonans cherish, a rare hill with mature trees overlooking a pond filled with waterfowl.

Burgess’ letter is passionate and wrong on many fronts, most importantly starting with the first sentence: “The Pathway to Asia/World of Play construction project was approved by the Mayor and Council in 2018 as part of the Zoo Management Agreement.”

It is questionable, believe it or not, whether the zoo master plan was formally approved at all.

On Oct. 9, 2018, the council approved a detailed management agreement with the zoological society. The master plan was included as an exhibit to the agreement but it was never explicitly approved on its own.

That’s different from the last time the City Council approved a new zoo master plan. On June 18, 2013, the council discussed the zoo’s master plan specifically at an afternoon study session. That night, the council approved it as part of the consent agenda at a regular council meeting.

Even City Manager Michael Ortega seemed to acknowledge that the 2018 master plan itself wasn’t explicitly approved by the council. In a Jan. 29 letter to the council, Ortega wrote: “Finally, on October 9, 2018, at a publicly noticed Regular Session meeting, the Mayor and Council approved the Management Agreement, which included as an Exhibit the 2018 Zoo Master Plan as finalized based on the described public process.”

This is the basis of an open meeting law complaint filed by Tucson resident Wendy Sampson. Her conclusion: “The city got a tax, that’s it. No plan was ever adopted by the city.”

Burgess warned the city of the damage to its credibility that might result from a suspension, but he seemed not to grasp the damage to the zoo’s reputation that would result from going ahead.

Thankfully, the council members have a longer memory. Karin Uhlich, newly returned to the council, said: “My hope is the zoo will emerge, along with the city, with something that won’t result in lingering resentments and conflict.”

There are alternatives the city should explore in its short pause, which will cost around $100,000 in payouts to contractor Lloyd Construction.

Cunningham noted that to the east of the zoo, between it and South Randolph Way, are underused city buildings and parking lots.

“There’s other places we could go, including the very antiquated building right on Randolph Way,” he noted.

That, I think, is where attention should turn now: To the inefficiently used city properties east and north of the zoo. The city government may lose an underused building, but the public won’t lose any cherished open space.

Contact: or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter.

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