Creating the San Diego Zoo’s latest addition – the transformation of what had been a children’s petting zoo into a combination play zone and exhibit area – was so extensive that it took Pacific Building Group three years to complete the project.
“It’s just spectacular, everything about it,” said Wayne Hickey, the company’s executive vice president who oversaw the construction of the $88 million Wildlife Explorers Basecamp, the name the zoo gave the project.
“When you walk in, you see this, it has a lot of meaning. I take a lot of pride in that. We all do,” Hickey said. “I can show it to my kids, my grandkids. We can get to say, ‘I built this.’”
Hickey was among those who built the Zoo’s original children’s zoo section that was razed to make way for Wildlife Explorer’s Basecamp.
“This is much more interactive,” Hickey said.
When the 3.2-acre Wildlife Explorer’s Basecamp opened to the public March 11, Shawn Dixon, CEO of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, said the project was “the largest endeavor in our organization’s history.”
Dixon said the zoo was “grateful to have Pacific Building Group as a partner, who helped is navigate an extremely complex project during the challenges of a global pandemic.”
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Hickey said the project was completed pretty much on schedule.
The location of the Basecamp within the zoo helped since the zoo was open while the project was being built.
“We were fortunate that we were on the southeast corners so we didn’t have a lot of requirements to go through the actual zoo. We had access through the Balboa Park side,” Hickey said.
The project involved tearing down nearly all of what had been the old Children’s Zoo to start from scratch.
“There was only one structure that remained, which was the existing restroom building. Basically, we gutted that building then rebuilt it, then reskinned the exterior wall. The rest was new,” Hickey said.
Among the challenges in creating the new Wildlife Explorers Basecamp was digging up and hauling off 30,000 cubic yards of dirt to create a multi-level exhibit area, complete with a bridge, walkways, a climbing tree made of steel and concrete, climbing walls, and eight buildings.
Pacific Building also uprooted, moved and replanted nearly 70 trees and installed a giant granite globe at the entrance.
“When you walk through the entrance, you’ll see the ball right there, one of the very first things you’ll see,” Hickey said.
The globe weighs about 30,000 pounds, Hickey said, and was carved in Germany out of granite from a quarry in Brazil. The globe spins on a base filled with water.
“There’s a lot of planning that goes into that, getting a 30,000-pound ball dropped into that,” Hickey said.
Digging up the trees, putting them in wooden box planters and moving them to a temporary storage then back also took some doing.
“Some of those trees, those boxes probably weighed 70,000 pounds,” Hickey said.
Pacific Building also built a temporary tower crane to move material and machinery.
“It was a very complicated project logistically because every portion of the project was interconnected so we had to start strategically in one area and had to build up and around it,” Hickey explained. “There’s just layers of work that has to be done.”
Basecamp includes eight building and habitats in four zones – Rainforest, Wild Woods, Marsh Meadows and Desert Dunes.
At the heart of the Rainforest zone is the three-story, 10,000-square-foot McKinney Family Spineless Marvels building that has a wide variety of creatures on exhibit, from leafcutter ants to scorpions and spiders.
“We literally had to dig down approximately 30 feet to get the basement in there,” Hickey said.
The Wild Woods area has animals from Central and South America such as coatis and squirrel monkeys, along with a bridge and the tree house, which was designed as an ancient oak.
The tree house has several ways of entering – from a suspension bridge to a net tunnel.
With its woodland theme, Wild Woods also has a waterfall that flows into a meandering stream, a splash pad, water jets and a bluff area with a boulder scramble.
Marsh Meadows, as its name suggests, is meant to evoke marsh-like habitats. At its center is the two-story, 7,000-square-foot Jake’s Cool Critters building that includes snakes, crocodilians, amphibians, turtles and lizards.
Desert Dunes is the place where visitors meet a variety of desert creatures and where children can romp among the rocks and reptile sculptures. It also has shaded caves where visitors can get out of the sunlight.
“Basecamp is a place where millions of world-changers will begin their journey with nature and learn empathy and compassion for wildlife,” Dixon said.
Although Wildlife Explorers Basecamp opened March 11, Hickey said that Pacific Building finished construction several weeks earlier, leaving time before it opened for the animals to become acclimated to their new home.
Hickey said much of the credit for the successful completion of the construction goes to the subcontractors who worked on it. “Everybody on the job had the same passion,” Hickey said.
They included CCI, Long Glazing Company, Pacific Steel, All Source Painting, McBride Door & Hardware, BrightView, Cabral Metalfab, Rand Engineering, Cemrock Landscapes, Legacy Rock and Waterproofing, Holland’s Custom Cabinets, A.O. Reed & Company, Burner Sheetmetal, Naton Engineering, Scott Fence, Snipes Dye, Coleman Engineers, KPFF, Junker Engineering, MA Engineering and DPA.