St. Louis Zoo Rethinks Almost Everything, Offers Transformative Vision of Expansion

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St. Louis Zoo - Expansion Framework Plan Open House

A signature hotel, acres of new animal exhibits, a gondola and much more are part of the St. Louis Zoo's ambitious expansion plans. The zoo held its second open house yesterday to present and discuss a framework plan for expansion. In March 2012 the Zoo announced that it would acquire the vacant Forest Park Hospital site just south of I-64. The first open house was held December 2012. The 13.5-acre site presents the only opportunity for the approximately 100-acre zoo to change its boundaries, as it is otherwise set within Forest Park, where it is virtually impossible for the institution to grow its footprint.

Recognizing that the project would garner significant interest, the zoo quickly engaged the public. This site solicited design ideas as part of our What Should Be initiative and gathered plans were incorporated by the zoo and lead planner SWT Design into their framework discussion. More important, residents of the adjacent Dogtown neighborhood were engaged in design charrettes.

That engagement has resulted in a clear framework for the Zoo’s expansion and future master plan that will dictate the institution’s next 30 years. The charrettes, open invitation for ideas and initial open house have quickly helped shaped a bold vision that goes behind simply adding to the zoo. The framework represents a rethinking of nearly every major zoo component.

St. Louis Zoo - Expansion Framework Plan Open House

St. Louis Zoo - Expansion Framework Plan Open House
{a gondola connecting the south site to the zoo's north entrance would be a high-profile addition}

With such a transformative plan, one might expect some misses, but here it’s difficult to define any real design miscues. The new site would see administrative and support offices, a signature hotel, a new animal exhibit attraction, seemingly well-disguised parking and mixed-use development along Clayton Avenue. There would be a pedestrian bridge across I-64 integrated into the Forest Park bicycle-pedestrian path and terminating at a new signature restaurant and south entrance. A gondola would connect the site to the north entrance at the other end of the zoo. The existing south parking lot would be gone and Wells Drive relocated. Each of these represents a significant project. Together, they constitute a bold vision of where the zoo is heading.

The plan is still in its early development and the success of any element depends on execution. Only time will tell if the planned new parking structure presents an imposing two-story wall to homes on Graham Street or whether the new animal exhibit south of I-64 is a unique draw. There’s some moxie in the plan, yet the Zoo appears to also be underestimating the project’s market potential.

St. Louis Zoo - Expansion Framework Plan Open House
{locked to its boundaries within Forest Park, the Zoo purchased the site south of I-64}

The open house presentation included market research for retail, hotel and residential development. Existing retail is identified along Clayton and Tamm in Dogtown, Hampton Avenue, the Highlands, and Clayton Road west of the park. Average vacancy is stated as 3.2%. The framework identifies up to 55,000 square feet of total retail growth in restaurants, a grocery, visitor-oriented retail and neighborhood-oriented retail. In addition to other retailers, something like a CVS could work well here, providing items for zoo visitors—water, snacks, sunscreen, etc.—and neighborhood residents and office workers alike.

The bigger missed opportunities may be in hotel and residential development. Forest Park lacks a destination hotel. The Chase-Park Plaza is next to the park, but rather far from the main attractions. Possibly the worst pedestrian intersection in the entire city sits between the park and newly remodeled Cheshire Inn, itself quite a ways from the marquee institutions. The Highlands has a Hampton Inn, which may not be a fit for everyone, and hotels at I-44 and Hampton are very disconnected from the park.

St. Louis Zoo - Expansion Framework Plan Open House

The hotel market study shows 1,250 total rooms for the nearest 10 hotels, with an average daily rate of $120 and average occupancy of 65%. This doesn’t seem to be a booming market, but it’s also akin to comps used by Realtors—counting bathrooms and raw square footage often fails to tell the story. (For the record, I’ve survived a stay in the Red Roof Inn and, ahem, it would not seem to be a direct competitor for a themed hotel at the zoo and overlooking Forest Park.)

