Zoo expansion prompts nature debate in Palo Alto | News | Palo Alto Online |


Zoo expansion prompts nature debate in Palo Alto

Parks and Recreation commissioners loath to sacrifice parkland for expanded animal museum

As Palo Alto's cramped but popular Junior Museum & Zoo prepares for a long-awaited expansion, city officials are struggling to reconcile the needs of the new zoo with their desire to protect the open space at Rinconada Park.

In an unusual nature-versus-nature debate, the city's Parks and Recreation Commission pondered, discussed and criticized the latest proposals to nearly double the size of the beloved museum on Middlefield Road, next to Walter Hayes Elementary School. The design calls for demolishing the 1930s building currently at the site and erecting a two-story building that, at nearly 20,000 square feet, would be more than twice the size of the existing museum. The goal is to equip the facility with adequate storage space, make it eligible for museum accreditation, improve site circulation and enhance exhibition areas and program spaces.

The goals are laudable, everyone agreed at the July 28 meeting. The museum, which is home to fruit bats, raccoons, two bobcats, and a giant tortoise named Edward, is often referred to as a Palo Alto "jewel." The fact that the renovation will be funded through private donations raised by a volunteer group, Friends of the Junior Museum & Zoo, makes the project a particularly easy sell for city officials.

Getting there, however, may pose a challenge. Because the museum is tucked between Walter Hays, Middlefield, a parking lot leading toward the Lucie Stern Community Center and Rinconada Park, space around the site is at a high premium. As such, the proposed design is forcing the city to weigh the relative benefits of an expanded Junior Museum & Zoo against the city's demand for parking spaces, its devotion to tree preservation and its professed desire to maintain neighborhood harmony.

In its latest discussion of the project, the Parks and Recreation Commission considered three different alternatives and found much to dislike about all three. Two of the alternatives would largely avoid infringing into Rinconada Park space but would each have so many complications that even the architects who proposed them conceded that they would create major operational challenges for the zoo.

One of the critical components of the expansion project is the creation of a separate building to support the zoo, which was built in the 1970s. One alternative would place the two-story zoo-support building in the middle of the proposed entrance plaza, effectively cutting off access to the museum complex.

Another would integrate the zoo-support area into the main museum building along Middlefield, making that building bigger and bulkier than it would otherwise be, and cutting into the parking area. Neither of these options got much traction from the commission.

The alternative preferred by the firm Cody Anderson Wasney Architects also didn't fare too well. Though deemed functionally feasible and somewhat better than the other two options, this design would situate the zoo-support building well inside Rinconada territory. The building would be separated from the main museum building by the zoo itself.

This design is similar to the one that was presented to the commission in February, though the museum's footprint in the park has been reduced by about 10 percent when compared with the earlier iteration. Even so, commissioners weren't too thrilled about sacrificing nature for a new building, even a building whose sole purpose is to foster an appreciation for nature.

Commissioner Ed Lauing observed that the city is now facing more demand than ever for its park space and that city efforts increasingly emphasize spaces that can accommodate a number of uses. The close relationship between the roles of the zoo and park in exposing families to nature did little to ease his discomfort.

"If the animals were spilling out occasionally, that would be one thing. But the building is going to be there and it is going to be there, kind of, forever," Lauing said. "Parks are about open space and trees and not necessarily about big buildings, and we can't endorse the use of limited park acreage just because something is fun and family oriented."

Commissioner Pat Markevitch had similar concerns about taking away park space. The city, she said, already falls short of its goal of having at least 3 to 4 acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents. She warned about the cumulative impacts of different building projects infringing on small portions of existing parkland.

"It's death by a thousand cuts," Markevitch said. "Our parkland is getting chipped away. We really need to draw a line in the sand as a commission at some point and say, 'Stop it.'"

While parkland is one concern, parking is another. Under the alternative preferred by Cody Anderson Wasney, which infringes into Rinconada Park, the existing 100-space lot would be expanded to 120 spaces. The other two alternatives, by concentrating the entire new complex around the current museum site, would cut into that benefit and push the new museum complex further into the parking lot.

"In all of these situations, something has to be sacred cows," Lauing said. "At this point, parking I think is one of them, sadly. And we're parks people, so we think trees are pretty close to sacred as well."

Among the most strident opponents of placing the new building in the park was Commissioner Deirdre Crommie. Like her colleagues, she praised the museum and called its offerings an "amazing program for our city." Yet she said she had an issue with putting a building in a park and was the only commissioner who favored a larger building along Middlefield.

"You're putting the building in the park and you're doing it because you don't want to put a building on Middlefield Road," Crommie told the project architects. "You're being very protective of Middlefield Road.

