Sacramento Zoo sees Kings’ old Arco Arena site as a good fit for its new home

Could the former home of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings one day be home to lions, tigers and bears?

It’s possible, said the Sacramento Zoo’s director, Jason Jacobs, who wants to move the beloved Land Park institution to more spacious digs elsewhere in the city.

The zoo has “looked at” property that housed Arco Arena, later called Sleep Train Arena, Jacobs said. The site fits some of the criteria that the zoo wants for its new home, including 180 acres for animals and exhibits and ample parking for visitors, he said.

Architectural renderings of the potential new zoo show a campus that includes a “drive-through African safari,” a hippo habitat and an “Australasia” feature.

The zoo has not contacted the Kings, who own the property in Natomas, nor determined what it would cost to demolish the arena and build a new zoo with a plethora of new structures and animals, said Jacobs.

“There is no agreement. We haven’t met with the owners of the land. We have looked at the site, but it doesn’t mean we’re moving there,” he said.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg said on Monday he likes the concept of creating an “iconic” wildlife park in the city, and said the Natomas site is worth exploring.

“While there’s a lot of work ahead to develop a solid finance plan, the idea deserves a full exploration,” Steinberg said. “The Kings themselves may have their own ideas. I look forward to considering those fully as well. The main thing is: Let’s get started on creating something great for Natomas, the city and the region.”

Sacramento City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who represents North Natomas, also said she thinks the zoo idea has merit.

“I think it has the potential for a very exciting reuse, a fantastic opportunity for the city on many levels,” she said.

Ashby has pushed the Kings to assure that the massive, now largely unused site in the center of North Natomas be redeveloped in a way that adds value and interest to the community.

The councilwoman said the Kings “appear to be open to a conversation” and “have a pretty open mind” about various potential reuses for the site.

Kings officials did not immediately respond to Bee requests for comment Monday. In a recent email to The Bee, team principal Vivek Ranadive hinted a development breakthrough may be near at the site.

“We continue to work on developing a flexible master entitlement plan that can respond to the evolving needs of Natomas, and that also supports the region. We expect to have a substantive update to share very soon.”

City community development head Ryan DeVore said officials expect the Kings to file an application soon for multiple uses at the site.

Zoo director Jacobs, who came in January after the departure of his predecessor for another institution, said he wants more space for a “21st century zoo” that would house and breed a wider variety of species under increasingly strict standards for animal care.

The zoo recently received a warning from its accreditation agency, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, that it needs to renovate and improve its exhibit areas or risk losing its status with the agency. Jacobs believes expansion would be nearly impossible on the zoo’s current location on 14 acres in the heart of the Land Park neighborhood.

The zoo already has shipped out some of its larger animals because of such concerns, but surveys suggest that the public wants to see large, “iconic” animals such as lions and hippopotamus, Jacobs said.

“We want to be far more than a zoo,” he said. “We want to be a 21st century zoo that is an economic driver for the region, and has the capacity to build populations of rare and endangered species and educate the public about them.”

Jacobs said the bulk of the project likely would cost $120 million to $150 million. Ideally, he said, he would like the new zoo to be completely finished by its 100th anniversary in 2027.

The city contracts with a nonprofit group to run the zoo. Any major changes, including details about funding and location, would require city approval. Funding could come from a variety of sources, city officials said, including taxes, capital campaigns, surcharges and land donations

Jacobs said the zoo has yet to explore potential zoo locations other than the former arena site. In the past, the city has considered various alternate sites for relocating the zoo, including Sutter’s Park Landing and Cal Expo.

“We’ve looked at the Natomas site from a very cursory standpoint,” he said. The renderings depict “an outline of land, and hypothetically where various elements might be. But if we had another piece of land of a similar size, those renderings could easily be transferred to that site.”

“It’s very, very early in the process,” he emphasized. Since announcing the zoo’s desire to relocate, “we have had lots of people contact us, some about donating land, some about buying land, all kinds of things. But none of these conversations have gone very far yet.”

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