Here, the Zoo can create a market. Imagine a family staying at the Zoo Hotel, eating in a Rainforest Café (or something of the sort), taking the gondola to the zoo, walking a bit to the art museum and maybe even making their way to the boat rentals at the Boathouse. Maybe they even get there on the bikes they rented to explore Forest Park. It’s easy to imagine a couple days spent without really leaving the park. None of the other hotels can offer anything similar. If part of the goal is to offer a unique experience, this could be a large part of that. And yet market research is telling the zoo that a hotel of only perhaps 100-150 rooms can be supported. Here is where the positive impact of the aggregated plan needs to be recognized. The expansion won’t exist in the market of today, but instead have a big impact on that market, and possibly even create a new one.

Similarly, the opportunity for residential development seems vastly understated. In the immediate area are 200 units at the Lofts at the Highlands and 278 more units at the under-construction Cortona at Forest Park. There is demand enough to get Cortona financed in 2012. By the time any residential at the zoo site would hit the market, the data will have shifted. If 478 new units are absorbed to 5% vacancy in the span of just a couple years, there is clearly demand for more. The current vacancy rate for eight nearby multi-family projects is 5%. The Zoo concludes that just 45-70 residential units are possible.

What’s most glaring though is the lack of confidence in the potential for office development. The adjacent Highlands is 100% leased. Its 300,000 square feet built and occupied within the last decade. Market research states that rents are comparable to downtown Clayton. Next door a Mercedes dealership is being built. Market research matters, but one also needs to see where the market is going. This part of the city is as hot as any. A lot more confidence in hotel, residential and office development is needed.

St. Louis Zoo - Expansion Framework Plan Open House

St. Louis Zoo - Expansion Framework Plan Open House

Images of the framework plan provide a lot of specific detail, but there’s a lot to interpret. The hotel would occupy the corner nearest Hampton and I-64. The adjacent rectangular building is retained from the hospital as administrative offices. The large kidney bean shaped building would be a new attraction—the presentation mentioned an exhibit that ranges from birds to aquatic and subterranean animals in one place, something different than a standard aquarium (an oft-requested attraction). The area that appears tiled would be covered parking, at least a 1:1 replacement for the south lot and smaller north lot. It’s estimated that moving nearly all parking outside Forest Park proper would decrease peak traffic by 40% within the park. A new pedestrian bridge (brown) crosses I-64, terminating at an architecturally significant building at the past site of the sea lion show. This building would house a restaurant and function as a new south entrance. The south parking lot becomes new exhibition space—an African Savannah, perhaps. The gondola runs from south of I-64 to outside the maintained north entrance. Wells Drive is relocated adjacent to I-64 and the bicycle and pedestrian path gets a tunnel underneath Tamm Drive. Got it all?

A few questions remain: What would it cost to ride the gondola (a roundtrip on the zoo train is $5)? Does the gondola only deliver visitors into the zoo, or would the north terminus be outside the zoo entrance, better connecting people to the Art Museum and Forest Park? Would there be a cost to visit the new animal attraction south of I-64? Will more robust transit options be offered, maybe a Forest Park BRT connecting the zoo, museums and science center with the Central West End transit station? And lastly, when can we get started?! The framework process to-date is working well and the possibility of the Zoo differentiating itself, Forest Park, and the city as an incomparable attraction and amenity is an exciting possibility.

St. Louis Zoo - Expansion Framework Plan Open House

St. Louis Zoo - Expansion Framework Plan Open House

St. Louis Zoo - Expansion Framework Plan Open House

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  • John b

    The saint Louis Zoo as well as Zoos across the world will inherit the import work of saving endangered species. On this note, more amenities, housing and entertainment facilities for people will siphon off much needed dollars for this critical work. Concentrate on land and animals. People don’t need to sleep overnight at the zoo

    • Alex Ihnen

      But wouldn’t an amenity/experience like overnight at the zoo help siphon off more money?

  • Thomas

    Wonder if they are going to release new information on this project.

