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City scraps plan to renovate zoo aviary


With bids coming in so high, plans for a new learning center in the old aviary at the New York State Zoo at Thompson Park are out.

And zoo officials and the Watertown City Council informally agreed Monday night that the aviary will be torn down and replaced with an open-air pavilion. The two parties also tentatively agreed to spend as much as $500,000 to make major upgrades to the children's zoo.

Zoo Executive Director John T. Wright and board Vice President Robert D. Gorman, who is also managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times, attended Monday night's council meeting to discuss whether to proceed with converting the aviary building into a learning center in light of bids that recently came in at nearly $1 million. The city had projected spending about $531,000.

City and zoo officials agreed that the $950,000 price tag was too costly to proceed with. Instead, they concurred that the $500,000 slated for the aviary project might be better spent on making much-needed improvements to the children's zoo.

“The board very much wants to have something to show off our efforts after it's finished,” Mr. Gorman said.

The Thompson Park Conservancy, the board that oversees the city-owned zoo, had requested two years ago to tear down the defunct aviary and replace it with a facility such as a pavilion.

Describing the nearly 30-year-old steel-framed aviary as an iconic structure, the mayor and other council members have worked since then on saving it. Today it is closed to the public, home only to a pair of turkeys.

Council members and the Conservancy will meet at 6 p.m. July 30 to tour the children's zoo and discuss how to go about replacing the aviary.

Mr. Wright told council members that his board “already has some ideas in progress” about how to go forward with the two projects. The children's zoo, essentially a petting zoo featuring a small barn and farm animals, could be enhanced into an exhibit that could tell the story of the area's agricultural history, he said.

Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham said he hoped the city could bring some examples of what the pavilion would look like, possibly designing it to resemble the aviary's A-frame shape.

For the past two years, the city and the zoo have been at odds over the aviary project. But both sides agreed Monday night that they want to work together on making the zoo a learning experience for children as well as a tourist destination.

In calling the zoo one of the gems of the city, Councilwoman Roxanne M. Burns acknowledged that communication could have been better between the two groups.

“We're all here for the same thing,” she said.

To keep costs down, the project already went through two revisions during the past year.

Plans had called for using the learning center, to be named after the late Mayor Karl R. Burns, for education and exhibit space and a variety of events, including birthday parties and other gatherings.

In other business, the council:

n Agreed to contribute $5,000 each to the Disabled Persons Action Organization and the Jefferson County Historical Society. Recently, the council agreed informally to give $2,500 to each, but it decided Monday night to increase the amounts as requested by the two organizations, which will use the funding to help promote their events.

n Informally agreed to pursue constructing a road through the parking lot at Stateway Plaza to spur development of a big-box retailer at nearby City Center Plaza on Arsenal Street. Council members instructed City Engineer Kurt W. Hauk to come up with more definitive cost estimates for the project than the $2.7 million he had put together a few years ago. The city will have to negotiate a price to purchase some of the parking lot from the plaza's owners.

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