ST. LOUIS • The St. Louis Zoo has a struck a deal to buy the Forest Park Hospital site, with plans to expand parking and open up new office, research and storage space.

The purchase would be the first significant expansion outside of the park in the zoo's 100-year history, said Zoo President Jeffrey Bonner.

Although plans for the site haven't been finalized, Bonner said short-term plans call for using some of the hospital's parking facilities for zoo visitors and relocating some support staff, such as the information technology department, from the main campus.

Because the zoo is effectively land-locked inside Forest Park, Bonner said the only place it could expand is south of Highway 40, into the mostly residential Dogtown neighborhood. The hospital site is directly south of the highway, not far from the zoo's south entrance.

"This really was our one and only opportunity to expand," Bonner said at news conference this morning. "We're quickly running out of office space, and this can alleviate the over-crowding."

Eventually, the zoo could develop an animal research center on the site that would compliment the region's life-sciences industry, Bonner said.

Zoo officials this morning announced the pending deal with Medline Industries, a health care supply company that owns the 13.5-acre property on Oakland Avenue. The price and terms of the contract were not revealed, but the zoo made clear that the funds would not come from tax money the institution receives, but rather from the St. Louis Zoo Association, a private nonprofit that helps raise money for the zoo.

Bonner said the zoo has four months to back out of the deal if due-diligence work turns up any unexpected pitfalls. He said the zoo likely would have to demolish most buildings on the hospital campus, including a parking garage at the corner of Hampton and Oakland avenues. A newer, medical office would be saved, Bonner said.

Medline has offered to sell the hospital complex "at a dramatically reduced price," Bonner said.

The financially struggling Forest Park Hospital has gradually declined over the years and now houses only a 20-bed psychiatric unit and some leased private medical offices.

The site offers the zoo several new parking options, which could help ease traffic on Hampton Avenue and other surrounding roads, as well ease parking crunches in Forest Park. In addition to existing surface parking areas, the zoo plans to make use of a seven-story garage on the property.

The zoo also envisions converting the existing medical office building into new office, research and lab space and to house equipment. It also plans landscaping, paving and other improvements to the site, as well as demolishing buildings not in its plans.

The zoo hopes to move quickly on the improvements after it closes on the property.

Looking further out, the zoo wants to study some potential long-term uses, such as commercial space, trails, playgrounds and a way to connect the property to the zoo with, for example, a gondola or pedestrian bridge. Zoo officials said they would have a "careful planning process" to determine to best ways to use the site.

At this morning's announcement, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie A. Dooley spoke in support of the expansion.

"We believe that turning this abandoned acreage over to the zoo is great for Dogtown, and great for the region," Slay said.

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