St. Louis Zoo unveils major expansion plan

ST. LOUIS (AP) — St. Louis Zoo officials gave their backing Thursday to an ambitious expansion plan that envisions the addition of a high-end hotel and research center, as well as new and upgraded animal exhibits.

The plan approved by a panel of the zoo’s oversight board isn’t final and is meant to serve as a framework for the zoo to expand in stages over the next 20 or 30 years. It doesn’t include funding details, although it estimates the total cost to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Among the other new features the plan envisions is an indoor attraction such as an aquarium, a nine-acre savanna where the zoo’s south parking lot currently stands, added parking space and a gondola that would ferry passengers from the new south campus to the main zoo and back. The current children’s zoo could also grow.

Demolition has already begun at the former Forest Park Hospital site, which the zoo bought last year as part of its expansion ambitions.

Officials said they would pursue federal grants, state tax credits, private donations and possibly even a local property tax increase to pay for the growth.

“I don’t think we’ve ever planned this far out before,” said the zoo commission’s chairman, former St. Louis mayor Jim Conway. “We felt it was the only recourse.”

Conway and other local and national zoo leaders call the proposed expansion a major milestone, second only to the establishment of the Zoo-Museum District. The special taxing district provides the zoo $20 million a year in St. Louis city and county property taxes.

“A number of zoos, St. Louis toward the top, have really exploded in terms of popularity and attendance,” said Satch Krantz, president of South Carolina’s Riverbanks Zoo and Garden and two-time board chair of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. “We now see ourselves making decisions that I call ‘outside the fence.’”

St. Louis Zoo leaders have been working on the plan for nearly a year, after the $6 million purchase in October 2012 of the 14-acre hospital site south of the highway.

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