ALTRUI: The Little Rock Zoo director will in an ex-officio role on the task force.

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott today announced a task force to study planning and development for the future of the Little Rock Zoo.

This is the second task force appointed as part of a broader initiative aimed at improvements to the War Memorial Park area. The city board voted to shut down Hindman and War Memorial golf courses last month, prompting the appointment of a task force to determine how to use that acreage.

In a press release on this latest task force, Scott stated, “As one of the largest tourist attractions in the state and the only accredited zoo in Arkansas, the Little Rock Zoo is an important part of War Memorial Park and our City.”

Here are the members of the Zoo task force:

Advertisement

Brad Cazort, Chair of the Zoo Board of Governors

Lisa Buehler, Chair of the Arkansas Zoological Foundation

State Senator Joyce Elliott, Vice-Chair of the Mayor’s Quality of Life Subcommittee for the Scott Script

Kathy Webb, City Ward 3 Director and liaison to the Zoo Board of Governors

Jessica Poynter, Chair, Generation Zoo Young Professionals

Chad Causey, Causey Law Firm, Board Member, Arkansas Zoological Foundation

Dr. Andrew Rogerson, Chancellor, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Hank Kelley, CEO/Partner, Flake & Kelley Commercial

Tab Townsell, Executive Director, Metroplan

Rhonna Wade, Chair, Create Little Rock

Gretchen Hall, Executive Director, Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau

Brandon Bibby, Associate AIA, WER Architects/Planners

Nate Coulter, Director, Central Arkansas Library System

Also serving in ex-officio roles: Zoo Director Susan Altrui, City Manager Bruce Moore, and Jay Chessir, President and CEO of the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. Philadelphia-based zoo consulting firm Schultz & Williams will assist.

From the press release:

The Task Force for the Zoo’s Future will review the Zoo’s current business model, help develop an action plan for future funding and also review the Zoo’s current facilities Master Plan developed in 2014 to look for new opportunities in animal habitat design, guest amenity and park design.

Zoo director Susan Altrui had some big ideas when Leslie Peacock wrote about the future of the War Memorial Park area for the Times last year:

When the Little Rock Zoo opened in 1926, its only animals were a timber wolf and a circus bear. They’re long gone, but the zoo still has a fierce occupant: Director Susan Altrui.

The zoo gets 300,000 visitors a year, Altrui said, second only to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, and she wants that to grow to 600,000. Little Rock and Pulaski County need to think big about War Memorial, she said, and how quality of life drives investment, and not the other way around.

Take New York City’s High Line Park, she said. New York transformed an abandoned railroad spur into a nearly 2-mile-long linear park, with a trail landscaped with trees and bushes and grasses and wildflowers, and with places to stop and sit. It’s so popular that there has been a veritable real estate boom in its Chelsea neighborhood, where unused factories are being converted into places to live, meet and work.

“You’ve got to think bigger than playground equipment and dog parks,” Altrui said. There’s nothing wrong with playgrounds and dog parks, she said, but with War Memorial, “we have the potential to make it a destination, not just another city park.”

Gary Lee of national zoo building firm CLR Design is working with the Little Rock Zoo Foundation on a master plan for future development. “We wanted somebody who understood the intersection of art and nature,” Altrui said, and how the park and the zoo could be more of a piece. He looked at a plan of the park and “the very first thing he observed was Coleman Creek,” she said, which runs along Fair Park, and how it could transform what is now a mowed archery range into a creek ecosystem. Lee has brought to the foundation ideas for earthworks a la Maya Lin’s “Storm King Wavefield,” a field of grassy valleys and 15-foot peaks, and the Sultan the Pit Pony raised-earth sculpture in Wales. Why not a raised Razorback earthwork, Lee wondered, or, if the Hogs are replaced by a UA Little Rock football team, a Trojan Horse for lolling on? What about dotting the park, both within and without the zoo grounds, with features akin to the supertrees of Singapore, solarpowered vertical gardens, as a device to pull the park together?

Why not, Altrui asked, alter Jonesboro Drive over I-630 into a two-lane planted with trees and including a bike lane? The Polk Stanley Wilcox architectural firm drew up such a plan in 2015; Jonesboro would not have to be widened for it to be implemented. Why not, Altrui asked, “literally and metaphorically build a bridge between the two neighborhoods? What about a butterfly house on the bridge? “Create a reason for people to come to the park — that becomes the economic engine,” she said.

Altrui noted the city’s tax investments in downtown — the Robinson Center Performance Hall, the Little Rock Tech Park, the Arkansas Arts Center. They’ve brought new life to downtown. It’s midtown’s turn — in a way the people of midtown support. Little Rock contributes $700,000 a year for new exhibits and updates, but “that’s a drop in the bucket” with what is needed. Other cities, like Kansas City and Tucson, have created a tax district around their zoos to bring in new dollars. With 60 percent of the visitors to the zoo coming from outside Little Rock but in Pulaski County, why shouldn’t the county help it out? It’s the only zoo in Arkansas — where is the state support?

A Sanborn insurance map of the zoo from 1939 shows the reptile and bird house. A Sanborn map from today would show the same WPA-built structure, still housing reptiles and birds. But the zoo is no longer a place to show animals: It has a conservation mission. Like the stadium, it’s time to bring the state’s only zoo into the 21st century. Altrui said the zoo plans to meet with the public over the summer to gauge interest in zoo improvements and discern people’s desires for the park.