The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Plans for new Zoo fence and entrance put on hold

Visitors spend time at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in March 2016.
Visitors spend time at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in March 2016. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The fence will have to wait.

The National Capital Planning Commission on Thursday postponed a decision on the Smithsonian National Zoo’s proposal for extended security fencing and the reduction of the zoo’s pedestrian entrances from 13 to three.

The NCPC staff had recommended that the commission approve the plan, noting that it would enhance security and streamline visitor access and that the three entrances are the main entry points to the zoo.

The vote to defer was 8 to 1, with commission member Geoffrey Griffis the holdout. He said he found “rationale and logic” to the zoo’s plan.

The zoo had proposed an extra 4,347 feet of fence to close gaps in its perimeter and replace vulnerable fencing with fence that could withstand vehicle “ramming” events.

Commission urban planner John Gerbich said in a presentation at the meeting that the Smithsonian believes that “open access to the zoo [is] a safety concern.”

“There have been a series of high-profile security incidents and threats to the safety of visitors, staff and animals,” he said.

The project was reviewed and approved by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts on June 21, with some suggestions about fence types and styles.

But protests erupted after word of the proposal began circulating publicly last week.

Critics argued that it would cut off the zoo from the city and the surrounding Woodley Park and Cleveland Park neighborhoods.

“The Zoo grounds currently convey a sense of open parkland,” one protester emailed the commission last week. “The property is seamlessly embedded within Rock Creek Park . . . [and] these security fences send precisely the wrong message, that a visit to the Zoo is about danger, security, and exclusion.”

Another wrote the commission: “Please do not wall off our national zoo from the community.”

David Alpert, founder of the website Greater Greater Washington, said at the meeting that the fence and other developments “set the zoo on a trend to withdrawal.”

The commission said three types of fence were proposed — eight-foot black metal ornamental pedestrian fencing, eight-foot black metal ornamental vehicle-rated fencing, and twelve-foot black vinyl-coated chain-link fencing.

The commission said the fencing should not affect archaeological sites, and an “engineering field study will be conducted” to make sure it can be installed with minimal impact to trees and vegetation.

The fencing would cost $1.5 million, said Al Horvath, chief operating officer at the Smithsonian.

The zoo also wants to install permanent checkpoints that could be staffed during high visitation and threat periods, but that idea has not yet been submitted to the NCPC for review, the zoo said.

Commission Vice Chairman Thomas M. Gallas said the commission has received “hundreds” of public comments on the issue.

David Epstein, who testified at the meeting, said that zoogoers were a benign melting pot and that violence was rare.

Saying there seemed little need for the extra fence, he said that “great evidence is required for great intervention.”

Commission member Peter May thought the project had become so complicated that it might need a pause for more deliberation.

“This kind of calls for it,” he said.

Commission member Mina Wright also suggested “that we defer,” because of the public “discomfort” and lack of full detail.

The commission asked that the Smithsonian provide a briefing on the threats that prompted the plan, and to conduct outreach to the public. It will take up the request in September.