County OKs Zoo Expansion Study

    GRAND RAPIDS — Kent County commissioners authorized Williams & Works Inc. to begin a feasibility study on whether the John Ball Zoo can be expanded on vacant land west of the I-196 expressway and north of Butterworth Avenue. The site is near John Ball Park, the zoo’s current westside location.

    But commissioners only approved $11,500 of the study’s $60,000 price tag last week. Whether the remaining $48,500 will be allocated for the work depends on the outcome of the study’s first phase, a geological survey to determine if gypsum mining done on the site has weakened the land.

    Williams & Works will answer that question through a combination of old survey data that the civil engineering firm already has and new data it will collect. Two noted geologists will help Williams & Works with the study. Data collection is beginning this week.

    Assistant County Administrator Al Vanderberg told members of the Finance and Physical Resources Committee last week that the geological stage of the study would determine if the land was stable enough to physically support the project, a phase that would cost the county $10,000.

    “If the geological study shows that the ground isn’t suitable, the rest of the study won’t be completed,” he said.

    County Commissioner Katherine Kuhn then offered an amendment to the agreement that the committee adopted, which limited the study to the first phase until the county receives the geological finding on Sept. 17. Then commissioners will decide whether to commit to the full study.

    At the request of Steven Williams, principal of Williams & Works, commissioners also approved another $1,500 that will be used to study the peak-hour traffic patterns around the zoo, information that will outline potential traffic volume for the expansion site. That piece of the study has to be done before students return to the classroom, as peak traffic counts at the zoo normally occur when school is in recess.

    The feasibility study is the result of an agreement reached last month between Kent County Chairman Steven Heacock and Mayor John Logie in the two-year-old battle over expanding the zoo. In a non-binding letter dated July 17, Heacock pledged not to build an elephant exhibit on a parking lot in John Ball Park and Logie promised to hold off a vote on designating the park a historic site until other locations for the expansion were reviewed.

    Another site that may be considered is along the East Beltline, near the Meijer Botanical Gardens. Fred Meijer has offered to help the county and city expand the zoo there.

    “I’m pleased to see the county going in this direction,” said County Commissioner Michael Sak of the study. Sak, whose district includes the zoo and park, added that he favors expanding the zoo, but not in the park.

    Kent County owns both properties and plans to make improvements worth $240,000 to the park. But the upgrade has been put on hold until the study is completed. The full study would be done in November if the geological phase finds that the property would support the expansion.

    The city is not contributing to the cost of the study.         

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