In expansion, Palo Alto's Junior Museum & Zoo eyes new features, fees

City officials offer much praise, few quibbles, for plan to rebuild popular zoo

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.


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15 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 22, 2016 at 9:58 am

What a fantastic ideaI I have loved the Junior Museum most of my life - as a child and now as a parent. I have always appreciated that free admission but also understand in this day and age that running something as complex as a museum and zoo is expensive. It is also very clear that this place needs to be upgraded - it's pretty much original from the 1930s and in many areas is falling apart and/or is inaccessible. Compared to spending $100 to take the family to a movie, I'd take the Junior Museum over a movie any day! I sure hope this gets approved. Thank you to the Friends of the JMZ!

18 people like this
Posted by Supporter of new JMZ
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 22, 2016 at 10:15 am

My wife grew up going to the JMZ. My kids did as well. Sure, charging a small fee may make some unhappy, but the JMZ building as it stands has done it's tour and it sounds like parking and integrated into Riconada park has been examined extensively. It's time to rebuild for the next generation. How many cities have a family willing to donate 15M and a group of volunteers raising another 10M? Hope it all comes together, and soon.

9 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 22, 2016 at 10:57 am

The Junior Museum is such a wonderful place for children and families and I'm really happy to hear they are making upgrades. I think the new fee is very reasonable, especially given it's less expensive than most activities you take children to. I'm looking forward to taking my nephews here when it reopens, they absolutely love having a zoo right down the street in Palo Alto!

10 people like this
Posted by CG
a resident of another community
on Nov 22, 2016 at 12:24 pm

What a wonderful project--we rely on institutions like these and the groups who support them to make sure our communities thrive.

9 people like this
Posted by Bern Beecham
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 22, 2016 at 12:54 pm

To clarify, the fully rebuilt JMZ building will be entirely outside the park boundaries. The zoo space will expand at its perimeter and will include new non-public animal enclosures, similar to what is currently behind the present bobcat exhibition. These open-air enclosures are necessary to provide holding, resting and treatment areas for the zoo's animals. Regarding park boundaries, the zoo pre-existed the city's initial park ordinance and the city at that time considered the zoo to be appropriate to be included within the park boundary.
Bern Beecham
Friends, JMZ Boardmember

5 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 23, 2016 at 8:11 am

Instead of free what about: half price days? Or kids free days? I like discounts for residents if tax dollars go to support.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 23, 2016 at 8:25 am

I think an annual membership may make sense with unlimited visits and a number of free guest passes. When our kids were young a visit to the Museum and Zoo happened alongside each library visit. Families should be able to use this facility regularly and not be tied into specific times which may conflict with other activities and a membership would mean that each visit is already budgeted for.

7 people like this
Posted by Zoo Friend
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 23, 2016 at 3:10 pm

We have no problem with paying a small admission fee per visit OR with buying an annual membership pass.

We contribute annually AND per visit already: three generations of our family have loved the zoo and museum, and we are happy to help provide for the care and maintenance of them!

21 people like this
Posted by Local Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 25, 2016 at 11:47 am

I love the JMZ, too, I'm not sure what I would have done without it as a young parent.

I am probably going to get piled on for saying this, which is probably why you won't hear it even though it's what many of my friends think. While the JMZ definitely needs a new building, we think creating this bigger zoo experience with entrance fees is a bad fit for the local community. We don't like the direction of things under this director, who has had a greater concern for expansion than for vibrancy of the program. The tactile exhibits used to change every year or so, with new fun learning experiences. Under this director, they have hardly changed in 10 years. Instead, the changes in the zoo area seem like the desires of someone coming from a bigger zoo context (the director came from SF zoo after the tiger scandal), and wanting to bring that here, and thinking bigger is always better. I'm not trying to diss him or throw the baby out with the bathwater, I just think it's easy to end up just hearing the feedback they want to hear. The fact that the zoo was free and a parent could have a casual attitude about going (and coming and going) was one of the most valuable things about it. There are so many places you can go if you want to plan a day out, but here is a place local families can go and just hang out and meet casually. Charging admission will completely change the nature of this as a community asset for ordinary parents. While we later became members every year, with young children, we could not have afforded it and simply would not have gone.

