Each year, close to 100,000 visitors come through the gates of Glen Ellyn's Willowbrook Wildlife Center.
Now the center, operated by the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, is working to better accommodate them.
Construction is starting this week on a $3.6 million renovation that, when completed, will include a larger parking lot and improved service building for the center at 525 S. Park Blvd.
The parking lot will be expanded to the west and south toward the picnic shelter using permeable pavers that will better address drainage issues, site manager Sandy Fejt said. It will add 45 parking spaces to the 53 already in place, along with new bus parking.
Fejt expects the work to be done by mid-December.
"Our biggest challenge is we can't do big events because parking is limited," Fejt said. "The parking will be much safer and will be beautiful with the pavers and much more environmentally friendly."
A big portion of the parking lot will be fenced off during the renovation, leaving limited space, and Fejt said visitors are asked to park across the street at St. James the Apostle Church. Those dropping off animal patients can come in the main entrance and follow signs for animal patient parking.
Since 1958, Willowbrook has treated injured and orphaned wildlife and served as an education center. Visitors come through to walk the outdoor trail and see the indoor exhibits that house as many as 86 animals with permanent disabilities. The center treats about 8,600 birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and insects that are brought in by concerned citizens.
Fejt said October is a busy time of year for school groups visiting the center and for the number of animals treated there.
Since the beginning of the month, more than 1,000 creatures have been admitted, many of them injured birds in the midst of fall migration that are brought in by the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors that patrol the sidewalks under Chicago's skyscrapers.
"It's incredible the amount of animals that come through," Fejt said. "People don't realize that when the weather is changing, animals are looking for a place to go."
"Phase 1B" of the project, expected to be completed by spring 2014, will include renovation to the service area. An outdated building used for storage and animal care will be gutted and realigned for more efficient operations.
"It's a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff," Fejt said.
"The parking lot is the biggest challenge. We can't have a bigger education center if we don't have a place to park."
Longer term plans, expected to cost an estimated $16 million, will include an addition to the interpretive exhibits, an upgrade of the rehabilitation center and a revamped outdoor exhibit area. Fejt said there's no timetable for those plans, all of which will depend on fundraising efforts.
Money was set aside three years ago in the DuPage County Forest Preserve District's capital funds budget to begin the upgrades.