A trail system for biking and walking, elaborate community spaces, a food court and entertainment options for children and adults are some of the amenities residents want to see in the redesign of the Baton Rouge Zoo and Greenwood Community Park.
And on Tuesday, they weren't shy about expressing those thoughts to the team of master planners the parish's parks and recreation system hired to begin the preliminary work on the renovations of the zoo and adjoining park.
Newly appointed BREC Superintendent Corey Wilson called Tuesday's open house meetings the "first day" of what will be a prolonged and expensive endeavor to revamp both attractions, which encompass some 600 acres in northern East Baton Rouge Parish.
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"The location has been decided; we're not talking about location anymore," Wilson said at Tuesday's first meeting Independence Park Botanical Gardens. His comment recalled former Superintendent Carolyn McKnight's suggestion the zoo be relocated to the southeastern end of the parish, an idea shot down by the board that oversees the parks department after drawing backlash from the public.
The message from BREC and master planners on Tuesday was clear: Public input will drive many of the redesign concepts for the park and the zoo. Tuesday's meetings — another was held at Greenwood Park — were the first of three rounds of public meetings before design plans will be unveiled.
"I think this process will be a healing one for the community," zoo Director Phil Frost said. "We can really put our differences aside and know that we're doing something that will make this a better community to live in."
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Renovation of the nearly 50-year-old zoo is critical if the facility is to regain its accreditation status from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which dinged the Baton Rouge Zoo for its antiquated infrastructure and outdated animal attractions.
The zoo's public image was also stained by a series of animal escapes within a 16-month period and several high-profile animal deaths in recent years.
New Orleans-based architecture and master planning firm Torré Design Consortium has been hired to spearhead the design concepts for the zoo. Initial ideas floated Tuesday include interactive animal exhibits and designing community spaces beautiful enough for weddings and social events.
Sasaki Associates was contracted by BREC to handle the master plans for Greenwood Park. There are talks of adding an amphitheater, multi-use playgrounds with splash pads, a large-scale adventure playground for kids and a natural habitat for exploration at the park.
Those are the kinds of changes Helen Robins and Karen Williams said the zoo needs to become the attraction it should be.
"What they've said so far would really draw people back to the community," said Williams, who lives in the Scotlandville area. "I want more fitness stuff like bike trails, with an emphasis on bringing different businesses around the zoo and park. That would increase the economic development."
Robins grew up in Baton Rouge and used to visit the zoo frequently. But over the years, she said, she was forced to visit nicer zoos in other cities because she felt the selection and health of the animals at the Baton Rouge Zoo had deteriorated.
It will likely take more than three years for the Baton Rouge Zoo to reclaim its cherished accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
"We would definitely like to see more interactive exhibits," she said. "It needs to be a place where families can come to see animals, have picnics and the rest of the community socialize."
Lauren Durel and Sam Francioni advocated for play areas like splash pads as well as food trucks and vendors selling "adult beverages" for parents and other adults.
"There needs to be things for the adults to do, as well as the kids," Francioni said.
The firms will continue to gather public feedback over the next three months through an online survey posted to BREC's website. In May, another round of meetings will take place where the public will be presented options and design features planners have culled from the initial community input.
Whatever the public chooses will get folded into the final master plans to be unveiled in August.
BREC officials have previously said those plans will serve as an integral part of the fundraising campaign it will take to pull off the multiphased revamp of both entities.