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ZOO LEADERS ARE THINKING BIG, AND BUFFALO WILL WIN IF THEY SUCCEED

There are three rather obvious things to say about the Buffalo Zoo.

It is too small. A site of 23.5 acres in Delaware Park does not come close to being adequate space for a modern zoo. Toronto's zoo, by way of contrast, occupies 200 acres.

It's old-fashioned. Many animal-exhibit areas are too cramped. The modern way is to give both the animals and their human visitors a break by offering more spacious, natural settings. Give the antelopes a place to play.

It cannot rationally grow where it is. It would be wrong to slice into Delaware Park, Buffalo's beloved central open space and recreational area -- and a treasure in its own right because of its Frederick Law Olmsted design. Reducing Delaware Park is an answer to no civic problem.

Faced with the dilemma, the Buffalo Zoological Society is ready to hire consultants with an eye toward creating a new zoo -- bigger and better -- that would be, in the words of the society board president, "something truly remarkable for the Niagara Frontier."

Boldly, zoo leaders are talking about a massive zoo and aquarium at a new location. It would cost something like $100 million and stand as a year-round tourist attraction. No one can accuse this board of thinking small. Let's hope their optimism is infectious.

But the plan is far from final.

One big question is the exact site. Where should the new zoo go?

Despite the talk of a "waterfront" zoo, it wouldn't make sense for the zoo to take up actual Lake Erie or Niagara River frontage. Precious land at the water's edge should be reserved for water-related activities, specifically those things that cannot happen elsewhere or are truly enhanced by being near the water.

But a zoo in the general downtown waterfront neighborhood could be a valuable part of a mix of attractions there. It could be set well back from the lake but still close enough to help and be helped by development right on the water. It might also be close to the Buffalo River.

Another site question is whether the zoo should be allowed on land that might have a good potential for being the location of taxpaying, job-creating businesses. Buffalo, especially, seems to be short of sites that are ready to go when a business prospect comes knocking at the door.

And then there's money. Zoo leaders talk with some confidence about governments providing the cash, as they have for certain zoos elsewhere. May the backers succeed in attracting that cash.

In the past The News has suggested the Buffalo Zoo begin developing a spacious second site and function for a time in two locations until, finally, the second site progresses to the point where it can fly solo. The assumption was that funding would not come in a rush but rather slowly over time.

But if zoo officials can pull off a big deal that builds a new zoo all at once, more power to them. It is expected that consultants will be lined up next month and get their feasibility studies done by spring. The picture should be clearer by then.

In the meantime, the zoo society deserves applause for confronting the zoo's dilemma head-on and for making big plans.

That, after all, is how big things happen.

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