When Palo Alto's small but beloved Junior Museum & Zoo completes its renovation, visitors will gain access to new classrooms, more exhibits, enclosures with bobcats and meerkats, and a new "loose in the zoo" area where youthful animal lovers can roam in unison with birds and small mammals.
One new feature, however, will likely be less popular than the rest: a ticket gate.
As the Rinconada Park attraction looks to expand its programs, officials are preparing to start charging visitors for admission. The current plan calls for charging $4 for children and $7 for adults after the first phase of construction, which includes most of the major improvements. Completion of the second phase -- a new classroom with insect exhibits and a "canopy walk" above the zoo -- would trigger an increase in fees to $5 for children and $10 for adults.
On Monday, Palo Alto staff characterized the introduction of the fee for a facility that has traditionally been free as a tough but necessary decision. John Aiken, director of Junior Museum & Zoo, said that just about museums throughout the country have having similar discussions as they try to figure out ways to pay for cultural institutions.
"Most of these institutions can't survive by being on their own and can't survive without having some money on table," Aiken told the council.
Currently, the museum accepts donation, with a suggested amount of $5. Aiken said that people on average contribute about $2.50.
At the same time, the Junior Museum & Zoo isn't facing its financial challenges alone. A group of supporters, Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo, has spearheaded a fundraising drive to foot the entire construction bill, which is estimated at $25 million. The group has already raised nearly $9.2 million, members told the council, and once they get to $10 million, they will become eligible for a $15 million matching grant from the Peery family.
Given that the renovation and expansion of the Junior Museum & Zoo is being funded by private money, the City Council was largely enthusiastic about the project. Several council members fondly recalled trips to the zoo with their families and almost everyone praised the Friends group for its successful fundraising effort.
Mayor Pat Burt said he believes the expanded zoo is the largest project contributed by a nonprofit to the city since the 1930s.
"I think we really need to recognize how great of an effort this has been and what an asset it will be to our community," Burt said. "As a result, I really favor us bending over backwards to try to help in any way we can.
"Because this could have been something that was proposed as a 50-50 public-private contribution. And it's not."
But even with the giant contribution from the Friends group and its donors, the city will incur increased costs. When the Junior Museum & Zoo closes in late 2017 or so for the two-year construction period, most of the exhibits will be moved to the Cubberley Community Center auditorium (there would not be a zoo at Cubberley). The relocation will cost about $400,000. In addition, the city is preparing to make a contribution of $3.8 million to $5.8 million for a wide range of improvements to Rinconada Park's playground, parking lot and restrooms.
While no one opposed the project, some council members took issues with some of the details. Councilman Greg Schmid and Councilwoman Karen Holman both wondered if the layout of the new museum can be reconfigured so that the new buildings wouldn't spill over into Rinconada Park space, as it does under the proposed alignment. It would be better, Holman said, if the new facility wouldn't take away park space.
But others argued that the new zoo would be perfectly suitable for Rinconada. Rob de Geus, director of the Community Services Department, said he sees the Junior Museum & Zoo as counterpart of sorts to the Lucy Evans Baylands Interpretive Center -- a place where interactive exhibits can enrich visitor's understanding of and appreciation for nature.
"It's a good fit for what we want on our parkland," de Geus said.
For Councilman Cory Wolbach, admission costs were a bigger concern.
"I'm not excited about charging people to visit the zoo any more than I'd be excited to charge people for visiting Foothills Park or the Baylands," Wolbach said.
If admission tickets are instituted, Wolbach said he'd rather see the city charge $5 to $10 for an annual pass. City staff are also considering charging cheaper rates to Palo Alto residents and offering free access on some days.
The council also acknowledged, however, that running the zoo isn't cheap and generally supported the plan from staff and the Friends group. De Geus called the Junior Museum & Zoo a "phenomenal service" and pointed to customer feedback, which indicated that there is "a willingness to pay."
"It's unusual that something like this would be free to the public," de Geus said.