It's all happening at the zoo UPDATES | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

It's all happening at the zoo UPDATES

Posted By on Tue, Jul 7, 2009 at 12:19 PM

A good day for news of an elephant birth at the Memphis Zoo. The long gestation for baby elephant's mama is nothing compared with Little Rock's long city nightmare -- what to do about the vacant ballpark across the street from the Little Rock Zoo in War Memorial Park.

A more interesting question is why action hasn't occurred on a compromise approved in principle by all key parties for the land nearly two months ago.

An elephant breeding program, or at least expansion of the elephant exhibit, has been among the possibilities mentioned as the Little Rock Zoo sought the city's 3-acre portion of the former Ray Winder Field for expansion. UAMS wants the ground for future expansion, a request that has received broad business community support but provoked community howls over loss of parkland.

The Zoo and UAMS have made pitches to the City Board on re-using the former baseball field. And nothing has happened since. Several city directors put the blame for inaction with Mayor Mark Stodola, who is expected to put a compromise, until now not released to the public, in a form suitable for City Board vote. He says "the devil's in the details." Those details could include an effort by the War Memorial Stadium Commission to wring a sweet deal for itself out of the compromise, a deal some resist.

The compromise is similar in general terms to a deal I alluded to earlier. 


1) UAMS would pay about $1.1 million, as it has already offered, for the city's 3-acre portion of the old baseball park. UAMS also would expect to eventually get, if needed, a similarly sized state-owned portion of the ballpark. (This is a figure arrived at by deducting stadium removal costs from the appraised value of the land. All city officials might not be ready to accept that reduced figure, preferring an "as is" valuation.)

2) The War Memorial Stadium Commission would give up its easement on a  piece of city land now used for a parking lot between the Zoo and Ray Winder Field. It is slightly bigger than 3 acres. This would be used for Zoo expansion. In the short run, it might be devoted to some revenue-producing amusement rides for kids. The future of elephant programs would be a matter of long-term study.

3) UAMS would provide a compensating amount of parking space for the Stadium Commission in its newly acquired Ray Winder property.

There's some ambiguity about a couple of other items. One director told me this compromise takes baseball totally off the table at the former ballpark. A private group had formed in hopes of developing the former pro baseball field for youth baseball. Another director -- and Stodola -- said baseball still might be possible in the interim until UAMS develops a construction plan.

Also, the Stadium Commission is hoping to rework its existing arrangements for the multiple parking easements it holds throughout War Memorial Park and extend the lease. But some directors say they'd prefer to get the Ray Winder problem solved first before moving on to other parking issues.

My sources say: UAMS is on board for the most part. The Zoo is on board (though its foundation has decidedly different views of zoo mission than some zoo and city officials do). Most city directors are on board. Director Stacy Hurst is a holdout.

UPDATE: Hurst's objection is to the Stadium Commission's effort to tack five years onto a nearly new 10-year lease on parkland for parking and other uses. Hurst doesn't want to commit an overlong period to an enterprise that already has fewer Razorback games than it once had and might someday exist, if all games were to evaporate, mostly as a parking concession for UAMS overflow. Hurst is interested in capturing that money for park use, or at least not giving it away against an uncertain future.

If Mayor Stodola doesn't move soon on bringing this compromise before the City Board, a city director can be expected to do it for him.

To those unhappy about conversion of parkland to UAMS parking, as originally contemplated, city officials can now say there will be a net gain of parkland over parking. I'm not sure that will soothe all. But the additional pitch will be that whatever money UAMS pays could be used to purchase additional parkland south of Interstate 630, adjacent to the children's library planned there.

UPDATE: The mayor said it's not accurate at this point to say all parties and the city board are fully on board with every detail and some specifics remain to be worked out. He said he continues to discuss it with the parties and hopes he can announce an agreement, or at least a date for an agreement to be considered, in 10 days.

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