Arts & Entertainment and Government

County OKs ‘concept’ of zoo expansion

February 27, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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Kent County commissioners approved the future “concept” of an expanded John Ball Zoo, as reflected in the zoo’s newly updated 10-year master plan. But there are some concerns about turning parts of the adjacent John Ball Park into parking lots, and commissioners made it clear the county would have to approve any specific construction proposals.

The master plan “illustrative site plan” depicts a new 308-car parking lot in what is now part of the park, plus an adjacent part of the park property identified as “future additional parking.”

Margo Johnson, John Ball Area Neighbors president, said the park green space should be retained, noting the master plan indicates three or four acres would be paved over for parking lots.

Peter Carlberg, vice president of the neighborhood association, indicated that, despite previous concerns, he is now OK with the master plan.

Commissioner Jim Talen was critical, saying the city is making an effort to expand its green space and limit future increases in parking lots, but the zoo master plan does not seem to consider that. An opposing view came from Commissioner Tom Antor, who said an expanded zoo must be “something people can get to” and he would “not discourage the parking” expansion.

Commissioner Mandy Bolter echoed Antor’s comments, saying while she does not favor “acres and acres of parking” being built, “at the same time, we need to encourage people to come” to the zoo, and they should not have to park on nearby residential streets.

Any actual construction plans by John Ball Zoo would have to go through the city’s routine permits application process.

Commissioner David Bulkowski said every project involving the zoo “has to be approved by us” because the county legally retains oversight of the property. All of the zoo’s real estate and facilities are owned by Kent County, which also provides more than $2 million a year for zoo operations.

CEO Kevin O’Neill told the board the zoo is “absolutely committed” to engaging with the community throughout 2015 as plans for its future continue to develop.

The master plan concept includes expanded facilities and exhibits, plus a greatly expanded Zoo School, which has been a partnership with Grand Rapids Public Schools for many years. Another major aspect of the master plan is improved public access to the zoo, including for individuals with disabilities, which is where the expanded parking concepts are involved.

The master plan was a five-month collaborative process that began last July, with an analysis of the existing zoo campus “with a special focus on identifying the critical programmatic and operational needs as well as land available for development.”

“Modest yet highly valuable campus-wide projects” at the zoo over the last 15 years will culminate this spring with the unveiling of the new Crawford Tigers of the Realm Phase 2, which zoo supporters say will enhance the zoo’s appeal throughout a larger region.

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