Zoo Atlanta expansion roars to life with $20 million gift from Woodruff

By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on November 14, 2014

In what is being called a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, Zoo Atlanta has received an historic grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation.

The gift, which will match gifts of up to $20 million, is launching Zoo Atlanta’s new $38 million capital campaign to expand the land area by 5 acres, to preserve the historic facade of the Cyclorama building while constructing a state-of-the-art event space on the back side of the building that will overlook an “African Savannah” where giraffes and elephants will roam.

The campaign also will involve tearing down the existing two-story headquarters building in front of the zoo and the Cyclorama and turning that space into a grand welcoming plaza with fountains, benches and green space.

Lastly, Atlanta has committed to building a 1,000-space parking garage into the hill along Boulevard that will remove the existing surface parking. The roof of the parking garage will be covered with green space.

“In 25, 50, 100 years from now, Atlantans will look back on the history of Zoo Atlanta and recognize this expansion as a defining moment in our evolution,” said Raymond King, president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta. “It will permanently redefine our future.”

The Woodruff gift was especially important because it was the first gift to the campaign and will cover half of the project’s cost. “This gift is about more than the money,” King said. “It is a remarkable statement of support, and a historical vote of confidence.”

Russ Hardin, president of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, said that Atlanta’s zoo with its 36 acres is one of the smallest of the major zoos in the country. “By the acre, we’ve got the best zoo in the world,” said Hardin, adding that the ability to add five more acres with the addition of the Cyclorama building was just too good to pass up.

The zoo has been needing to add more acres to comply with accrediting standards. For example, it currently has two female elephants but it should have three including one bull. But it currently doesn’t have enough land for three elephants, which meant it would have had to get rid of its elephants if this solution had not been found.

In a long-term master plan, Zoo Atlanta also had identified the need for a major event space. It just finished raising $22 million to rebuild its Reptile House, which is now under construction (Woodruff had contributed $5 million to that campaign). Given the timing of that initiative, it probably would have been years before the zoo would have launched another campaign.

But a series of events unfolded over the past 11 months. The Atlanta History Center received a $10 million gift from Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker to permanently protect the Cyclorama painting.

Then the History Center was able to raise another $22.2 million to move, restore and house the painting on its Buckhead campus (the Woodruff Foundation contributed $10 million to that effort). That anticipated move meant the Cyclorama building suddenly became available. “It’s just a moment in time when we need to seize the opportunity,” said Hardin, explaining the largess of the Woodruff grant. “We will give them half of what they need.”

Ann Curry, president of fundraising firm Coxe, Curry & Associates, said Woodruff’s gift to the zoo is “an amazing statement of support, and constitutes the largest gift I am aware of from the foundation to a cultural institution outside the (Woodruff) Arts Center. ”

The gift was a culmination of several events that began with the Whitakers’ gift, the Atlanta History Center’s fundraising, and the leadership of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to help facilitate the various pieces of the deal, she added.

“All those acts of generosity, including the Woodruff gift, make up what I call ‘the summer of philanthropy’ in Atlanta,” Curry said. “What the Woodruff trustees have done with this unprecedented gift is to issue a challenge to the rest of us, to other donors, to capture this time of cooperation and excitement in Atlanta to complete the last piece of this puzzle.”

King has assembled a strong campaign cabinet to help Zoo Atlanta raise the matching $20 million. The two honorary chairs are Mayor Reed and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank.

King said the campaign will include preserving the front of the Cyclorama and building a new event space in the back for up to 1,000 people overlooking the elephants and giraffes. Plans also call for a restaurant or tavern that would be accessible to everyone, not just zoo visitors.

The entrance to the museum also will be transformed with an inviting plaza where the existing headquarters building is now located. The zoo’s administrative offices will be moved to space within the Cyclorama building.

Because of the expansion, King said there will be increased need for parking. He commended Mayor Reed for agreeing to build a parking structure, which will increase the total spaces from 900 to 1,400. Even without the expansion, parking is getting tight. Attendance has grown from 675,000 in 2010 to 915,000 this year.

“All the stars lined up,” King said. “It’s an unbelievably generous gift, and it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

4 replies
  1. The future says:

    So basically build another ugly parking deck and charge people to park the same as Piedmont Park. Sounds like a bad idea I hope the neighborhood fights it. One day they will start charging admission just to walk around a public park.Report

    Reply
  2. The future says:

    Meanwhile the zoo grabs even more park space from the public. The history is that the zoo was never supposed to be in the park and wasn’t designed for it. The zoo was only given land on the condition they remained free and charged no admission. They should be forced to pay for that valuable park land since they have violated the agreement. Funny how this part of history is always neglected to be mentioned.Report

    Reply
  3. The future says:

    And another ugly parking deck gets built like Piedmont Park. Say goodbye to free parking in city parks. The city has found another way to generate revenue or will it be the zoo making money off this? I hope citizens fight this. One day it will cost money just to walk around a public park.Report

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?