Residents Protest Security Checkpoints for Zoo

Photo: Courtesy of National Capital Planning Commission; Artist’s rendering of a pedestrian security gate for the National Zoo.

D.C. residents are protesting the Smithsonian Institution’s plans to funnel pedestrian access to the National Zoo through four defined entrances and eventually install security checkpoints.

The plan was submitted in June to the National Capital Planning Commission, which is to vote on it July 12. The reduced access is part of a fencing project that will add 4,347 linear feet of fencing, completing the zoo’s outer perimeter and also creating a continuous barrier between the zoo grounds and the road and parking lots that separate it from Rock Creek Park.

Currently, visitors who enter from the parking lots can filter onto the zoo’s walkways at ten locations. The plan will leave only one public access point in that area, adjacent to the bus lot. Another entry will be opened near what is now Lot C after construction of a parking garage that is slated to replace it in the future.

The Commission approved plans for a larger parking garage in October.

The main gate on Connecticut Avenue will remain, as will the gate at the eastern end of the park, where cars enter and exit from Harvard Street and Beach Drive.

The commission is being asked now only to approve fencing, with a checkpoint proposal to come later.

When reports began appearing in the media over the past week, the public response was quick and negative. The commission received dozens of critical emails and more residents voiced their displeasure on social media.

“The zoo’s accessibility and integration with Rock Creek Park make it one of a diminishing number of welcoming and humane amenities in the city,” wrote Thomas J. Lee in one typical comment. “This ability to walk right in is perhaps a singular trait among all US zoos, and something that D.C. visitors regularly point out to me as a remarkable and lovely aspect.

“We will be terribly dismayed if the institution surrenders its character and accessibility for benefits as vague and questionable as the ones apparent in this proposal. NCPC should reject this and any other proposal to place zoo visitors into captivity.”

The commission’s staff recommended that the panel approve the fencing but require that the planned submission for visitor screening “include supporting documentation explaining the need for and benefits of such facilities.”

The comments noted that narrowing pedestrian access and instituting screening would make it harder to get crowds out of the zoo, and would cause visitors to pile up at a few vulnerable points waiting to get in.

According to the Smithsonian’s proposal, the security checkpoints are to “consist of permanent pavilions, each with several controlled guard posts, security screening magnetometers and areas for bag searches comparable” to security measures at Smithsonian museums.

The agency would have to secure federal funding, and does not anticipate starting the checkpoint phase of the project until at least 2020.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton announced July 9 that she has requested a meeting with the acting director of the zoo, Steven Monfort, to discuss the security plan.

“I want to hear more from the Zoo about its proposals, some of which I can understand given today’s security concerns,” Norton said in a statement. “However, it is even more clear that the public needs to be heard on any changes to access. The current proposal appears to be a wish list of a government security agency rather than an approach that balances legitimate security concerns with public access.”

Norton introduced legislation last year to establish a commission to report on how to balance security concerns with public access to federal buildings and spaces.