"I'm a little jealous because I live in south Palo Alto and no one is as protective about our roads," Crommie added. "We have big buildings going up all of the place in south Palo Alto but you get to the north and, 'Oh, it's residential. Let's not put a building on the road.'"

The commission did not vote on the project but requested that the architect make further revisions to the proposed design. Rob De Geus, director of the city's Community Services Department, defended the preferred alternative and highlighted the difference between the expanded museum and typical buildings. He compared the proposed structure to the type of interpretive centers that the city currently has at its open-space preserves.

"It's teaching thousands of children and families about conservation and nature," De Geus said. "These kids leave the Junior Museum & Zoo and the experience they have there caring deeply about parks and open space. There's huge value in that."

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4 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 4, 2015 at 9:14 am

Why not just make the building three stories high and get rid of the additional support building altogether?

37 people like this
Posted by Supply & Demand
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 4, 2015 at 9:31 am

Move Zoo to Foothill park or Bayland and having more "local" and "nature" themes. Add animal rescue function to it. Solicit donations to do that.

22 people like this
Posted by Nils
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 4, 2015 at 9:52 am

Here's another way to solve the problem that requires no land from Rinconada Park:

Walter Hays has an old MP room located in the wrong place on campus (in the back adjacent to the Junior Museum). Kids eating hot lunch now have to go all the way across campus from the MP room to the dining tables while carrying their food. This causes a variety of problems that parents complain about every year.

Why not do a swap? The Junior Museum builds Walter Hays a new MP room in a better location and they get the land on which the MP currently sits to use for their expansion.

34 people like this
Posted by William Warrior
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 4, 2015 at 11:15 am

I wish we could combine our ongoing search for a future animal shelter building in Palo Alto with this JMZ proposal and create a center of operations where the needs of our lost and found domestic animals share pride of place with the invaluable educational services of a state-of-the-art zoo facility.

8 people like this
Posted by andrew rich
a resident of Woodland Ave. area (East Palo Alto)
on Aug 4, 2015 at 11:28 am

andrew rich is a registered user.

Expanding the three-story building idea, assuming neighbors don't want a three-story building next door... excavate the property, build a sublevel for all the service needs, put the parking lot on top (at ground level), build the new zoo. Like what Griffith Observatory did several years ago.

22 people like this
Posted by Great Thinking
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 4, 2015 at 11:40 am

@Supply&Demand, Nils, and Wiiliam Warrior: I think all three of you have made wonderful and viable suggestions. Combining the zoo with the shelter is a great idea, kids can see a different perspective. The Walter Hays exchange is a wonderful idea that benefits all parties, and keeps the zoo in its convenient locale.

I contribute a donation to the zoo annually, since three generations of my family have enjoyed it so. I would personally be thrilled if any of your three suggestions were implemented, and I truly hope one of them is!

8 people like this
Posted by Underground no go
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 4, 2015 at 11:41 am

Unfortunately, going underground at that location is problematic. The water table is too high. The Lucie Stern building (next door) basement has flooded in the past during wet years.

14 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 4, 2015 at 12:23 pm

Zoos are outdated. I don't think we need a zoo or bigger zoo in Palo Alto. Place for the rescued animals, yes.

9 people like this
Posted by pares
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 4, 2015 at 1:21 pm

I agree with resident that Palo Alto does not need a zoo. We have many zoos in the Bay Area. It's hard to have enough space for a comfortable habitat for wild animals. It's not good to watch them pace back and forth in a cage. Better to spend that money on building a new shelter for lost pet animals.

16 people like this
Posted by Zoo Neighbor
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 4, 2015 at 1:34 pm

I love the museum and Zoo, but I disagree with the poster above who claimed the water table is too high to build underground. Modern construction allows houses to do this all the time in this area. And you don't have to go 20' deep - even a partial basement or something that is partially underground would give a lot of space for Zoo support. The Main Library, Lucie Stern, and other structures made that tradeoff years ago. It can be done.

12 people like this
Posted by Kris
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 4, 2015 at 7:11 pm

The Zoo is unique and delights and inspires children. There are a lot of parks in the city and a little encroachment isn't going to substantially impact anyone. I say, make the Zoo even better. It is a Palo Alto jewel as someone noted.

35 people like this
Posted by Expand, expand
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 4, 2015 at 8:37 pm

The passion to expand, expand is like a viral plague swallowing up Palo Ato slowly but surely. City Hall, the Senior Center, the libraries, the Art Center.

Stop the sharks, they are eating everything, especially our parks that look like useless land to the money changers.