In a choice between keeping the scale small town friendly and expanding but needing admission to pay for running the larger space, I think the former should be the choice. The museum should be rebuilt regardless, but I do not support a Happy Hollow wannabe situation. The intimacy and friendliness of the zoo is already not what it was, and that community-building feel was truly priceless. Yes, it's still a gem. But I am sorry for the newer parents who will never know the sanity-saving magical place we had. I think someone willing to design a magical plac that can run on the $2.50/person in donations they get now is preferable. Besides, increasing the cost and charging admission is very likely to mean lower attendance overall and may not bring in total inceased revenue anyway. I remember when I was younger the transit system in my City then slightly raised rates and lost so much ridership they had to drop the rates to lower again to increase their income back to what it was.

3 people like this
Posted by Parkland or not?
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 25, 2016 at 12:40 pm

Bern Beecham's explanation of the boundaries is unclear double speak. Does the remodel use park land or not?
This is an example of why people distrust the city as shown in the Annual Citizens Survey again and again. Page 2, Summary, at the very end of the bloated report. In 2015:

Generally acting in the best interest of the community 53%

Web Link

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 25, 2016 at 4:26 pm

I agree with the above comment about keeping the museum smaller and free. We have an annual membership, and would be less likely to go if we had to pay an entrance fee. I favor keeping it small improving current exhibits, leaving lots of rinconada park wide open spaces, and keeping it free. I would guess that admission will decline considerably withan entrance fee, certainly among those with financial constraints, as more and more are likely to be in the next few years

8 people like this
Posted by Jenn
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 29, 2016 at 1:44 pm

Part of the charm and uniqueness of the PA JMZ has been its comfortable size - perfect for its pint sized clientele. The lack of an entrance fee kept it accessible and well used - a wonderful daily stopping spot for many youngsters. the bridge, teh ducks, turtles all part of their neighborhood

sad that the expansion and proposed fee may take this away - i think the expansion, fund raising etc was driven by adults that really want to put "their name" on a portion of the city with disregard to those that truly patronize the JMZ and a true sense of what it is. an upgrade would have been the right thing but a full on redesign, fee structure etc - not the place for it.

in addition the same concern that is ignored all over town - this the right spot for a larger institution and presumably more cars coming into town?
the new building and proposed fee may drive away the local visitors that could walk or bike and pop into the JMZ at whim and instead we will have more people driving into PA and bringing more vehicles to what used to be a safe, easily navigated town

1 person likes this
Posted by Annual memberships make sense
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 29, 2016 at 4:04 pm

Annual memberships make sense is a registered user.

This a great project! I'm all for it as long as annual memberships are included, which would also provide a dependable revenue stream! I don't think charging would lead to less people visiting.

2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 29, 2016 at 7:27 pm

Logically we'd also charge a fee to get into our public libraries.

3 people like this
Posted by Oldster
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 29, 2016 at 11:57 pm

I so "fondly" remember going to City Hall before the Internet to buy an annual Foothill Park pass. Now it's free entrance at all times since collecting the annual fees and gate fees was not cost efficient.

Didn't know Palo Alto hired a Big City Zoo person to manage our Junior Museum. Finally looked at the proposed plans. Yikes! What a huuuuge buildling complete with a statement techno-modern "We're big!" foyer. An expanded zoo for animals who are not all unable to be in the wild like our eagle Sequoia. Aren't such zoos with boxy and small enclosures supposed to be passe?

2 people like this
Posted by keep it free
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 30, 2016 at 8:34 am

Why can't the city continue the present admission policy?

Oh, I know. The Staff needs more funds in the City's treasury to raise their salaries and perks and the City Manager's wages.

Like this comment
Posted by Annual memberships make sense
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 30, 2016 at 12:14 pm

Annual memberships make sense is a registered user.

@keep it free - The City shouldn't continue the current policy, there is no reason that assets such as the Jr. Museum and Children's Theater should not pull their own weight financially. They should be funded - at least in part - by the people that use them.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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