WEST ORANGE, NJ — At its Sept. 4 meeting, the West Orange Planning Board approved two applications that will allow Essex County to make improvements to the Turtle Back Zoo, including the renovation of the zoo’s otter exhibit and building a new parking deck and train depot. The new parking deck will add additional parking for zoo patrons on the property, eliminating the need to park on nearby Cherry Lane and take a shuttle to the facility. Both applications passed unanimously.
According to Michael Piga, the landscape architect working on the project, the pavers surrounding the otter exhibit will be replaced along with plants and shrubbery. The otter exhibit will not be expanding, and no new animals will be added, Piga said at the meeting. River rocks will also be added to the improved exhibit.
In addition, the zoo’s train ride will also be updated. Currently, the train tracks and depot are located to the far right of the entrance of the zoo with a view of the Orange Reservoir. The new train depot will be moved farther away to make room for more parking, though the same tracks will still be used.
“We’re still using the original track station, that’s not changing,” Darrell Alvarez, the engineer working on the project, said at the meeting. “That all is being done to provide us with room to put the parking garage.”
The new train depot will look like a bigger attraction than the current train station, according to Alvarez.
“It looks like an Old West western town with a number of buildings and number of architectural features to dress it up,” he said. “That’s how this portion becomes an attraction of the zoo.”
Alvarez also designed the plan for the parking deck, which was presented to the board at the meeting as part of the same application.
“The deck itself is five levels with the option of putting in an additional sixth level at a later date,” he said. “The garage holds approximately 500 parking spaces.”
The 500 additional spaces in the garage will increase parking capacity by about 50 percent, Alvarez said. The existing parking garage and lot consist of approximately 1,100 spaces, all on zoo property. To accommodate the new parking deck, there will be two main entrances into the zoo and two exit lanes that will allow drivers to turn onto Northfield Avenue.
Alvarez said that the first level of the parking deck will be dedicated to storage, where the zoo staff can store equipment, materials used on a daily basis and the holiday-display lights.
Because the renovations will be in close proximity to the reservoir and the forest that surrounds it, trees and shrubbery will be planted nearby. Piga, who also worked on the landscape design for the parking deck, said approximately 100 new trees will be added to the area.
“It’s 50 feet away from the reservoir and protected from that,” Alvarez said of the location of the parking deck. “You can’t hide it, but there are ways to make it feel less looming, as we all enjoy walking around the reservoir.”
Planning Board public advocate Harvey Grossman had safety concerns at the meeting about the storage space on the first floor of the parking deck, saying it is possible that some of the zoo equipment that would be kept there could be flammable. West Orange Deputy Chief and Fire Official Fred Kingston provided a report with recommendations for fire and evacuation safety.
“That parking garage is going to have the first floor with the storage area, with flammable materials,” Grossman said at the meeting. “You have to go that extra step because this will affect the surrounding area. So I consider it important, and I would like to see a recommendation of this board to the county that they include all of the recommendations of Deputy Chief Kingston.”
Planning Board Vice Chairman Ron Weston agreed with Grossman, and the board recommended that the county include Kingston’s fire safety report in their plans going forward. The board also recommended that the county complete a traffic study in the area before the renovations begin.