Veterans Up in Arms Over Zoo Proposal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If there are two things revered here above all others, they are the military and the San Diego Zoo.

This sunny city never tires of publicly displaying its pride in being home to the world's largest military complex and one of the world's most acclaimed zoos.

Downtown streets are often decorated with bright banners celebrating the zoo. Every summer, the city hosts a two-week festival to express respect for the military and its personnel.

But now the two institutions are on a collision course that may force politicians and the public to make a painful choice.

The San Diego Zoo, famed for its animal collection and worldwide conservation efforts, wants to rip up its 24-acre parking lot to allow for a New Century Zoo, with more spacious exhibits for its animals and a new entryway for the 3.5 million visitors a year.

The expansion would also allow the zoo to increase the space for dining and gift shops.

As replacement parking, zoo officials have recommended that the city demolish the adjacent War Memorial Building, a gathering spot for military veterans for half a century. Plans pending at City Hall call for a five-level, 4,500-space parking garage on the 6.1-acre site.

Stern Opposition

Like so many San Diego land-use controversies, this one has quickly become an emotional debate about balancing the needs of the future with the promises of the past.

Veterans, led by the San Diego chapter of Disabled American Veterans, the largest DAV chapter in the nation, have reacted with disbelief and anger. An offer by zoo officials to find or build a replacement for veterans' activities has not cooled the controversy.

"This is sacred ground for veterans," said DAV member Don Pouliot, 77, a Navy veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. "To destroy our building would be to desecrate the memory of all veterans."

Some of the veterans still remember the dedication ceremony in 1950 when then-San Diego Mayor Harley Knox promised, as a token of appreciation from a grateful nation, that the building on Park Boulevard would be set aside as living memorial for veterans in perpetuity.

"I guess the moral is, 'Always get it in writing,' " said Collie M. Mattfeld, 67, an Army veteran of Korea and Vietnam.

Over the veterans' objections, the Planning Commission two weeks ago approved the zoo expansion for review and hearings.

The audience was split between veterans wearing their distinctive DAV and American Legion caps and zoo boosters wearing T-shirts displaying polar bears, ocelots, tigers and other animals.

Like the zoo, the War Memorial Building and its grassy, tree-shaded lot are on property owned by the city of San Diego.

Douglas Meyers, the zoo's executive director, predicts it will be a year before the City Council votes on the expansion. Councilwoman Christine Kehoe, whose district includes the zoo, has already called on the zoo to scuttle the idea.

To Meyers, zoo expansion is mandatory if San Diego is to remain a leader in the size and variety of its collection--4,000 rare and endangered animals from 800 species--and the open manner in which the animals are presented to the public.

Larger quarters will help with species propagation, which is important to the zoo. Political turmoil and disease in Africa and Asia make the future dicey for the importation of animals. If the zoo is to maintain its collection, it will need to rely on zoo-born offspring.

The larger the exhibit space given to animals, the greater likelihood that the animals will breed. When the tigers were moved to a more spacious exhibit, a population boom followed.

"We have to be able to take care of our collection," Meyers said.

It is ironic that zoo should be at odds with veterans. For decades the zoo has had a free admission policy for active duty military personnel and a 30% discount for military families. One of the zoo's most prominent trustees--now emeritus--is a retired brigadier general in the Marine Corps.

At 100 acres (not counting parking), the zoo is largely hemmed in on three sides: by other Balboa Park attractions to the south, California 163 to the west, and by homes and a school to the north. To the east are the parking lot and the War Memorial Building.

The zoo has plenty of space at the Wild Animal Park in San Pasqual Valley 30 miles to the north, but the hot, dry weather is deemed incompatible with tropical species that make up the bulk of the zoo's collection.

The zoo expansion calls for nibbling away at land given over to archery and a miniature train ride, but the deepest passions involve the War Memorial Building.

Multiuse Facility

With its large auditorium, kitchen and six meeting rooms, the building is used for DAV and American Legion meetings and for military reunions, like one recently held for Marines who fought on Iwo Jima. When a touring replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall came to San Diego, the lawn of the memorial building was a natural venue.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service holds its swearing-in ceremony for new citizens in the auditorium. The city allows myriad other groups to use the facility, from a retired federal employees association to a square-dancing club.

When San Diego hosted the Republican convention in 1996, presidential nominee Bob Dole, gravely wounded in Italy during World War II, visited the War Memorial Building and spoke movingly of the sacrifices made by America's veterans.

Dole's words had a special ring for San Diego and its suburbs, home to nine major Navy and Marine Corps installations, 10 major commands, 60 ships, squadrons of warplanes, and 150,000 active duty and civilian personnel. An estimated 300,000 veterans live in San Diego County.

Zoo officials have suggested that veterans could relocate their activities to a veterans museum elsewhere in Balboa Park, but the DAV chapter has rejected that site as being too small. Another idea is to find space at the former Naval Training Center, now being returned for civilian use, but the DAV finds that too isolated.

Meyers is confident that veterans will be willing to compromise once they realize the future of the zoo is at stake.

"We want to be good neighbors, but we think our neighbors want us to remain the world-famous San Diego Zoo," Meyers said.

That argument does not wash with the veterans.

"To rip up a war memorial to build a parking garage is like ripping out somebody's heart so it can be sold for transplant," said DAV chapter Cmdr. Michael Getty, 85.

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