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Massive Renovation Plan Proposed for L.A. Zoo : Attractions: Infrastructure of aging facility would be revamped and animals housed in simulated ecosystems.


One day after a ruptured water main left much of the Los Angeles Zoo without water, city parks officials Monday unanimously approved a 10-year master plan calling for spending nearly $300 million on sweeping improvements in the facility's deteriorating animal compounds and infrastructure.

With the city facing an unprecedented financial crisis, officials hope to raise funds for the "L.A. Zoo 2002" master plan through a bond issue or a tax assessment district, supplemented by foundation grants and private donations. Officials said they could seek voter approval on the June ballot.

The master plan, officials said, would dramatically alter the zoo's landscape and animal enclosures in a way that will reduce the number of species on display while increasing the number of visitors, which now averages 2 million a year.

"The concept here is not to try to necessarily exhibit all the animals we can keep at the zoo," new zoo Director Mark Goldstein, 39, said of the plan presented during a special meeting of the five Recreation and Parks commissioners. "The concept is to maximize the number of animals we can display, keeping in mind their well-being and our ability to teach people about wildlife habitats and conservation."

The plan, designed by Philadelphia-based Coe Lee Robinson Roesch Inc., calls for enlarging and revamping animal compounds to resemble rain forest, riparian and savanna ecosystems, and for bringing the infrastructure up to current building and safety standards.

Most of the money would be used to replace displays for major attractions, city officials said. The great ape collection, now housed in modified bear pits, would get a new home. Elephants and rhinos would get more space, moving from enclosures that are too small to allow for significant breeding programs.

Under the master plan, these and other animals would be placed in compounds designed to resemble natural ecosystems. Visitors would have an underwater view of polar bears and penguins swimming and bobbing in a simulated arctic pool complete with a wave-generating machine.

Gorillas and chimpanzees would roam grassy stream banks in an African tropical rain forest surrounding an interpretive center fitted with windows. Giraffes, zebras, antelopes and lions would explore a savanna surrounding a simulated African village.

Although fewer animals would be on display--reducing the number crammed into the existing compounds over the past 10 years--the new system would improve the zoo's wildlife education and conservation efforts to save endangered species, officials said.

To help ensure that voters approve the bond issue, city officials said they expect Goldstein to enhance the zoo's public image on radio and television programs, including "The Tonight Show," which for years has spotlighted photogenic human and animal guests from the rival San Diego Zoo.

Although zoo officials have yet to contact "The Tonight Show," Goldstein said, "If Jay Leno is listening, I would love to be on his show."

Recreation and Parks Department assistant general manager Sheldon Jensen noted that many people "don't want zoo directors to be television personalities. But we want Mark to become--not a media star exactly--but a person who brings interest to the zoo through his knowledge and charisma."

The 26-year-old facility suffers from leaking sewer pipes, badly eroded hillside exhibits and compounds designed in the 1960s more for the comfort of visitors than for the 1,700 creatures they come to see, Jensen said.

In 1990, city officials were embarrassed by disclosures that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had repeatedly cited the zoo for violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

The problems worsened on Sunday when a water main at the zoo broke 15 feet underground, leaving about one-third of the 77-acre complex without water for at least a week, said Deborah Pollack, a zoo spokeswoman.

Goldstein told the commissioners that the leaking main "speaks more about what we're doing at the zoo over the next 10 years" than any other zoo problems faced by the commission.

To keep animals supplied with drinking water, hoses were being used to redirect water from other parts of the zoo, Pollack said. In addition, three of the facility's eight public restrooms were closed, and zookeepers were ordered to stop washing down animal compounds until the 10-inch pipe could be repaired, Pollack said.

"Our plumbing, water, gas and electrical systems are in horrible, horrible shape," Jensen said. "All that would change under the master plan . . . which will cost from $175 million to $292 million to implement."

The plan proposes that the zoo be made more "visitor friendly" by adding rest and seating areas, and by reactivating the zoo's tram system, which was discontinued because it worsened congestion along a tangle of steep pedestrian paths.

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