One Zoo Expansion Site Is A NoGo

September 24, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — John Ball Zoo will not be expanded on nearly 200 vacant acres west of the I-196 expressway and north of Butterworth Drive.

A geological survey done by local civil engineering firm Williams & Works Inc. has determined that the northwest-side property isn’t stable enough to hold the permanent structures an expanded zoo would need.

The land has been mined for gypsum going back to the mid-1800s and the study found that the mines are filled with water today. Gypsum, like salt, eventually dissolves when it is wet, meaning it is just a matter of time before the property will begin to sink.

The survey also found that sinkholes already have developed on the southern portion of the land, an area that was mined first.

“The recommendation of the report is that no permanent structures should be put on that property,” said Al Vanderberg, assistant county administrator.

“Gypsum can apparently deteriorate quite rapidly when it is in contact with water, and that is a major concern. They did find some fairly significant sinkholes on the southern portion of the site, and they believe that the northern part will experience the same sinkholes,” he added. “And with water throughout the entire mine, I think they’re actually worried about more substantial problems that just sinkholes.”

The property, west of the zoo’s current location in John Ball Park, is bordered by Fulton Street to the north, O’Brien Street to the south, Covell Avenue to the west and I-196 to the east. The geological study showed the single-family homes on Fulton and Covell that line the property’s north and west borders have a solid foundation of rock underneath.

But high-voltage power lines on the property that belongs to Consumers Energy and a stretch of the I-196 expressway, which marks the land’s eastern edge, are situated on weaker ground above the mines.

Gypsum doesn’t dissolve in water as quickly as salt does. One estimate given to the Business Journal had gypsum dissolving at a rate about 50 times slower than salt, and it could be decades before portions of the property will begin to sink.

The study divided the property into five geological zones according to each section’s stability. The homes are on the most stable ground.

An individual owns the property, while a local partnership has the mineral rights to it.

Steve Williams, a principal in Williams & Works, said the firm hired Stan Vinton and Jack Parker as consultants for the survey. Vinton is an associate professor at Michigan Technological University and a noted expert in mine subsidence issues. Parker is an expert in rock mechanics and has written the most widely used manual on practical rock mechanics.

“These guys are pretty much the experts in their fields and they did a very thorough analysis, and they even had access to earlier reports that had been done on the issue. They felt very strongly about their recommendation and they laid it out very clearly,” said Vanderberg.

“Had the geology been found to be stable, there were two other immense hurdles to go over. One was (that) Consumers Energy lines that go through there are immense and basically split the site. We would have had to find a way to deal with that,” he said. “We’re talking towers, not telephone poles.”

The other hurdle would have been gaining access to the site by bridging the highway.

“That would have been no small feat. Associated with that was actually getting to a bridge because it basically would have had to have been built from peak to peak instead of flat ground to flat ground as they did in Toledo,” said Vanderberg.

County commissioners authorized Williams & Works to go ahead with the geological survey in August at a cost of $10,000. Had the study showed that the land was stable enough for the zoo expansion, the county would have gone ahead with a full feasibility study that would have cost $47,000 and mapped out potential locations for exhibits.

At the same time it performed the survey, Williams & Works also counted traffic to and from the zoo. The county paid $1,500 for the traffic count.

Kent County owns the zoo and the park and has plans to make $240,000 worth of improvements to the park. But the upgrade project had to be put on hold until the study on the potential expansion site was completed.

“I think that the county will probably wait to start on those improvements until after some determination is made regarding Fred Meijer’s offer,” said Vanderberg.

Fred Meijer recently purchased the Grand Rapids Golf Club at 4300 Leonard St. NE in Grand Rapids Township and has offered to donate the property for a new zoo. The golf course is adjacent to the Frederik Meijer Gardens at 1000 East Beltline NE.

The geological survey came about as the result of an agreement reached in July between Kent County Chairman Steven Heacock and Mayor John Logie. Heacock pledged not to build an elephant exhibit on a parking lot in the park and Logie promised to hold off on a vote to designate the park as an historic site until the result of the study was known.           

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