Zoo Neighborhood Council Meeting Minutes: March 30, 2023

On March 30, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute’s Zoo Neighborhood Council (ZNC) held its first meeting of 2023. Attendees included NZCBI representatives as well as representatives from Ward 1, Ward 3, ANC 3C01 and ANC 3C03. Representatives from ANC 1C04, Woodley Park Community Assoc. and Cleveland Park Community Assoc. were invited but unable to attend.

The meeting began with Dr. Smith providing a State of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI). For much of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Zoo in Washington, D.C. remained closed to the public. The extended closures resulted in millions of dollars of lost revenue, while costs for food and medical supplies/equipment rose. Now that COVID-19 is endemic, NZCBI is still financially right-sizing. The dissolution with Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) allows NZCBI more opportunities to become financially stable, which is a top priority for Dr. Smith. NZCBI is working as quickly and efficiently as possible to hire staff to perform duties that FONZ was responsible for previously.

Dr. Smith spoke about exciting developments at the Zoo, including the recent Bird House reopening (March 13), Andean bear cub debut (March 27), western lowland gorilla pregnancy (March 23), new arrivals—including skunks, southern lesser galagoes and pygmy slow lorises—at the Small Mammal House, and a new mural at the Visitor Center by renowned artist Wyland that will highlight NZCBI’s efforts to save coral (March 30).

She also shared that NZCBI is in the early stages of creating a Master Plan that focuses on the long-term development of the Zoo in Washington, D.C., and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. Right now, NZCBI is in the brainstorming phase, and internal discussions about animal exhibits, green spaces, wayfinding, crowds, traffic, visitor entry pavillons, and stormwater management are taking place. The Master Plan is a big endeavor that will take several years to create. NZCBI will solicit feedback from the Zoo Neighborhood Council as plans come together.

Dr. Smith attended Congresswoman Elanor Holmes Norton’s Town Hall event March 15, regarding concerns over the hours of the multi-use trail in Rock Creek Park that runs through Zoo property and NZCBI’s free entry pass system. She summarized her remarks for members of the Zoo Neighborhood Council, which constituents can read on the Zoo’s website. Dr. Smith acknowledged neighbors’ desire to stop by the Zoo unplanned. She emphasized that visitors are able to reserve a pass in advance or obtain one when they arrive on site the day of their visit. NZCBI’s Guest Services team is trained to assist visitors who are either unfamiliar with technology or who do not have access to technology. Discussions on how to improve the entry system/experience—particularly for our neighborhood repeat visitors—are ongoing.

Director of Communications Pamela Baker-Masson highlighted upcoming events, including Easter Monday (April 10), International Family Equality Day (May 7), and the Giant Panda Farewell (Fall 2023). As in previous years, NZCBI will implement heightened security measures—coordinated with the Metropolitan Police Department—during spring break. This will include additional screening during peak visitation days, including a thorough but speedy hand-check of all bags, strollers, briefcases, purses and containers. For the panda farewell, it is NZCBI’s goal to once again partner with District Bridges/Cleveland Park/Woodley Park—as we did during the Giant Panda 50th Anniversary celebration—to cross-promote and help drive traffic to our community business partners. Dr. Smith is looking ahead as to what our next era with giant pandas might be. Representatives from the councilmembers’ offices and NZCBI staff pledged to meet to discuss ways to work together recognize this significant moment in history.

During the open discussion, ANC 3C03 representative raised an item of concern for her constituents: the tour busses that load, unload and idle along Connecticut Ave. cause congestion on the sidewalks. Councilmember Frumin’s representative seconded this concern.

From Sept. to May, buses (school groups) can drop off and unload inside the Zoo if they have a parking reservation, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays only, pending availability. (Bus parking information is available on the Zoo’s website.) The actual amount of bus parking all depends on the amount of car reservations we have for the day. NZCBI’s team tracks the reservations in advance and daily, and makes same-day decisions if necessary. Our system is flexible so that we will also accommodate bus parking for tour groups as well, if we have the space.

NZCBI’s team plans for and facilitates passenger drop-off and pick-up for the number of buses we know about. Tour groups have no obligation to contact us in advance. For the tour buses we cannot park on site, we assign a time for drop off and pick up on Conn. Ave. This is our best effort to manage the buses as safely and as orderly as possible. This is in addition to managing a streamlined vehicle traffic and parking system which has lessened the impact on our surrounding neighborhoods. NZCBI has raised the continued bus idling issue with MPD for their action on Connecticut Ave. ANC 3C03 representative suggested that DPW and DDOT should also be made aware of idling busses.

ANC 3C03 representative offered to connect NZCBI with DDOT to discuss upcoming green zoning project on Connecticut Ave. The Zoo Neighborhood Council agrees we need to work together with district agencies to find a solution. NZCBI is committed to keeping open communication with Zoo Neighborhood Council members to enhance safety for pedestrians, cars and busses while minimizing impact on our neighbors.