11 people like this
Posted by Aint broke, just needs new
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 5, 2015 at 2:20 am

As a parent who found the old zoo a respite BECAUSE it was small, I've been unhappy with the direction towards larger ever since we got the new director. The tactile exhibits used to change once a year and now they stay the same mostly.

There are so many places to go for older kids,but for the really young, the JMZ used to be this magical, simple place where moms could sit and let their kids roam and explore without having to chase them or keep them out of trouble. I'm not saying I don't appreciate some of the upgrades, I do, as I'm sure the animals do. But I personally prefer retaining the size and spending the money on new and imaginative tactile exhibits again.

6 people like this
Posted by Truthseeker
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 5, 2015 at 11:31 am

Truthseeker is a registered user.

The Junior Museum is one of the reasons we moved to Palo Alto, and specifically to our neighborhood, years ago. Our kids were young and this was a magical place for them (and it was free!). Like "@Aint broke, just needs new", I liked it the way it is, but I know things have to change with the times, to make them new and fresh again for a new generation.

The question is, what do they want to be when they grow up?
(1) A bigger version of what we have today?
(2) A miniature version of CuriOdyssey (formerly Coyote Point Museum), with a mix of wildlife and science/other exhibits: Web Link ?
(3) Should they focus more on the animal side of things instead, like the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek: Web Link ? This last option allows them to consolidate some of the functions of Animal Services and do more.

I wonder what residents/ parents prefer, and whether patrons have been surveyed. Maybe "Friends" members & donors can comment on this.

7 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 5, 2015 at 11:51 am

Since the plan is to demolish and rebuild, why not solve two problems and move the location to Cubberley, and demolish and rebuild, especially since Cubberley needs the renovation?

7 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 5, 2015 at 11:53 am

Zoos take the 'wild' out of wildlife. They are cruel prisons to the animals, which have never been convicted of a crime. There are tremendous wild nature videos available to watch...no need to enslave the wildlife, unless it is for captive breeding purposes for an endangered species.

How can liberal Palo Alto possibly support such cruelty?

Shut down the zoo!

14 people like this
Posted by Great Thinking
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 6, 2015 at 12:19 pm

I was once VERY much against zoos, being an animal
activist, vegetarian, working for a rescue organization, and having been educated as a zoologist.

BUT..... A well kept, spacious zoo helps to raise awareness of wild animals, especially for kids. Books and videos cannot do an adequate job of this. Traveling to Africa, South America or wherever is expensive and impractical.

Some of my son's friend were inspired by the zoo to go into zoology or veterinary medicine.

Oh, and please remember that many, though not all, of the animals in our local zoo were rescued--from injury, death, uncertain futures, inept owners.

2 people like this
Posted by Eileen 1
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 11, 2015 at 1:09 pm

For those who are opposed to expansion, I think it is worth noting that the population of Palo Alto has grown significantly since the current museum/zoo was built. Today's children are not having the same experience that children did even 10 years ago. There are many many more children in town than there used to be and, because of this, places that serve children, schools, museums, libraries, etc... have needed to expand to meet this increased need.

Personally, I am intrigued by the idea of building a new MP Room for Walter Hays Elementary and using the old site for the museum. Seems to me it would be worth having the director of the museum have a chat with Dr. McGee, our superintendent of schools.

3 people like this
Posted by False logic
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 11, 2015 at 3:27 pm

Just because there are more children it does not follow that the zoo needs to be bigger. False logic.
The real reason to expand is that developers will make money on the construction and the City Manager can brag about still more construction. And so many people think bigger is better. It is not.
In fact so much new construction is boxy and ugly, there isn't anything to brag about.

14 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 11, 2015 at 3:36 pm

>> "There are many many more children in town than there used to be..."

I grew up here in the sixties when PAUSD enrollment exceeded 15,500.
Last year it was 12,532.

In my day we had much less in-fill and a less claustrophobic environment. Fewer walls and fences and looming structures. If anything, what children need today is more room to breathe.

7 people like this
Posted by Kalli Halpern
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 20, 2015 at 8:16 am

I am not a resident-so, this is an outsiders thoughts. I visit my grand daughter in Mountain View and for me the smallness of the Palo Alto museum and zoo are magical. If there is a structure or safety concern I understand. If it is about Bigger and Better-we have that in our lives -in so many ways. There is a lot to be said-for places where Children grow up and have memories and understand that small can be enough. Our communities often have many activities for children three years and up-but, few activities for our younger children. The joy of watching my grand daughter running with her arms raised
as she went from one animal to another is a memory I keep with me.

These are hard decisions. We also have a smaller zoo-built in the 1930s
and have some of the same issues. I wish you well.

Kalli Halpern East Lansing Michigan

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