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Milwaukee zoo faces uncertainties during interchange work

The Milwaukee County Zoo could lose its East Parking Lot (far right) to the Zoo Interchange project. Ramps would come close to the Zoofari Conference Center (upper right corner).

The Milwaukee County Zoo could lose its East Parking Lot (far right) to the Zoo Interchange project. Ramps would come close to the Zoofari Conference Center (upper right corner). Photo By Milwaukee County Zoo

Dec. 5, 2012

Milwaukee County Zoo Director Charles Wikenhauser said last week that the projected permanent loss of 700 parking spaces to the Zoo Interchange project poses a threat to zoo attendance and revenue.

"We will have to replace that in some way," he said, "whether it be through using a parking structure or the potential of an auxiliary entrance … over by Highway 100 and Blue Mound."

While the state has assured that it will make good on the parking, the zoo is yet another institution that the rebuilding of the junction has thrown into a holding pattern.

Uncertainty created by the project has caused the zoo to put on hold a plan to develop acreage on zoo property near the corner of Mayfair and Blue Mound roads, Wikenhauser said.

The county issued a request for proposals in September for a master plan for the zoo.

The land, purchased from the Bliffert Lumber Co. in 1990, has been mentioned as the possible site of a hotel and waterpark.

"We had a resource there that we didn't want to commit anything to until we had final answers," Wikenhauser said. "If we didn't use that for an auxiliary entrance and parking, there's still a potential to develop it."

The highway project has created other uncertainties for the zoo.

An early plan for the interchange had the zoo giving up 15 acres, its Zoofari Conference Center, a maintenance building and an additional 3- or 4-acre easement for utilities.

A second, more streamlined plan has the zoo preserving its structures but still losing 7.68 of its 200 acres, including the 700 car slots - a quarter of its parking - and its current access to a warehouse and a maintenance shop behind the Zoofari center, among other things.

The Zoofari center, at the corner where Blue Mound crosses Highway 45, will be preserved in the newer plan, but Wikenhauser fears it could be crowded under or next to an entrance ramp, which may introduce the vibrations and noise of cars coming and going.

And replacing the lost parking - an unpaved auxiliary lot that gets regular use on days of heavy attendance, including large corporate events, free days, good-weather weekends and Zoo a la Carte - raises its own set of concerns.

"We believe in good faith that the state will work with us to make the zoo whole as far as its loss of parking," Wikenhauser said.

He has a meeting with DOT this month.

"It's a major issue for us, and we've got to find the right solution," he said. "Our concern is that a parking structure in the current parking lot may not be the right solution."

While a parking structure has been mentioned, Bob Gutierrez, the DOTs southeast freeway project chief, said the lost parking will be replaced or compensated for through the DOT's real estate process. He wasn't sure if a structure would be provided.

"We haven't exactly sat down and started talking about where or how to mitigate those parking spots for him, but we will," Gutierrez said. "That's just part of the real estate process."

He said detailed planning at this point was concentrated on the Watertown Plank portion of the project and the work to be done in 2014.

"It'll kind of happen when it happens, when we get closer to finalizing our plans," he said. "We're only at 60 percent."

The Zoofari center is close to planned ramps, but, as a "closed center," Gutierrez said it would not be affected by highway sounds.

No animal enclosures or exhibits will be moved as a result of the highway work, but Wikenhauser said he was concerned about the effect of loud sounds and heavy vibrations on the animals.

Gutierrez said the DOT uses a drilling process, not a pounding process, to set the foundation.

"So we're reducing sound (and) vibrations using that technology," he said.

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