D.M. zoo lobs new idea: Swap land for park site
By JASON CLAYWORTH
REGISTER STAFF WRITERMarch 9, 2007
Blank Park Zoo officials would spend $1.3 million to relocate a portion of Fort Des Moines Park and make room for an expansion they say is necessary to keep the zoo financially viable, according to a proposal unveiled Thursday.
Zoo officials say the deal would include 62 acres just south of Southridge Mall that would be turned over to Polk County conservation officials to replace land eyed for the expansion.
The new park would connect to the remaining, heavily wooded portion of Fort Des Moines Park through a series of trails and, possibly, a tunnel under Southeast Fifth Street.
Zoo officials would also give $5 million to the county conservation board, which could be spent for improvements on the site, which is hilly and dotted with trees.
The proposal is the latest pitched in 18 months and another version including Fort Des Moines Park.
The Des Moines City Council will vote on the agreement Monday. The conservation board and Polk County supervisors are expected to take up the issue Wednesday. If approved, a final, binding vote among all parties could happen within a month.
City, county and zoo leaders Thursday expressed hope the plan will alleviate concerns of residents and conservationists who want to protect Fort Des Moines Park.
The planned zoo expansion would take roughly half of the nearly 120-acre park, including a lake. Dozens of people have opposed the move, which they say would affect land that is open to the public.
County conservation officials, who are guardians of the park, declined last month to turn over the land and asked county, city and zoo officials to come up with an alternative.
The land-replacement component of the plan pitched Thursday is encouraging, conservation officials said.
"I can't speak for what the public is going to say, but what I think we have now goes back to the desire we first heard" not to lose park land, conservation Director Pat Boddy said.
Conservation officials are unsure if they can create a new pond on the 62-acre site, Boddy said. Nonetheless, they are confident that "a beautiful park" can be developed on the land, Boddy said, adding the portions are tucked away so well that it is "an oasis in an urban setting."
A number of ideas for zoo expansion have been discussed over the past 18 months. Zoo officials have warned that without an expansion, they might be forced to move the zoo, perhaps out of Polk County.
Opponents have generally said they favor a zoo expansion but not at the expense of public park land.
Mel Pins, president of the Somerset Neighborhood Association near the park, said Thursday's proposal "could help everyone move forward." Many of those who prefer an undisturbed park understand that compromise is necessary, he said.
"We'd like to have a happy outcome for everybody here, and that means that sometimes you come to a consensus," Pins said.
The zoo's $50 million expansion would take 10 years. If the land deal is approved, another series of public meetings will begin in April to get input.
Zoo officials call the area between Army Post and County Line roads and Southeast Fifth and Southwest Ninth streets the "superblock." The zoo, mall and other attractions and landowners will work together to develop the area into a more dynamic place, zoo officials have said.
The first phase of the expansion cannot begin until the land transactions are complete.
The zoo is run by a private foundation, but its land is owned by the city. Under the new plan, the section of Fort Des Moines Park that would be used for zoo expansion would be owned by the city.
The zoo's director, Terry Rich, said Thursday's plan is the best option for expansion. Relocation could cost $100 million or more. Zoo board members prefer to stay on the south side, he said. If the land deals are approved, the first new zoo attractions wouldn't likely appear for two or three years, he said.
City Councilman Chris Coleman is a member of the zoo's board of directors. He said the latest plan makes sense.
"This will be a great thing for families and, equally important, this will be an economic boost for the south side," he said.
Mayor Frank Cownie noted that Des Moines residents have put more than 40 years and millions of dollars into the zoo.
"We have a long-term investment and a vested interest in it," he said. "I think the south side deserves it. I think the citizens deserve it."
Reporter Jason Clayworth can be reached at (515) 699-7058 or firstname.lastname@example.org