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Reid Park advocates push pricey zoo expansion option that spares green space
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Reid Park advocates push pricey zoo expansion option that spares green space

Save the Heart of Reid Park, a nonprofit established to prevent the Reid Park Zoo’s expansion into Gene C. Reid Park, wants Tucson City council to choose option “G” for the zoo expansion. This option would expand into the existing zoo parking lot and the city’s therapeutic recreation building.

As Tucson’s mayor and council are set to make a decision on the expansion of the Reid Park Zoo next week, key supporters of the park that influenced halting the expansion project are weighing in on which new design they prefer.

The zoo was set to expand into 3½-acres of Reid Park to make way for its “Pathway to Asia” exhibit, taking over the park’s southern duck pond and Barnum Hill area. Outcry from the public over the loss of green space and a popular part of the park next to the zoo caused city leaders to temporarily halt the project.

Tucson City Council ordered the pause to make time for a dialogue among community stakeholders. At its May 4 study session, the council will vote on whether to proceed with the zoo’s originally planned expansion or consider a different option. The city manager’s recommendation on how to proceed is expected Tuesday, April 27.

The 45-day public outreach mission included conducting the largest citywide survey ever and assembling an 18-member stakeholder group to help recommend a plan.

Today the Reid Park Zoo celebrates the birthday of Penzi, the African elephant, who is one year old. This not-so-little elephant has captured the imagination of the community as she splashes in her mud wallow, gobbles up hay, and follows her big sister Nandi around to learn how to be an elephant. Video courtesy of Reid Park Zoo.

Two proposals out of eight scenarios for the zoo expansion have topped the list of potential outcomes recommended by stakeholders. One key group of stakeholders advocating for Reid Park preservation are calling for one of the priciest scenarios, but also one of the only ones that preserves park space.

Save the Heart of Reid Park, a nonprofit group which had two members on the core stakeholders group, supports concept G, which would reroute the zoo’s expansion to the north, taking over its existing parking lot and the city's therapeutic recreation building.

It comes with $15 million to $25 million in additional costs and would delay expansion two to three years.

Besides relocating the zoo entirely, concept G was the priciest of the eight options. The north expansion could require building a parking garage to serve the zoo, the recreation center and the city’s parks and recreation department. The increased cost covers building the parking garage and relocating the therapeutic recreation building as well as two large communication towers.

However, the proposal would leave Reid Park and its ample green space unscathed, the central goal of Save the Heart of Reid Park.

According to Lauren McElroy Herrera, chair of the nonprofit, the group is also prioritizing minimizing the urban heat island effect, which occurs in metropolitan areas where man-made structures reflect more sunlight and create higher temperatures.

“The essential thing about what we’re proposing with option G is that it’s not contributing to the heat island effect and creating hardscape where there’s currently park land,” she said. “Reid Park has been slowly whittled away over the decades, and this is an opportunity to have a win-win that includes maintaining the park.”

McElroy Herrera also says concept G may not be as pricey as advertised. As part of the stakeholder group, she says members discussed cost-saving measures that could help lower the overall price.

Concept D, the other proposal that emerged among stakeholders, calls for the zoo to expand to the northwest into 4½ acres of green space and 2.11 acres of hardscape while eliminating a baseball practice infield and some of the zoo’s parking lot. This would come with an estimated $3.6 million additional cost.

McElroy Herrera says this plan would obstruct the park’s view of the Catalina Mountains while demolishing mature trees in the area. Most importantly, though, the construction would take away park space that she said is invaluable.

“Reid Park was started in 1925 for the benefit of the people of Tucson, and to have that land available to people in Tucson is a really huge benefit to the people,” McElroy Herrera said. “Providing parks is part of mayor and council’s obligations to the city. And providing a zoo is kind of an option, but it’s not a basic service.”

In order to gauge widespread community input, the city launched an online survey to ask participants to rate their favorite proposals.

The survey closed April 13 with more than 14,000 responses, the most of any survey the city has conducted. The goal was to find the three most neutral outcomes, and in the end the most neutral was concept D, followed by concepts C and B.

Any adopted concept besides the original expansion plan would call for amending the zoo’s master plan the mayor and council finalized in October 2018. Tucson voters approved a one-tenth of 1% sales tax hike to fund the project in 2017.

Veering away from the initial plan would also come with additional costs for a contractor to come up with new logistics for the construction project and a designer to re-envision the expansion in a new location.

Nancy Kluge, president and CEO of the Reid Park Zoological Society, wouldn’t reveal the zoo’s preference on expansion.

“We’re really waiting to hear the decision of mayor and council. And once we have that, we can start putting the plans into action,” she said.

The mayor and council members can take any action they decide, however, which might not include one of the two options the core stakeholders group narrowed down.

“I’m hopeful that Tucson mayor and council will be walking the talk for protecting our parks and protecting our city from rising temperatures and keeping Tucson a great place to live,” McElroy Herrera said.

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