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Published: 4/26/2004

Zoo acquiring land for possible growth

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Youngsters get their first look at Louie, the elephant born at the Toledo Zoo, with his mother, Renee, shortly after his birth last year. Louie has been a popular attraction at the zoo, which is involved in an ongoing expansion plan. Youngsters get their first look at Louie, the elephant born at the Toledo Zoo, with his mother, Renee, shortly after his birth last year. Louie has been a popular attraction at the zoo, which is involved in an ongoing expansion plan.
ZAPOTOSKY / BLADE Enlarge
Madeline Micheaux-Harris tries on a lion skin for an Earth Day event at the zoo. Madeline Micheaux-Harris tries on a lion skin for an Earth Day event at the zoo.
ALLAN DETRICH Enlarge

A century and four years after it began with a single groundhog, the Toledo Zoo - home to more than 4,700 animals ranging from the 8,100-pound elephant to the 0.007-ounce Sunburst diving beetle - is suffering growing pains.

So quietly, steadily, and as recently as last week, the zoo has been buying up tracts of land, piecing together sections that could be used for an access drive, staff parking, or even expanded animal exhibits.

Right now, though, plans aren't concrete. Moreover, the zoo has no pressing demand for any specific property, said Bob Harden, the zoo's chief operating officer.

"We're not holding a hammer over anybody's head to force them to move," he said. "There's been a couple of times we've turned [sellers] down because they were asking too much."

Still, since 1995, a flurry of real estate transfers has delivered to the zoo 34 addresses, totaling 18.8 acres at a price of $3.2 million. The largest purchase was a 1995 acquisition of 11.25 acres for $925,000.

After that, the smaller tracts of land - some less than a 10th of an acre - have been paid for by a 10-year capital campaign approved by voters that November, Mr. Harden said. The same levy also has paid for several new exhibits, including Africa!, the zoo's most ambitious project ever that will open May 1.

Mr. Harden said planners in 1995 didn't have specific plans or a dollar amount they set aside for land purchases, but they had a "sort of a floating amount that could be used for contingencies and opportunities, like land acquisition."

So several years ago, the zoo sent out letters to neighbors, informing them the zoo might be interested in their properties should they decide to sell.

Generally, he said, the zoo has been giving the market price for the smaller, residential properties since that time.

Scott Gosch, the most recent seller, agreed.

He said his rental property on Spencer Street last year was appraised at about $69,000. On April 19, he signed closing papers selling the property to the zoo for $70,000.

He said it was a good deal for him and the zoo. The zoo was able to acquire another piece of land; he was able to forego the complications of a traditional sale. The zoo even picked up the closing costs.

As it stands now, the zoo is considering razing several homes it purchased along Amherst Drive for a better access drive for deliveries. On the other side of the Anthony Wayne Trail, new land could be used for parking for administrative offices that might move nearby from their current location in the zoo's Museum building near the Broadway side.

Still, not everyone is pleased.

Though neighbors who spoke to The Blade agreed the zoo benefits the city by attracting about a million visitors a year, they've been annoyed with noise levels from zoo concerts and construction. Other issues have risen over the zoo's decisions to fence in what neighbors considered a public park area, and the more recent decay of an asphalt walkway the zoo built along the Trail for the 1989 Panda exhibit.

"I know they do a lot of wonderful things," said Joe Marconi, a long-time Amherst Drive resident. "On the other hand, I don't think they're good neighbors. They've had their way for a long time."

Pat Wilson, another Amherst neighbor who is worried that a bigger service entrance would mean new zoning and possible street closures, agreed. "Ninety-nine percent of what they do is OK. But as long as they make assumptions, that's arrogance."

But Mr. Harden and others note that the zoo is otherwise landlocked and out of options.

Compare the Toledo Zoo to Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Since 1989, the Columbus Zoo has purchased more than 400 acres, including a 265-acre, 18-hole golf course. That brings the zoo's total land to 580 acres, making it the largest municipally operated zoo in the country, said Patty Peters, a Columbus Zoo spokesman.

In the next five years, they hope to transform some of the land into an African savannah and picnic area. Only now, Ms. Peters said, does the Columbus Zoo find itself landlocked.

"We're 17 miles from the center of downtown Columbus," she noted.

With the 1995 levy near its expiration, Toledo Zoo officials will decide in the next year the future of the zoo's operations. It may include buying more land; it may not, said P.J. Johnson, president of the zoo's board of directors.

For example, improving parking isn't as easy as simply buying more land and paving outward. At some point, "parking is not the issue, walking is the issue," Mr. Johnson said

"You reach a point where people say, 'Well the lot's not full, but I'm not parking here,'‚óŹ" he said.

Agreed Mr. Harden: "It's not always that bigger is better. Let's also look at the opportunities that are already here."

Contact Robin Erb at: robinerb@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.



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