Dear Dr. Spelman:
The Commission had the opportunity to visit the National Zoo on the morning of their 20 March meeting to study the model and inspect the site of the proposed new Asia Trail. As you know, we had received a brief presentation of the general concept at our February meeting. It was unfortunate we were unable to visit the zoo prior to that presentation because of the deep snow cover, and that when we did visit on the 20th, it was during a period of heavy rain-not the best circumstances to inspect the site. While initially pleased with the Zoo's desire to improve this area of the facility, upon further reflection there are several areas and issues of concern that give us a pause in our considerations.
We understand that this proposal is the first in a series of projects that are part of the "Renew the Zoo" initiative that ultimately will upgrade or rebuild the entire park. It would be most helpful in understanding the Asia Trail proposal if we were to be presented with a comprehensive facility master plan for the Zoo. The last time a master plan for the Zoo was submitted to the Commission for review was in 1986.
One aspect of the project that a master plan could help clarify is the impact of the new trail on the Zoo's historic landscape resources, especially those remaining features designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. The number of extreme changes to be made to this sensitive area of the Zoo, right at the main entrance on Connecticut Avenue, is of great concern and require thorough analysis. We suggest you contact the Olmsted Center at the Olmsted Historic Site to get their impression on the impact of the proposed plan on the original design.
The potential to enhance the quality of the visitor's experience and to improve the environments for each individual animal rests on the cumulative effect of the details of the proposal. The plans call for large variety of designs for common items, such as handrails, paving materials and viewing areas. How these all work together must be studied carefully so as not to invest the zoo with the character of a theme park, but with one that is dignified and worthy of a national facility. For a project such as this a quality professionally-built model will hep illustrate the relationships among all the design elements. We found the preliminary model that was on display lacking in detail and accuracy. It did not present the proposal well.
If anything, the model did raise concerns about the character of the new sloth bear house and its proximity to Connecticut Avenue. The prospect of an industrial type shed overlooking the Avenue is not desirable. While landscaping can be added to screen the new, it may be beneficial to clad the building in materials that are similar to that of the historic structures further down the Olmsted Walk. This will help preserve a cohesive and relational context among the Zoo's structures.
As always, we support all efforts to try to make the National Zoo one of the best in the country. The staff is available to assist you in coordinating the next review.
/s/ Harry G. Robinson, III, FAIA
Dr. Lucy Spelman
Smithsonian National Zoological Park
Washington, DC 20008-2598