Wheaton reviewing controversial plan to expand Cosley Zoo parking

A Wheaton panel has started reviewing a park district plan to expand parking at Cosley Zoo, while residents opposed to the idea are pushing to have voters weigh in on the proposal.

The Wheaton Park District is seeking permission from the city to build a 93-space parking lot across the street from the zoo, 1356 N. Gary Ave.

This week, the Wheaton Planning and Zoning Board held a public hearing on the proposal. It will be up to the panel to recommend if the Wheaton City Council should approve or deny the park district’s request for an accessory parking lot on the east side of Gary Avenue opposite the 50-year-old zoo.

A standing-room crowd attended Tuesday’s public hearing. After more than three hours of testimony, the planning and zoning board continued the meeting to April 9.

According to the park district, the 80-space visitor parking lot serving the zoo often reaches capacity, turning potential customers away. The zoo attracts more than 150,000 people annually.

Attorney Phil Luetkehans, representing the park district at the hearing, produced a document stating that Cosley Zoo parking has been at capacity an average of 174 days over the last eight years.

An updated Wheaton Park District plan for expanded Cosley Zoo parking would provide 93 parking spaces across the street from the zoo along Gary Avenue. Courtesy of Wheaton Park District

The proposed parking expansion would address that by creating a 93-space lot on roughly 1.6 acres east of Gary Avenue. The site currently has a 30-space lot for zoo employees only.

However, residents opposed to the plan argue that Cosley Zoo doesn’t need more parking. They say the park district based its claim on staff observations — not data.

Furthermore, opponents — who have launched a petition drive to place an advisory question about the parking proposal on the November ballot — say they believe the additional parking is a precursor to an expansion of the zoo as outlined in a 2017 master plan.

“This is a shell game,” said Tom Frederick, an attorney representing the residents.

In February, Wheaton park board members rescinded the master plan and ordered a new “existing conditions report,” due by Jan. 1, 2025. The report would be the basis of a committee charged with prioritizing facility renovation or replacement projects.

In questioning by Frederick, Shawn Benson of the consulting construction and engineering firm Wight & Company said he had not worked on an expansion plan for the zoo.

Conducted similar to a court proceeding, topics covered during Tuesday’s public hearing included the installation of a turn lane and a traffic signal at the intersection of Gary and Prairie avenues, the entrance to the proposed east parking lot.

Pedestrian safety is one of the concerns raised by opponents of the parking plan.

A city project to improve Gary Avenue is scheduled to begin this summer.

“This (parking plan) would not be happening without the Gary Avenue improvements,” Luetkehans said.

Neighboring residents also questioned how water released by a detention tank under the lot, which will use permeable pavers, would impact flooding of the Winfield Creek watershed, as well as their own properties.

Benson said the system would provide an 80% reduction in the runoff rate and is required under ordinance to improve water quality.

Mike Benard, executive director of the park district, said a day after the meeting that the district is “grateful to have the opportunity to present the facts” about the parking proposal.

“The constructive feedback we have received from community stakeholders over the past nine months is appreciated,” Benard said, “and was used to arrive at the final plans that are currently under review.”

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