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Tucson City Council votes for new hybrid zoo expansion plan, halting work for another year

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TUCSON (KVOA) - The Tucson City Council has come to a decision on the Reid Park Zoo expansion.

Back in March, the Tucson City Council passed a motion with a 6-to-1 vote to put the project on hold for 45 days.

Even though the council supported and approved a ballot measure in 2017 for capital improvements at the zoo and another vote for the masterplan in 2018, more than 22,000 people have signed a petition against expansion and community members have raised concerns about the outreach done before the 2017 vote. 

The zoo's initial plans would have eliminated Barnam Hill and the South Duck Pond. However, after several rallies from community members, the city decided to halt the expansion and hold several community meetings to gather more community input and find a solution that works for all parties involved. 

In a 6-1 vote, Tucson City Council voted six-to-one in favor of a new hybrid plan in relation to the expansion of the zoo, with Tucson Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik standing as the only councilmember opposed to the new plan.

"Every time we have somebody come to us to ask for a basketball court, or a pickleball court or a splash pad or a dog park, ball field, it's taking public open space," Kozachik said. "The zoo is also taking public open space. I will bet you, you don't have one-half million people sitting on Barnum Hill in the course of a year."

Described as a hybrid of its Options D and G plan, this new plan will preserve Barnum Hill and the South Duck Pond.

Shared in detail during the community input meetings, the city's Option D plan, which was said to have an additional cost of $3.6 million, would move the expansion "northwest of the zoo’s existing boundaries into Reid Park."

City leaders said Concept D would preserve open access to Barnum Hill and the South Duck Pond. It will also all the zoo's layout to be operationally functional, offset new hardscape areas of the zoo expansion, preserve high-value mature trees and increase overall tree canopy.

However, this plan would delay the project by one year, require a new Zoo Master Plan, reduce freely accessible park space by about 4.5 acres of green space and 2.11 acres of hardscape, impact park pedestrian flow from Edith Ball Adaptive Recreation Center to other areas of Reid Park and cause minor loss of parking.

The Option G plan, which has an estimated additional cost of $15 million to $25 million, would push the expansion "north into the existing Zoo parking lot and the area occupied by the City’s Therapeutic Recreation building. To offset the loss of existing parking capacity, a new parking garage could be installed to serve the Edith Ball Adaptive Recreation Center, the Zoo, and the Parks and Recreation Department."

Like Option D, this plan also preserves open access to Barnum Hill and the South Duck Pond. Officials said plan also has a convenient layout for zoo operation, offers no loss of open space in Reid Park area, reclaims some existing pavement areas, preserves high-value mature trees and provides the opportunity to overhaul the City’s Therapeutic Recreation offerings.

Under this plan, it would cost $10 to $20 million more than Option D. It would also delay the project two to three years, as it would also require a new zoo master plan and require "locating a feasible site for the Therapeutic Recreation operation."

As city officials say the new plan will be a hybrid of these two concepts, the city plans to suspend the zoo expansion for at least another year while the redesigns and new plans for the expansion are drafted and finalized.

During the meeting, the city said this plan will move the expansion to the northwest.

"It's something many, many Tucsonans have treasured memories of and we'd like to see it preserved for future generations," Tucson community activist Bob Vin said. "Through continued negotiation and goodwill on all parts, I think we'll get to where we need to go"

Vint said Tuesday's vote served as a new beginning for the project. He said he and some of his neighbors want to keep all of the green space at the park.

"We are hoping it will evolve where we use 100 percent of hardscape for the zoo expansion and save as much of the green space, the mature trees as possible," Zint said. "Not only that, we'd also like to save some parking spaces."

Kozachik said he is disappointed the city decided to change directions in the project.

"If the city council cancels the job now, then what message does that send to anybody who would put their name on the dotted line with the City of Tucson going forward?" the councilmember said. "That we reserve the right three years later to change our mind and cancel the contract."

Prior to the vote, Reid Park Zoological Society released a statement on the matter.

The statement in its entirety is listed below.

Reid Park Zoological Society is committed to working with Mayor and Council on the safest, most cost-effective and most conducive location for the much-anticipated Pathway to Asia Project for the City of Tucson owned Reid Park Zoo. We respect the Mayor and Council’s careful study of all options as they prepare to make a decision on Tuesday, May 4.

In reviewing the options, we feel that the recommendation from the City Manager’s office, option D to the northwest of the Zoo, though more costly than the original plan, is the least impactful to Reid Park, preserves Barnum Hill and the south duck pond, and offers the most efficient and effective path forward.

We were made aware of a new ‘Hybrid D-G’ option Friday as well as a ‘G-Minor’ option today. These options require more study of the area to ensure any issues such as environmental, accessibility, utilities, and financial concerns are resolved, keeping in mind the top priorities of animal care and guest experience. If one of these options is selected, we will work with the design team contracted by the City and the City staff to resolve any issues in a timely manner.

We look forward to Mayor and Council’s decision on Tuesday and to working cooperatively with the City of Tucson to carry out that decision. We continue to focus our efforts on providing the community with a high-quality recreational and educational experience while creating lifelong memories.

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