  • PunditorParody

    sounds really amazing. think of what we could accomplish in st louis if this type of planning effort was put into the city schools

  • fulltimemonti

    I love the idea, especially the Gondola. Anything that connects across the interstate for pedestrians, gets my vote. What forest park really needs, though is for the loop trolly to extend through the park and connect wih the South side of 64. Put in massive parking structures near the proposed expansion and get rid of the street parking around the park, instead, allowing people to get around by trolly. The traffic around the park is a nuisance.

    • Daron Dierkes

      Street parking in the park is very flexible. Why not have that and the trolley?

  • John R

    Question for the gondola lobby…. would these suckers be big enough to load up families with strollers and all the family accessories? Or would they most likely have to take a bridge.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Good Q – to be popular at all, they’d have to fit a double stroller and family of 4-5. The presentation at the open house mentioned have them accommodate bicycles, which I think it ridiculous, but that gives one an idea of how big they might be. If a bicycle can fit, so can a stroller.

      • T-Leb

        Mountain biking began using ski lifts… see it every summer in Telluride. Bicycles shouldn’t be a problem if attached on outside.

  • RyleyinSTL

    Looks transformative. As “Joe average” I don’t see much I don’t like here. I just hope adjacent homes don’t need to look a blank concrete parkade walls…although they currently look at an abandoned building, so really this project is all upside.

    Make it so!

  • Presbyterian

    For point of reference, they mentioned the California Academy of Sciences as being the closest thing built to the attraction they envision on the hospital site. Think very immersive and experiential, with birds flying above, then tree canopy life below that, then life at ground level, then underground, then aquatic life.

  • T-Leb

    How much more parking is needed after Art Museum new wing opens with all those underground spots?

    • Alex Ihnen

      The north lot would be reduced and largely used for school buses, etc. The south lot would be gone. A hotel and new attraction would be added. It seems that there would be a lot of demand for parking.

    • John R

      Art Museum surely will be pricing their garage at a rate that will deter zoo-gooers, Plus 3 million+ already are going to the zoo annually; how many more people would an impressive expansion draw? Potentially a lot.

      • T-Leb

        Hopefully more people in buses and trolleys and bicycles.. large tourist groups over two people in an automobile.

  • T-Leb

    That Red Roof Inn is disgusting. Was there any mention of secure bicycle parking?

  • Daron Dierkes

    You mean like they are building the Dallas Aquarium in kidney shape?

  • Imran

    Unless you are in a very densely built up area, most hotels I have seen built up to highways are of the caliber of Hamton inn, Drury etc. The obnoxious highway noise might be at play here.

  • What is with these development projects and gondolas? Is there some kind of gondola lobbyist group that’s extremely active in Saint Louis? First the Jefferson Memorial Expansion tried to sell us on gondolas across the river (despite metro serving the exact same purpose only more efficiently) and now the Zoo wants gondolas across the highway?

    Waste of money, gonna get dropped from the project just like with the Arch expansion.

    Otherwise, it’s seems like a nice project. But honestly, I don’t see anything too awe-inspiring just yet.

    • jhoff1257

      I doubt there is a gondola lobby in St. Louis. Many zoos have aerial trams or gondolas. Fort Wayne, Indiana would be one example, the Bronx Zoo had them at one point, as does the San Diego Zoo.

      You also have to understand that this gondola would go from the Forest Park Hospital site to the current North Lot of the Zoo. So it wouldn’t just “cross the highway” it would cross the entire Zoo. Imagine a glass bottom gondola over the entire zoo. That would be worth seeing. Much more inspiring than a gondola over the Mississippi.

      And no offense, these kind of statements, “waste of money, gonna get dropped from the project” do nothing for this city. It’s like people here are afraid of anything transformative or different from the status quo.

      • I think mild criticism of one aspect of a project is probably not going to destroy Saint Louis. I also don’t really see how gondolas are transformative. The project is nice, but gondolas are not space-age, jaw-dropping technological achievements. The zoo already has a train that traverses the grounds, and people are supposed to walk the length of it anyways. So I see no transportation purpose here.

