When Martha Fischer starts the golf cart and glides across the 425 acres that once housed an 18-hole golf course, she’s not looking for flying golf balls.
“I’m seeing homes. Future homes,” she says, driving by stands of trees and wide-open former fairways. “And thinking about what species would do well.”
Fischer is the general curator of the St. Louis Zoo North Campus, which the zoo bought in September 2018. She’s of course talking about homes for animals. Zoo officials want to get more ideas about what to put there and what visitors want to do there.
The zoo will host two community input sessions, where people can look at maps, photos and renderings and give their ideas. The sessions will be 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday at the north campus, and 4 to 8 p.m. Jan. 23 at the zoo. Reservations are required.
Two anonymous donors funded the $7.1 million purchase of the property, near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, at 12385 Larimore Road in St. Louis County. In November 2018, voters approved a sales tax to fund repairs at the zoo and to turn the land into a new experience for people — and animals.
The zoo wants the land to have two thrusts: first, a conservation and animal science center to help birds, amphibians and hoofstock, which need room to roam. Second, experiences for guests that could include kayaking on the lake, overnight “glamping,” or upscale camping, boardwalk trails and educational programs.
“We know people want to be up in the treetops,” Jeffrey Bonner, president and CEO of the zoo, said Monday during an interview and media tours of the property. “I would be shocked if we didn’t have glamping. People really, really want it so much.”
Kids enrolled in pilot educational programs will use the land as early as this summer, but Bonner estimated it would take five to six years before the public really sees a presence here.
“We’ve always said we’d rather do this right than fast,” he said. “One of the things we hear over and over is it (had) better be as good as what we have in Forest Park. It might be different, but by golly, it better be good.”
The land had long been owned by the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562. It was home to the 18-hole Emerald Greens golf course, as well as a swimming pool, a 30,000-square-foot auditorium, a retirement center, and several other buildings and picnic shelters.
There’s a larger lake, just over 9 acres, as well as a dozen smaller lakes and ponds on the property.
The zoo hopes to keep most of the larger buildings, mostly low-slung, modernist concrete structures. A round clubhouse has a 360-degree glass view, ideal for herd-watching.
“The buildings don’t dominate the landscape for our purposes in creating a safari experience,” said Jo-Elle Mogerman, the zoo’s north campus director. “There’s great infrastructure. There’s great topography here.”
You can see across the Columbia Bottoms to the Missouri River, and on a clear day, the Gateway Arch.
Fischer, on the golf cart tour, counted out a group of 10 deer standing on the edge of the woods, their fur extra-fluffy to ward off the cold. The zoo will start formal surveys this month counting, camera trapping and recording the animals that live here now, which include turkeys, skunks, frogs and birds migrating along the Mississippi flyway.
Many species of animals can use the zoo’s help, she pointed out. Giving space for just one species to breed on this property and reintroducing just 50 of them to the wild could make a great impact.
She has set up an office inside the former pipefitter administration building and has experienced all four seasons here. She remembers when she first toured the land after the zoo bought it.
“I was gobsmacked,” she said. “It really is so much space. What a place, and what an opportunity to have basically a blank slate to take the zoo to the next level.”