Utica Zoo Master Plan: The Value of Being Partners

By: Chris Overdorf, Principal, ELM Environments

At ELM, exceptional client service constitutes a core value for our practice, and we always aim to become a trusted partner of our clients, rather than just being a consultant.

This week, after a process that started three years ago with the Utica Zoo, we delivered the zoo’s first comprehensive master plan since 1990, this $75-million master plan transforms the 102-year-old institution into a premier regional destination featuring Asian, Adirondack, African, and Living Rainforest areas that will be phased over a 20-year period.

Proposed implementation strategy for the new Utica Zoo Master Plan by ELM Environments

As we celebrate with the Utica Zoo over their future goals and the impact that this master plan will have on the community as well as global conservation efforts, we also want to share more about the process that it took to put together this unique, valuable asset for the zoo.

For many zoos, conversations about their master plans raise plenty of questions, concerns and opinions that are often at odds with one another. It takes a unique, flexible team to partner together with zoo leadership, staff and other stakeholders for the development of a comprehensive, successful future direction for the organization.

In developing the Utica Zoo Master Plan, there were many starts and stops over the course of those three years. I met the director at an AZA event quite by happenstance, and after she had expressed that others weren’t willing to help them out I knew that we could. I could see the passion and dedication in her eyes and her commitment to conservation, to the City of Utica and to the mission of the Utica Zoo. I knew that our new partnership would be built on a strong foundation since we shared the same core values and purpose.

It took some time to get going and begin a cost-effective – yet thorough – process. During the course of the process, our team navigated a change in the zoo’s senior staff, stopped to explore ideas generated by exciting new donors, and integrated new potential partnerships into the zoo’s master plan.

The flexibility of our team throughout these twists and turns allowed us to demonstrate our true commitment to a mutually-beneficial partnership with the zoo. We didn’t look at these events as opportunities to rescope the project nor ask for additional services, because we knew these events were positive in helping the zoo to realize its goals. If these events were positive to the Utica Zoo, they were also positive for us and allowed us to improve the master plan. We weren't “just” consultants; we were partners.

During the master planning process, our team analyzed every aspect of the zoo’s 80-acre property, including the best way to utilize 50 acres available for expansion. The team developed these master plan recommendations by using a proprietary concept called “return on exhibit” (ROE), which focuses on the conservation status of a species (endangered, threatened, stable, etc.), the educational aspects of the animal, visitor experience, cost to feed the animals, and cost to build or maintain exhibits.

The new master plan also focuses on fixing critical visitor/staff safety issues, resolving ADA accessibility issues, expands parking capacity, adds two different group entry points, creates additional revenue generation capacities, and creates a stronger experience through an expanded circulation system that takes visitors deeper into the existing woodland areas that were not previously accessible to visitors.

The plan also supports a flexibility to support new evolving strategic partnerships with a variety of local and regional entities.

New Utica Zoo Master Plan created by ELM Environments

Some of the highlights include:

Asian Realm:

An area that would be anchored by a multi-story temple that would hold animal exhibits and also serve as an observation deck and be surrounded by forest habitat exhibits for animals such as red pandas, orangutans, tigers and snow leopards.

Rendering of proposed Asian Temple described in the Utica Zoo Master Plan by ELM Environments

North Trek:

Would feature an Adirondack Lodge that in addition to housing exhibits would serve as an event center and food service facility and incorporate an interior underwater viewing of the adjacent otter and turtle habitats. It would also overlook a black bear and timber wolf habitat and feature a forest zip line roller coaster.

Rendering of proposed new underwater viewing of otter and turtle habitats by ELM Environments

African Alley:

Would feature switchback trails, elevated boardwalks and a canopy ropes course and exhibits that would include giraffes, gorillas and hyenas.

Rendering of proposed new Utica Zoo giraffe habitat by ELM Environments

Living Rainforest:

Would feature a renovation of the current primate building and an outdoor exhibit space for sloth, tamarins, maned wolf and Andean bear. In addition to new indoor/outdoor habitats for the primates, a new indoor fruit bat exhibit would also be included.

Interior rendering of proposed Rainforest Building by ELM Environments

The ELM team is very proud of the results and for the success witnessed at the Master Plan Unveiling Event at Utica Zoo on Sept 27. We are honored to be a partner with the Utica Zoo and look forward to helping out in any way possible as they move forward to implement these exciting future plans.

Each time we work with a new zoo in this type of collaborative partnership, we learn so much about design, planning, animal wellness, creative conservation efforts, revenue generation, and so much more.

We always welcome conversations with potential new zoo partners who are interested in expanding their own future plans and aspirations into something concrete that they can then go and implement. If you would like to discuss something similar for your zoo or other organization, please contact Chris Overdorf.