LA Zoo renovation proposal gets support from city council

The Los Angeles City Council green-lighted a revised plan Wednesday that will guide the physical transformation of the LA Zoo and explore the feasibility of expanding transit service to get there.

The council voted 13-0, with council members Paul Krekorian and Curren Price absent, to move forward with the Los Angeles Zoo Vision Plan, which lays out improvement of facilities and operations of the zoo.

"What we have before us now is a revised EIR (environmental impact report) for a new alternative that came out of that community engagement process, alternative 1.5," said Councilwoman Nithya Raman, whose Fourth District includes the zoo.

According to Raman, the revised plan eliminates a large multi-story parking garage, which was contemplated in an earlier plan. It also restores and protects some of the most "vulnerable trees," Coast Live oak trees, by leaving an undeveloped hillside in a proposed Africa exhibit area.

The revised plan commits to measures "to reduce vehicle miles traveled for visitors who are coming into the park," Raman added. In addition, the revised plan proposes a smaller visitor center and moving it off a ridgeline.

The plans will also align with the city's existing efforts to preserve wildlife crossings and natural areas. Blasting to demolish old infrastructure will be avoided, Raman noted.

"I feel really confident that the concerns that are out there right now are going to be able to be addressed in the next phase as we come back with these concrete designs," Raman said.

Raman shared a personal anecdote of how her parents "never really wanted to be out in nature" and how camping was "not part of our cultural tradition."

"I had a love of the environment, which came out of my engagement with my local zoo and my local aquarium," Raman said.

With that story, she emphasized the need to invest and make the L.A. Zoo a state-of-the-art facility where Angelenos can engage with nature and conservation.

"I'm hopeful about this plan and how it can take us in that direction," Raman said.

Jon Deutsch, president of the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council, wrote a community impact statement to the City Council recognizing the hard work that went into the L.A. Zoo Vision Plan.

However, on behalf of his neighborhood council, Deutsch listed a number of concerns with the revised plan, which included the reduction of waste, the preservation of trees, addressing accessibility and equity and prioritizing animal welfare.

"We are concerned about the metrics of selecting the most environmentally preferable approach: It is important that the zoo approach its Vision Plan in the most environmentally sustainable manner possible," the letter reads.

Deutsch notes the 45-day comment period is insufficient to "adequately respond to the 332-page document.

"Alternate 1.5 reflects a significant change in the zoo's approach to its vision plan," the letter reads. "While the document describes this new alternative, it does so in broad and sometimes vague terms, making it challenging and time-consuming to understand the alternative's parameters and differences between it and the previously analyzed alternatives."

Councilman Bob Blumenfield asked to clarify whether the plan would impact the elephants at the zoo -- as the revised plan seeks to expand enclosures.

Denise Verret, director of the L.A. Zoo and Botanical Gardens, told the council the plan is "completely rooted in improving the welfare and well- being of our animals."

Verret reassured the council that the approval is only a "blueprint for how we would improve the physical campus of the L.A. Zoo."

Raman said the city's Department of Transportation and Metro are making plans to expand transit services to the zoo. She also echoed Verret's comments that this first approval will allow flexibility as zoo officials finalize designs.

The final design and renovation costs remain unknown, but city officials said it would be paid for with private and public funding. A report from the Zoo Department stated the initial phase of construction is estimated at $650 million.