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Part of the makeover plan for the zoo includes a new entrance for Discovery Bay. On Monday morning, visitors to Discovery Bay kept an eye on the dolphins, at least one of which kept an eye on the visitors.

Jerry Holt, DML -

Artist rendering of penguin viewing at the Minnesota Zoo.

Feed Loader, Star Tribune

Artist rendering, lower south entrance, Minnesota Zoo.

Feed Loader, Star Tribune

Part of the makeover plan for the zoo includes a new entrance for Discovery Bay. On Monday morning, visitors to Discovery Bay kept an eye on the dolphins, at least one of which kept an eye on the visitors.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

FOR MORE ONLINE The state zoo's 2009 annual report can be viewed by visiting www.mnzoo.com and selecting "About Us."

Minnesota Zoo’s extreme makeover

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • March 24, 2010 - 9:46 PM

Most signs suggest the Minnesota Zoo is on a roll. Attendance is setting records. Membership and fundraising are at all-time highs. New exhibits are winning national awards the old zoo never dreamed of.

But the zoo's senior staff arrives for work each morning thinking, "Ugh."

Contaminated water oozes across an ugly parking lot and fouls the zoo's central lake. The main entrance -- never meant to be that, and not looking like one today -- is invisible. Inside, it's dark and low-ceilinged, with endless walks to anything resembling an animal, save for the snow monkeys' bleak, stained pit. The nocturnal exhibit is simply closed and empty.

Thanks to an influx of money from the state, almost all of that is about to change.

"We're not knocking 'er down and starting over," said director Lee Ehmke, standing on the decaying surface of what was once envisioned as a lively central plaza. "We're building on the base of what was constructed here in the 1970s. But it will feel like a completely new experience."

Zoo supporters hope their $21 million share of the state capital projects bill, signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty last week, is just the beginning of a three-phase makeover that will cost more than $70 million, counting private contributions. The so-called "Heart of the Zoo" plan aims to mostly replace the central spine of the 32-year-old facility and start afresh. The price tag will be higher than what it cost to build the zoo, which opened in 1978.

The changes come despite the zoo's own consultants warning last fall, after taking discreet political soundings, that "legislators don't agree it is essential or urgent for the state."

Worried, the zoo created its own grass-roots support system, Minnesotans for a Great Zoo, which attracted more than 1,000 members, many of whom dashed off letters or e-mails to politicians. "You're seeing more and more of that," said Himle Horner principal Todd Rapp, who delivered the warning last fall.

"It was an attempt to capture the goodwill and support that's out there," Ehmke said. "We've got 44,000 households as members, representing 150,000 people who've made some level of commitment to the zoo. Within that group, some are really passionate about it."

A do-over on design

That passion subsists despite what today's senior officials consider a series of blunders in the zoo's creation and expansion. They include forcing zoo-goers to navigate a long windswept plaza to reach the building's original main entrance, and slapping the blank brick exterior wall of Discovery Bay beside what became the new main entry.

The first phase of the reconstruction effort will, among other things:

•Add a major new penguin exhibit, introducing a charismatic species to the heart of the main building. Kids will be able to climb up to a beach alongside nesting penguins.

•Turn an abandoned, dilapidated whale tank into a nearly 200-seat theater for the bird show and other uses.

•Expand and improve the zoo's education wing for school groups and others.

•Landscape and re-create the existing main entrance. Designers will seek to draw the eye away from, if not entirely conceal, that looming wall, which gives arriving at the zoo the feel of scuttling in through a back door.

"There aren't trees big enough to mask all that architecture," Ehmke said.

Later phases -- if the money keeps flowing -- will shift the entrance back to its original spot, surround visitors with animals from the moment they arrive and bring them into the building through a lively new visitors' center, under shelter from winter's blasts and summer's heat.

In the meantime, officials are considering what to do with the $6 million they got as part of the $21 million for "asset preservation." Ideas include environmentally friendly permeable pavers and drainage swales to turn parking lots into green teaching tools, and renovating the nocturnal exhibit.

The other $15 million, for the Heart of the Zoo project, will be paired with $5 million in private contributions to get a start on that $70 million task.

Rallying support

That level of private giving has done a lot to help the zoo counter the reluctance some legislators have to spend money on amenities amid a recession, Rapp and others say. And it has helped to engineer almost a role reversal between the suburban state zoo and its cuter, more historic cousin in St. Paul, the Como Zoo.

"It's fascinating to recall that if you go back 10 years, the Minnesota Zoo was the controversial one, with attendance problems and a lot of different issues," said Sen. Chris Gerlach, an Apple Valley Republican. "Now, Como is hitching their wagon to the good reputation of the Minnesota Zoo."

Como's supporters inserted language preventing Pawlenty -- a south suburbanite who once represented the district in which the zoo sits -- from axing millions aimed at Como if he wanted to ensure that Apple Valley's zoo got its dough.

The linking of the two followed a well-publicized shot at Como by Republican minority leader and now gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert, who wondered why it costs so much more to house a gorilla than it costs to create luxury homes for people. The zoo was seeking $11 million to upgrade a pair of exhibits.

It so happens that Ehmke, earlier in his career, designed the most popular animal exhibit at the Bronx Zoo in New York, a $50 million blockbuster featuring ... gorillas.

"Having designed a gorilla exhibit myself," he said with a smile, "I know they needed a new one."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023

UP CLOSE

Part of the first phase will include a new penguin exhibit, below.

UNCAGING A NEW LOOK

Artist's rendering shows a more inviting look for the zoo's "front door."

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