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In the community debate over the future of the Buffalo Zoo, there is a body of sentiment for expansion at the present location. The line of thinking is that the zoo could use Delaware Park land for growth rather than starting all over at a new site in the Old First Ward along the Buffalo River.

Expansion into the park is not a new idea. As recently as 1992, consultants working for the Zoological Society of Buffalo proposed that land along Amherst Street between Colvin and Parkside avenues be used as an exhibit area for such Northern American species as moose and elk.

But it was a bad idea then, and it's a bad idea now. It's true that the zoo is too cramped on its 23.5-acre site. It's true that the small site keeps the zoo from having modern, spacious exhibits that would be healthier for the animals and more realistic for the human viewers.

However, Delaware Park is a valuable community institution, too. For Buffalo residents, it is a central oasis for recreation and rest, an expansive open area in the crowded city. That it was originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted makes the park a part of Buffalo's heritage.

Through the years, the park has been vulnerable to outside encroachment, particularly when construction of the Scajaquada Expressway cut it in two. But encroachments must stop, even by so important an institution as the zoo. Once land is taken from a park, it is most unlikely to go back to being part of the park.

All those front-yard signs that say "Improve, Don't Move" are sincerely placed, but knocking as many as 50 acres out of Delaware Park would severely diminish the city's main park, its breathing space. It would be a mistake of the sort the community would regret for many years to come.

The Zoological Society, thinking big, wants to create a new zoo at the First-Ward site, which includes taking the Father Conway Playground. Quite properly, zoo leaders are promising to work with city officials to create a new playground. After all, playgrounds are important, too.

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