Community members spoke out overwhelmingly this week against the prospect of increased security screenings at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, despite the zoo’s statements that no such plans are in place.
At a public meeting Wednesday, zoo officials presented plans to fill in gaps in fencing around the park, and to decrease the number of pedestrian entrances from 13 to three, while providing three entrances to parking lots. Much of the discussion, however, centered on concerns about marring the visitor experience through heightened security, including bag checks and and magnetometers.
Responding to renderings showing a new security pavilion at the Connecticut Avenue entrance — part of the zoo’s proposal to the National Capital Planning Commission — community members voiced disapproval of any additional screening for visitors.
“The fact that you have renderings means there is some plan in place,” one resident said, noting the public’s “lack of trust” in the zoo’s statements.
Steve Monfort, acting director of the zoo, repeatedly reiterated that the zoo has no plans to increase bag checks or screenings at the park.
Currently, the zoo only checks bags during spring break, a practice that began several years ago after problems with young people bringing weapons into the property.
Monfort stated that the zoo plans to continue performing bag screenings during times of high visitor volume or heightened security threat. He emphasized the goal of attempting to balance the visitor experience with security needs, and said there are no plans to add magnetometers — security devices similar to metal detectors — to the screening process.
“I can tell you now that not a single zoo in America has 13 uncontrolled visitor entrances,” Monfort said. “Even with six entrances, we would have the most public entrances of any zoo in America.
“We have no plans to close off the park to the public,” he added.
The Zoo’s plans call for continued use of three pedestrian entrances used by most visitors: Connecticut Avenue, the Harvard Street access to the lower zoo from Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant, and the bus parking area near the giant panda habitat. Two of the pedestrian entrances being closed to the public are located near the Amazonia exhibit but are currently used primarily for service access. Another is an entry to the Visitor Center that is intended for staff but accessible to pedestrians, and the other seven to be closed are pathways from the parking lots to Olmsted Walk.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Matt Sellar, a landscape architect for the zoo, went over the three types of black metal fences envisioned to fill in the gaps around the park, ranging from chain-link fences to the “vehicle rated” fences that can prevent cars from ramming through.
Sellar said the zoo has consulted other landscape architects and horticulturists to study the fencing’s effect on existing vegetation around the park, and that the zoo would be able to “keep all the trees that we want to keep.”
Pending approval from the National Capital Planning Commission, the proposed changes could go into effect next year, according to zoo documents.
Stuart Karaffa, a member of the advisory neighborhood commission that represents residents in the Mount Pleasant area, asked broader questions about the zoo’s plans, including whether the zoo is considering adding passenger-drop-off lanes for those using ride-hailing platforms like Uber. Monfort responded that the zoo has been working with Ward 3 DC Council member Mary Cheh, who chairs the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, to reduce congestion in the crosswalk in front of the zoo’s Connecticut Avenue entrance.
Karaffa also requested that the zoo instead use a “less prison-looking” fence in the plan, and asked about the feasibility of using stone fencing or shrubbery. Monfort said using another design would require replacing the existing fencing, which he said would not be financially viable.
Wednesday’s meeting came at the behest of the National Capital Planning Commission, which in early July postponed a vote on the zoo’s plans for fencing and entrance consolidation. Members called for formal community consultation as well as better justification for the fencing and access plans before the commission revisits the matter at its Sept. 6 meeting.
On Wednesday, many of the 50-some community members in attendance burst into applause after one commenter, local resident Joe Edgell, said that “maybe a certain amount of risk is worth accepting” while speaking against security increases.
Edgell suggested the new fencing would change the open feeling in the park and detract from the visitor experience. He added that he believes the new security measures would not be able to protect the zoo and the public from every threat, regardless.
“Part of living in a free society is having places where you can can go and at least have the illusion that you can get away,” he said. “That’s what the National Zoo represents.”