European fallow deer are one of the attractions at the Belle Isle zoo. Upgrades include new landscaping and remodeled restrooms. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)
Detroit— Brandon Wells checked out the Belle Isle Nature Zoo before the completion of the renovations earlier this month.
It was, he concluded, “a little run-down.”
It was the first time the Taylor resident had visited Belle Isle, where the serene setting provides a break from the day-to-day hustle and bustle of a hardscrabble city.
“It is more relaxing,” he said.
Things are looking up for the venerable zoo, with a new look following a $1 million face-lift.
The renovation project was developed and managed by the Detroit Building Authority and by the Detroit Zoological Society, which operates the island zoo.
Like Wells, Matthew Robertson, the Zoological Society’s director of planning and construction, said the facility needed renovations after years of use and harsh weather.
“The facility was kind of kept up with tape and twine for years,” he said.
Upgrades include new landscaping, lobby improvements; remodeled restrooms and eco-friendly carpeting and paint.
Robertson said the project began more than a year ago.
Opened in April 2005, the Belle Isle Nature Zoo was formerly the Nature Center, which was built in 1977.
The zoo sits on five acres surrounded by forested wetlands. It features indoor animal habitats, a bee exhibit, bird observation window, turtle exhibit, outdoor butterfly garden, outdoor classrooms and the Blue Heron Lagoon nature trail.
The zoo’s Deer Encounter allows visitors to view up to 15 fallow deer in a one-acre enclosure and barn and learn about their history.
The renovation comes as Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration want the state to lease Belle Isle from Detroit and take over the operation of recreational activities, roads and policing. The state would seek grants to invest up to $20 million in the park’s infrastructure.
The Detroit City Council last week rejected the proposed 30-year lease, citing a lack of clarity and other concerns. Council members approved a revised lease plan, with a 10-year term and the option for two 10-year renewals.
“It may be better if the state takes it over,” said Wells.
Robertson said he couldn’t comment on the plan but said the Zoological Society intends to continue operating the Belle Isle Nature Zoo.
“It is a wonderful resource located in a great spot,” he said. “It really allows families of Metro Detroit to get exposure to what is native to the state and the state’s various eco-regions.”