        I dunno, I just get tired of gimmicks. The Jefferson National Memorial expansions was overall a great plan, but the original had lots of silly gimmicks which weren’t necessary, like the gondolas.

        I agree that going over the Zoo is less dull than going over a muddy river to the East Side. But at the same time I feel that they should use that gondola money on cool exhibits, like the extremely popular (and much less gimmicky) penguin exhibit. It was a killer idea, it was a huge attraction, and it was educational.

        • Daron Dierkes

          Don’t you think the gondola would allow a lot of SLAM visitors to park in Dogtown and ride in? Maybe eat dinner later at Nora’s?

      • clara

        NO , it might fall ON THE HIGHWAY.,

        • jhoff1257

          You sound like you belong on the Post-Dispatch comment boards.

          I’ve heard of bridges and overpasses collapsing, I guess you’d be for a moratorium on building those over freeways too.

    • Grant

      It looks like it’s just the safest way to get large groups of people across the highway. They probably wouldn’t be able to get the right-of-way to build a train, and the state will probably give the zoo a deal on air rights over the interstate. It’d be cheaper than a monorail.

      • Well, that and the bridge they are building. They could also use much cheaper trams to get there and back.

    • The Gondola Lobby:

    • According to the rep I spoke with, the gondola may be one of the first things built on the South Campus site, assuming the framework plan presented at the meeting. The walkway over the highway is supposedly much more expensive than the gondola and would come later.

      • I find that rather hard to believe, a bridge being more expensive than gondolas. You’d think in maintenance costs alone they’d be more expensive, much less construction and purchase of the vehicles. Then hiring operators and technicians. I dunno. Strange.

        But, then again, they are charging for the gondolas. So they are hoping to make money they couldn’t on a bridge. If they do build them I hope the economics works out. But I do think they could probably skip this attraction and build one that’s about animals instead.

        • T-Leb

          A bridge is more reliable, less down time due to technical issues, less liability.

          • The Darren of Dogtown

            ….and boring.

          • T-Leb

            That’s just like… your opinion, man!

          • Marshall Howell

            But a very good opinion. Might as well build exciting things and not just…..well ok things. I say build both.

        • Not sure if a gondola is the right solution here, but it’s probably cheaper in the short run than a pedestrian bridge.

          Gondolas can be very cost competitive with ped bridges, as the supports are manufactured off site. Especially when you are trying to build over a barrier like a highway, it’s easier, less disruptive, and therefore cheaper, to stretch some cables across rather than engineer and build a bridge.

          Maintenance and operations for the gondola are more expensive in the long run. One advantage to the gondola is the increased sense of safety- pedestrian bridges over a highway tend to be unattractive, especially at night. The gondola would require an attendant at each station, which would increase the feeling of safety for users.

          • T-Leb

            You have to train people how to maintain the gondola, troubleshoot motor controls and basic mechanical maintenance, contract for major maintenance, inspect it often since it is “people moving” and have someone at every entrance/exit. All that is more expensive than you think considering there are no gondola manufacturers or repair men in StL… Maybe an elevator company would be qualified to do the work like Kone (Finland based company) … Remember when the Arch system had a fire? When a few wire ropes snapped and needed emergency repair? I do, it was front page of Post-Dispatch.

    • ParallelParker

      Yo, Angelo! Why you hating on gondolas? Some of my best friends are gondola lobbyists. They gotta eat too.

    • john w.
  • jhoff1257

    Told ya I’d be here ;). Overall I think it’s pretty great. I agree with you on the hotel though. A destination hotel would be a fantastic addition. A mid to high-rise architecturally significant hotel would look great. Love the gondola, what appears to be street fronting retail space, and I like the pedestrian bridge idea too. I do think (dare I say it) a park over the highway would work well here too. If I remember correctly I saw that as a suggestion in one of the “What Should Be” posts. Either way, great start by the Zoo!