Tucson City Manager Michael Ortega is recommending to the mayor and City Council that Reid Park Zoo should expand to the northwest, a plan that does require using some of the park’s green space but spares the south duck pond and Barnum Hill area.
Ortega made his recommendation of the plan known as concept D on Tuesday morning. The City Council is expected to consider a revised zoo expansion plan at its meeting May 4.
In addition to preserving the duck pond and hill, concept D has a lower cost than the other design plan being considered, which would have the zoo expanding north into its current parking lot. That plan would have cost between $15 million to $25 million and required building a parking structure and relocating the city’s therapeutic recreation center.
The zoo was poised to begin construction on a 3½-acre expansion that would have included taking over Reid Park’s southern duck pond and Barnum Hill area, but outcry from the public caused city leaders to temporarily halt the project March 9.
The expansion will make room for a new Pathway to Asia exhibit the zoo said will help Malayan tiger conservation efforts and also will create a reptile house and aviary.
However, some residents were upset with the loss of open green space and a popular part of the park next to the zoo.
Two options, big cost differences
The council initiated a 45-day pause to make time for a dialogue among an 18-member stakeholders group while gathering community input.
Two proposals out of eight scenarios for the zoo expansion have topped the list of potential outcomes recommended by the stakeholders, both of which require a complete revamp of the initially proposed construction plan and would delay the project for varying degrees of time.
Concept D, the northwest zoo expansion, would take over 4½ acres of green space and 2.11 acres of hardscape while eliminating some of the zoo’s parking lot. This would come with an estimated $3.6 million additional cost and delay construction up to a year.
Concept G, the north zoo expansion, is estimated to cost an extra $15 million to $25 million and delay construction by two to three years. This plan would take over the zoo’s parking lot and the city’s Therapeutic Recreation Center. A new parking garage would have to be built and the recreation center relocated.
The city manager’s recommendation includes relocating the zoo expansion from its originally proposed site to a section of the park northwest of the zoo. The recommendation aligns with survey results from the more than 14,000 respondents on eight proposed actions in relation to the zoo expansion.
Concept D 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.
If they approve the concept, the mayor and council would have to approve a new master plan that includes concept D at its next meeting.
The design for the original expansion into Reid Park was already completed before the 45-day pause. The city had prepared funding and a contractor was on board to begin construction in March.
The $3.6 million additional cost for concept D accounts for redesigning the expansion and increased construction costs for building in a new location. The funds would come from the 2017 sales tax increase.
“Least worst” option
Councilman Steve Kozachik, the only member to vote in opposition of pausing expansion, says he won’t support any option that doesn’t include the originally planned westward expansion into Reid Park.
After approving the zoo’s master plan in 2018, the City Council also authorized the zoo’s capital budget, which included the Pathway to Asia expansion, three years in a row. In the interim, the city signed a contract with Lloyd Construction for the planned expansion.
“This is really pretty simple for me, and the question is, can the city be trusted when you sign a contract with them?” Kozachik said. “We have over $2 million sunk into this already. This is a breach of faith between us and the people that we signed contracts with.”
The councilman calls concept D the “least worst” option besides the original plan. Advocates for the park oppose the loss of open green space, and Kozachik contends the city will lose credibility if it pulls back on the contracts it signed.
“There’s a whole lot more to this thing than simply Barnum Hill, and the bottom line on all of it is credibility and fiscal responsibility,” he said.
But the advocates for Reid Park preservation who influenced the pause on expansion hold a very different perspective.
Save the Heart of Reid Park — a nonprofit advocating against zoo expansion into the park — held a press conference Tuesday while raising signs adorned with the letter G, the option it prefers for expansion.
Molly McKasson, a former City Council member and current member of the nonprofit, facilitated the conversation.
“Instead of kids playing here, I want you to imagine tigers roaming behind a big, high wall,” she said, gesturing to the open green field behind her that concept D would build over. “Those kids who come here to play very likely couldn’t even afford to get into the zoo.”
The group says concept G’s cost could be lessened by leasing the therapeutic recreation center to a separate location instead of building an entirely new one. To avoid the pricey process of constructing a parking garage, they say surface parking could be established in an area where a maintenance yard currently exists.
“We feel strongly that we can have a real win-win with a revised option G plan, which has not been given a fair hearing at all yet,” McKasson said. “Parks are a basic city service, not zoos. No more loss of open green space in Reid Park, for so much has already been taken away.”
Reader poll: Which plan do you prefer for the Reid Park Zoo?
The Tucson City Manager has made his recommendation, which is not the same as the choice of the nonprofic group, Save the Heart of Reid Park, but costs less.