Around 20 community members and zoo officials joined together at Riverside Brookfield High School on July 25 to discuss what is in store for the next decades at the Brookfield Zoo. Although the master plan will include new exhibits and the potential of new species, animals were not the central topic of the event.
Since December 2022, the Chicago Zoological Society, the nonprofit that operates the Brookfield Zoo, has been undergoing a master planning process to create a vision for the next few decades.
By resurveying land and hosting both internal staff and community town hall meetings, CZS is gathering feedback and information to consider what comes next for the Brookfield Zoo as it approaches its 1934 centennial.
The July 25 event included a recap of what happened at the zoo in 2022, what to expect for the rest of 2023, updates about the master planning process and an open-mic community forum.
Jennifer Baader, senior vice president of government affairs, hosted the event, and Mary Ann Cronin, a consultant for CZS, provided updates on the master planning process.
During the Q&A section of the town hall, audience members had the chance to share ideas, experiences and concerns relating to the future of the zoo. Participants offered suggestions about topics ranging from maintaining biodiversity to improving visitors’ connections with animals.
However, the majority of the open forum was not focused on animals.
Several community members spoke about the fields between RBHS and the southern perimeter of the zoo, and how they believe they should be turned into permanent ballfields for use by RBHS athletics.
The high school currently leases the fields for use from the zoo, but the area is used for overflow parking, meaning the fields are at times filled with tire ruts and are not always available for use by the high school
Doug Schultz, math teacher and head coach of softball at RBHS, said it is challenging to maintain his players’ safety in the current situation in which several sports teams — including softball, baseball and lacrosse — are forced to practice and host games off site.
“My number one job is making sure that my players are safe, and traveling to different fields … is tough. I’m concerned when I’m away from the building where my trainers and support staff are, and I’m trying to conduct a softball game where injuries can occur,” Schultz said.
Schultz also asked where negotiations currently stand, as a land-sharing agreement that would have granted RBHS exclusive use to the property fell through in March 2021.
In response, Baader said that the master planning process involves a study of the zoo’s traffic flow and that the zoo is trying to be a good community partner by improving the parking and traffic situation. Cronin added that no stone is being left unturned during this extensive process.
In a separate interview, Baader said that as the zoo focuses on creating a great guest experience at the North Gate, it looks to move more traffic away from the South Gate where the ballfields are located.
“We are still waiting to see what the final master plan brings up in terms of opportunities for all the land across the zoo, but with a focus on moving that parking to the north, it’s our hope that we can reduce the parking needs on the south side,” Baader told The Landmark.
In addition to comments from RBHS staff and community members about the ballfields, multiple audience members, one representing Cycle Brookfield, expressed their wishes for a sidewalk along zoo property on 31st Street between Prairie and First avenues.
An official from the village of Brookfield also offered context about the partnership behind the pedestrian and bike pathway.
After the comments, Baader expressed that the sidewalk is likely to move forward.
“We have been in discussions with the village for years about transportation across 31st Street … but we’re at a point where both the village, the zoo and the forest preserves are eager to have a path along 31st. We are at the point where we need to figure out exactly where the path goes, but there’s a lot of enthusiasm for all three groups to get something done,” Baader told The Landmark.
In hearing community feedback, the master planning team is looking for common issues brought up by all groups that bubble to the surface as top priorities. Many of the ideas brought up on July 25 echoed and put an emphasis on previously mentioned issues so that the master planning team can make sure to address them through the master plan, Baader told The Landmark.
Moving forward, there will be another town hall meeting, likely in a virtual format, before the master plan is completed. Baader hopes that this next town hall will include the public’s reaction to initial master plan ideas before the draft is finalized in the fall and rolled out to the public sometime in the winter.
To share your feedback and ideas about the future of the zoo, email firstname.lastname@example.org.