Better life for man, beast at heart of city zoo plan

Trams, upscale dining among proposals for $60 million makeover

March 31, 2000|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

The aging Baltimore Zoo would be transformed into a regional tourist attraction complete with upscale dining and Disney-like visitor trams, under a sweeping $60 million renovation plan zoo officials hope to launch next month.

The nation's third-oldest zoo might even rate a new name -- early plans refer to the revamped urban park as WildEarth -- when the project is completed in 2004, according to a summary provided to architects and engineers bidding for the design work.

It would be a major makeover for the city's zoo, which opened in 1876 and still features some of the scrolled-iron cages that marked Victorian-era zoos. A new center plaza would house a gift shop and performance stage. The tigers would get a new home. The snakes, turtles and lizards that now reside in an off-site Reptile House would join the rest of the park.

The far-reaching renovation plans began as an upgrade of deteriorating water, sewer and electrical lines. But Executive Director Roger C. Birkel said the zoo needed a more extensive face lift to attract new visitors. About 600,000 people went to the Baltimore Zoo last year. Birkel hopes the "new zoo," as he calls it, will bring double that number.

"Rather than be a little-bit-better zoo, [the thought was] let's be a zoo that can really reach people," Birkel said in an interview yesterday.

The ambitious goal to remake the 160-acre zoo park as a regional drawing card faces obstacles. Administrators need to raise about $17 million for the project from private sources. When it is finished, they will have to find a way to pull in paying visitors who might otherwise drive to Washington, where the Smithsonian's National Zoo is free.

But Birkel, who worked at the St. Louis Zoo for 25 years before coming to Baltimore five years ago, is upbeat. Tooling around the grounds in an electric golf cart, Birkel points out existing attractions like a Maryland wilderness trail that he says will help distinguish Baltimore's zoo from those in neighboring cities.

Enthusiasm for plan

Birkel said the private funding will come. He has talked to dozens of individuals and businesses, and he said that people have been enthusiastic about the plan.

The bulk of the project's $60 million budget will come from the state and the city of Baltimore. Frederick W. Puddester, budget secretary for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said the state has committed $27.7 million to the project.

The zoo has requested $15 million from Baltimore, said Charles Graves, the city's director of planning. The city has approved spending $4.7 million on the project. Graves said the remaining $10.3 million is earmarked in future budgets but would need final approval from the Board of Estimates.

For now, the project is in its earliest stages. The zoo has asked architects and engineers to submit proposals for the design work by 5 p.m. today. Design planning is expected to take most of this year, with construction beginning next winter.

Completion by 2004

Zoo officials hope to have much of the project completed and open to the public by spring 2002. The project is scheduled to be finished by 2004.

Visitors that spring would find a dramatically different attraction tucked away in Northwest Baltimore's sprawling Druid Hill Park. At the entrance, zoo-goers would board small trams and travel among the recorded sounds of wild animal calls into a renovated main plaza area at the center of the park.

From that central area, visitors could branch off to the zoo's various animal exhibits. The plaza also would offer snack vendors, a gift shop and gardens serving as "habitats" for sculpture animals.

Also planned for the plaza is an upscale cafeteria-style restaurant and banquet facility complete with a wide veranda and deck overlooking the zoo, according to a summary of the early plans.

Exhibit upgrades

Many of the animal exhibits would be upgraded as well. The reptile house, which currently sits off zoo property, would be brought into the central plaza. A bug house is planned for insect exhibits. And the prairie dog exhibit will be outfitted with crawl tubes so kids can experience tunneling underground and popping their heads up just like the little creatures.

The elaborate old iron cages that date to the zoo's earliest days have long been traded for more natural habitats for the zoo's 2,500 creatures. But in a nod to the zoo's long history, one remaining circular cage that housed a single brown bear a century ago will become home to a towering bear statue.

Birkel said the zoo does not plan to substantially increase admission prices as part of the overhaul. Currently, admission is $9 for adults and $5.50 for children over age 2.

`A milestone'

Billie Grieb, president of the zoo's board of trustees, said the project has widespread support. "This is very exciting," said Grieb, a Baltimore attorney. "What is particularly exciting about it is that it really is a milestone in the zoo's development."

The park's effort to draw visitors in from surrounding areas reflects a challenge facing zoos across the country. A national tourism study released this month by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association showed that about 45 percent of zoo visitors travel more than 50 miles to reach the facilities. The median annual attendance at the nation's zoos last year was 443,000.

"There's really a need to do this here," Birkel said. "I never want to have this perceived as change for change's sake."

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