Ursa International

Big changes underway


Finally some forward movement!

Since back in early 2014, my friends at The Epsten Group and I have been working on developing a concept for incorporating the Cyclorama (a civil war museum at the front door of Zoo Atlanta for the last 80 years) into the Zoo Atlanta visitor experience. This was a tall order as it had the potential of changing the way the zoo functions well into the 21st century. As we developed ideas we realized that the building (with its 50' high walls and 125' diameter 10-sided volume) can house a large amount of uses from education classrooms to indoor exhibit concepts to Administrative space to restaurants and event venues - but not all the competing uses. I won't talk too much about the process but assure you that we looked at everything as this was going to be an important project for the zoo with opportunities that won't come by too often in the course of the zoo's history.

One of the early questions was - if we accept the Cyclorama Building, what property would come with that acquisition. Obviously, the land that separated the Cyclorama from the existing Admin Building at the entry area would be included, but around the back and sides was a question. We developed concepts for what could be done on the site if we didn't get any more land that the front and the land directly around the Cyclorama (approximately 1.8 acres): not very compelling. Then we looked at taking 1.5 acres in the rear that could be used to expand the existing savanna - but this would not substantially improve the already large exhibit. We might be able to add a new holding barn to increase the diversity on the Savanna but this wasn't a significant change. If we took an additional 3 acres, then we would be able to do something that the zoo was in great need of; provide land to relocate the African Elephants and upgrade the exhibit to meet current AZA standards. This would not only change the current Master Plan, it would change the perimeter of the zoo and encroach into Grant Park in a significant way.

We presented all three options to the Mayor believing that he would not allow encroachment into the Park, but to our delight - he recognized the value to the zoo of the additional acreage and immediately agreed to that change. This was the real defining moment in deciding what we can do on the exhibit side to tie the new building into the zoo. Now the Cyclorama would have a 180˚ view into an expanded Savanna - and that Savanna can include Elephants!

While the Architects and myself had our opinions, it was the zoo who took the options to the donor community and came back with a set of program elements that have driven the design of the project. Great ideas for Terrace Restaurants, and cool taverns, and outdoor entertainment venues were scraped to make room for a better functioning Zoo Administrative center with a huge two-story Event space - and a new Zoo Plaza with separate ticketing pavilion and a new Entry Icon would be the direction.

During our schematic design solutions, the design team spent several months determining what the new Elephant Barn would look like as a first step, and to do that we traveled to Dallas, Birmingham, Cleveland and North Carolina to look at recently completed exhibits to decide what ours would look like. This was a very enlightening process that resulted in creating an extremely large (19,000 sf) barn able to house up to 7 elephants including a Bull area and two separate, inter-connected exhibits. This of course ate up a lot of the three acres that at first appeared to be roomy - now felt tight. We worked hard to limit the non-animal areas to provide as big an exhibit space as possible. One of the decisions that we agreed to was visitor access to the Barn. This was something we saw in only one of the our site visits, though we knew of other exhibits that included that option. We also heard from those that didn't have barn access, that giving the visitors a view into the barn would be a positive addition. So we proceeded with visitor access to the barn.

In order to get approval of our plans with the City - it was necessary to have a master plan that reflected this new site expansion, so the zoo re-engaged their planner to incorporate the new exhibit. During the Master Plan update, it was determined that not only was barn access a good thing - but that path should continue to provide a loop path to extend the visitor stay time and give access to areas that had more distant views (re: the Bull yard). Did I mention that the Site sits on a a fairly significant hillside - with a change in elevation of 50'! To bring people to the barn's first floor was possible, but to continue up the hill in a way that didn't get in the way of joining the two exhibits was a huge challenge and one that couldn't be resolved on an ever decreasing budget as other project elements continued to expand. The Master Plan showed a theoretical path between the two exhibits that was unacceptable to the Elephant Staff - and myself for several reasons. Eventually, with all parties sitting down and brainstorming ideas, we were able to create a more aggressive path that utilized a switch back ramp of over 400 l.f. to get to the barn at an elevation that would allow the elephants to pass underneath the visitors without having to coordinate a crossing (which we saw at Cleveland) and had to takes the visitors up over 24' into the upper levels of the barn for a birds eye view of both the barn and the exhibit.

Now we have a functional plan that meets the needs of the Master Plan, the animal staff, the architects/exhibit designers but now we face the biggest challenge - can we afford to build it! We continue to refine the plan through grading studies and revisions to the Barn, but we finally have a plan that everyone can agree on - and that is truly a tremendous accomplishment. I will fill you in on more details as we work to get this project into our budget. In the meantime, the City and the Atlanta History Center, who is currently building an addition to their museum to house the massive painting and locomotive - we wait to take ownership of the building and site and begin to work in earnest to fit this big program into our little zoo.

We posted a project brief in our Concept Plan section of the website that has the latest site plan and some screen shots of the concept animation of the project - Click HERE to take a look. Zoo Atlanta has posted the animation on their website - so take a look HERE. Somethings have changed, but the big idea is still hanging on - a great venue for Zoo Events with a big view of the biggest species at the Zoo!