New fences (for people, not animals) at the National Zoo will have to wait at least two more months. On Thursday, the National Capital Planning Commission deferred approving proposed fences that would limit pedestrian entrances to the zoo and make it possible to add security screening in the future.
The zoo now has 13 pedestrian entrances. The zoo wants to consolidate those entrances into three: one at the "front entrance" on Connecticut Avenue, one by Beach Drive at the other end of the long Olmstead Walk, and one by the current parking lots. A fourth would be added where the zoo hopes to build a large new parking garage in the future.
Most of the entrances that will close are all along North Road, the roadway along the north edge of the property that leads to the parking lots. One is adjacent to the Rock Creek Trail, but zoo officials said almost nobody uses that as it doesn't lead people directly into the public part of zoo, instead requiring a winding path past mostly staff-only buildings. (Readers — is that right in your experience? Do any of you use that entrance?)
Since almost everyone uses the entrances that will stay open, none of this seemed particularly controversial, until Michael Neibauer reported in the Washington Business Journal that this entrance consolidation was a first step toward permanent security screening checkpoints. Concept renderings of the checkpoints were part of the zoo's submission to NCPC, the federal planning agency which reviews and changes to federal facilities in the Washington region (and some non-federal projects as well which have an effect on the federal interest.)
That news triggered a massive outcry, and Greater Greater Washington quickly organized a petition which garnered over 1,800 signatures from around the region and even the around the nation. (If you're still interested in signing, you can find our petition here.) Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton criticized the plan, as did Kriston Capps in CityLab. Critics feared the "one-way ratchet" of always adding security screenings and barriers and felt, in the absence of a clear explanation of a threat, this was just "security theater."
Zoo officials emphasize: no screenings (yet)
Following the backlash, zoo communications staff put out statements emphasizing that NCPC was not evaluating security screening at this time (or the parking garage), and the zoo didn't have immediate plans to institute screening. Albert Horvath, Undersecretary for Finance and Administration at the Smithsonian, said on the Kojo Nnamdi show that there was "no timing or trajectory" for screening, but it was part of a long-term plan.
At the NCPC meeting, both zoo officials and NCPC planners referred to the high volume of public comments. Zoo officials gave some explanations for the closures other than security screening, such as making it easier for zoo police to have fewer spots to patrol.
Horvath spoke briefly, and his comments seemed not very cognizant of people's concerns, saying standard security speak like "the safety and security of our visitors, staff, and animals are of paramount importance" and that this project was needed for "rationalizing the security of the zoo" and "providing more effective service."
One speaker, David Epstein, cited evidence that public park areas are quite safe. A few "high-profile security incidents" do not make the zoo unsafe; in fact, their high profile shows how safe the zoo is, he said, just as anything happening in New York's Central Park gets attention not because Central Park is unsafe but because it is safe.
Other elements of the proposal also lacked clear justification; for instance, the zoo wants to replace some fences with ones that can withstand "ramming" by vehicles, but no evidence was cited that there's a particular threat of drivers trying to ram their way onto wooded hills of the zoo like the one shown above.
Most commissioners aren't persuaded
The National Capital Planning Commission has 12 members: three individuals appointed by the President (currently Preston Bryant of Virginia, Thomas Gallas of Maryland, and Beth White of Houston and formerly Chicago); two appointed by the DC Mayor (currently Arrington Dixon and Geoff Griffis); federal representatives from the Department of Defense, National Park Service, General Services Administration, Senate, and House of Representatives; and local representatives from the Office of Planning and DC Council.
Several members of the commission were hesitant to approve this security step without having a fuller understanding of the big picture.
Peter May, the Park Service representative, said he was surprised at the security screening discussion because NCPC had seen the fences before but without knowing about the screening. He said he was "concerned [they] didn't have enough context to take action" and counseled the zoo to do "substantial public outreach" before moving forward.
GSA's Mina Wright likened this to approving security for a building one façade at a time. And, she didn't see any threat analysis or other explanation of the need. "We owe the community a fuller explanation," she said. While zoo officials had said they wouldn't change the "feel" of the zoo, Wright argued based on the comments (all of which she read, she said), residents feel otherwise.
DC Office of Planning head Eric Shaw added that this consolidation seems to anticipate the parking garage, but the garage isn't about to be constructed. Evan Cash, legislative director for Phil Mendelson who represents the DC Council on the commission, wondered if this could also be a prelude to charging for zoo access, as the Simpson-Bowles Commission recommended. (A zoo spokesperson later told me that was definitely not the plan.)
Beth White said NCPC gets more justification for security around high-threat defense installations than they are getting here. "This is not the White House. This is not the Pentagon," she said.
Not all members of the commission wanted to get more information. Geoff Griffis, one of the mayoral appointees and a developer, said the zoo plan was "rational" and pointed out that it's always easier to stir up opposition than support. Michael Rhodes of the Department of Defense echoed this sentiment.
NCPC asks for more information and public outreach
Wright moved that the commission defer action until its next meeting. According to NCPC's press release, the motion "requested that the Smithsonian provide a brief security assessment and conduct public outreach and meetings with members of the community and other stakeholders to explain their proposed plans prior to NCPC’s next monthly meeting in September."
The motion passed with only Griffis dissenting.
NCPC is likely going to eventually approve the fencing, and perhaps that's not unreasonable. But in the meantime, this will be a chance for the public to better understand the zoo's reasoning other than as a prelude to checkpoints. Zoo officials insist there are good reasons unrelated to the checkpoints, but submission materials were very sketchy on this, merely talking about "upgrading" security and "rationalizing" operations.
This made residents nervous that the fences were just a way to prepare for checkpoints. If there are other reasons, now the zoo can assuage fears about it.
More importantly, this episode has driven the point home loud and clear to the zoo, the Smithsonian, and NCPC that the public would not be okay with checkpoints at the zoo, now or later. Let's hope that steers them away from pursuing this even in the long term.