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Nik Dehejia’s Handbook of Terms for Zoo Development of Knowland Park, 2014 edition (self-published):
1. “environmentally beneficial”: A 56-acre private development project on public parkland that includes bulldozing and paving ~22+ acres of native habitat for buidings and exhibits, and destroyng more habitat constructing gondola towers and paving access roads outside the project area.
2. “conservation easement” and “environmental protection”: Choosing to build on sensitive native habitat, triggering a regulatory requirement for a 53-acre offset to make up for the project’s destruction of this habitat.
This land has been thriving in its natural state for decades—accessible to the public and providing critical contiguous habitat for local wildlife (despite the poor conservation practices of the zoo, the City and the Oakland Fire Department). With this new “conservation easement” our local wildlife will have roads and fencing to cross to get to the 4 separate tracts of the land so generously set aside for them.
3. “years of negotiations with the community”: Zoo execs and developers bullying a few Knowland Park neighbors into agreeing to a low-impact expansion concept, and then using a classic bait-and-switch to dump the agreement AND avoid a full environmental review of an increasingly lavish project atop Knowland Park’s ridge land.
4. “a significant amount of open and public dialogue”: Virtually meaningless public input at City government meetings designed to provide a forum for rubber-stamp approval of the developers’ plans at all stages of review.
5. “these individuals”: The significant and growing public opposition to this controversial and environmentally destructive ridge development project.
6. “very thoughtful, very deliberate, rigorous decisions made by those in elected office”: The well worn rubber stamp used to approve the zoo project, as described in #4, above.
In fact, Zoo execs and developers have been allowed to push their plans through while carefully avoiding a thorough analysis of critical financial, environmental and public park access issues. There has never been a fair or thorough review of this destructive and unnecessary project. Public open space has not been represented as the valuable natural resource it is, and the public has been effectively shut out from all decision-making. Knowland Park belongs to the public—to Oakland voters—not to the Zoo. Let the voters decide. Sign the petition to put the referendum on the ballot.
Thank you for following up your original thorough coverage of this controversial development project with this timely post. In both pieces, you've provided a lot of solid information to a public that has been largely kept out of the loop about the project up to now.
I think one correction should be made though: the zoo isn't required to use parkland for its 53-acre mitigation obligation resulting from siting the project on sensitive ridge habitat--this is just what it wants to do (for one thing, it won't cost the zoo anything to use public property to meet this obligation). The decision to allow or not allow this public park land to be used for this purpose ism as you said, up to the City Council. As representatives of Oakland residents, I hope City Council members stand up for their constituents (who a poll shows favor protecting this land from a zoo development by 75%) and refuse to allow the best 77 acres of Knowland Park to be ruined forever--for the public and for the wildlife that depend on it now.
Kudos to the reporter and EBX for commiting the time and space for this well-researched, thoughtful article. I also appreciate the videographer’s contribution. This slice of live action includes some misleading and false statements by zoo CEO Joel Parrott that I think are important to clarify:
Parrott (video at 1:32--): This maritime chaparral will remain untouched, undamaged.
FACT: Any suggestion that Knowland Park’s rare maritime plant community will not be touched or damaged by this project is absolutely false. Fire management regulations require cutting a 30 ft. wide strip of maritime chaparral along the perimeter fence down from a height of 5-6 ft. to 18 inches; if the City and State decide to enforce actual legal fire management requirements, a 100-ft. wide strip cut to 18 inches would be required. Construction of the gondola towers and perimeter fence will negatively impact the maritime chaparral, as will the proximity of access roads and the 100+ person overnight camp facility, exposing it to degradation from invasive weeds. The zoo has a history of facilitating and allowing the spread of invasives in the park, and has done almost no remediation.
Parrott (at 2:05--): The project has purposefully left a view point for park hikers.
FACT: What the project actually does is push people out of the most beautiful hiking areas in the park. It fences off one spectacular view point for zoo access only, and leaves one knoll at the bottom of a steep graded fire road that will be boxed in between the residential area on the south border of the park and the zoo’s 8 ft. chain-link perimeter fence (topped with 3 ft of barbed wire) that will run right alongside the knoll. And instead of the peaceful natural surroundings there now, the one park-accessible view point will be degraded by that fence, and the zoo’s nearby facilities and accompanying noise.
Parrott (at 4:02--): The site for a 3-story interpretive center is “a former fill-site” covered with invasive weeds.
FACT: This site is the zoo’s illegal manure dump. The zoo “planted” the invasive weeds, which are now invading the maritime chaparral, and it has never made any effort to undo the damage. Friends of Knowland Park’s weed removal work included removing and carting out many bags of invasive weeds from this area.
Parrott (at 5:00): The 400 remaining acres of Knowland Park “will forever be set aside for hiking.”
FACT: The zoo refuses to make any binding promise to refrain from developing the rest of the park, and its past promises to set aside certain areas for trails, views and other park purposes have been repeatedly broken. It has also repeatedly manipulated acreage numbers to hide what it is doing now: zoo management needs to check their math. The zoo currently sits on ~100 fenced acres, half of which is developed; there are about 400 acres of natural park land east of the existing zoo; the zoo’s project will take away the best 77 acres for its project, which leaves only about 320 acres of natural park land. And as long as the City allows it, that park land is not protected from zoo development.
These development deals are usually sold as benefitting Oakland economically, but in time, they end up draining its coffers. It’s obvious who the losers are: the people of Oakland, whose schools, libraries, and police and fire departments are forced to operate with deeply inadequate funding (to the point of closure, in some cases). But who are the winners? Hard to tell, given how cloudy the political and financial connections are. It is interesting how some of the same players keep turning up in these deals, somehow managing to get a pass from politicians. It’s a recurring nightmare for Oakland. Private developers seem eager to invest in Oakland, but only if they are assured that public funding will fill in with whatever is needed down the road. And more money is always needed down the road.
The Oakland Zoo’s extravagant expansion plan for Knowland Park is just another iteration of this nightmare. The Zoo board is stacked with investment and real estate development people, and it has convinced city politicians to trust that this environmentally destructive project will benefit Oakland, selling it with the popular catchwords of “conservation”, “conservation education”, and (during the campaign for 25 years of public tax money in the last election) “humane animal care”. But it all turns out to be a lie: the Zoo’s version of conservation and education is to pave over acres of California native habitat to put in fake exhibits of that habitat. Its supposed dire need for public funds for animal care turned out to be an end-run to make funds available for this bloated and expensive development project. The Zoo does not have all the funding needed to build this thing, much less run it, or follow through on all the mitigation promises it has made to sell the project to regulatory agencies. Oakland doesn’t need more zoo than it already has. And it sure doesn’t need another financial obligation that would be, again, at the expense of basic childhood education and public safety.
I agree, open media is crucial for good government. This article does a great job of exposing the most recent of a long list of the manipulative, dishonest tactics used to thwart public scrutiny of its actions and finances. And as has happened in the past, when confronted with this exposure, zoo management simply lies. On KQED Forum on Oct. 22, zoo rep. Nik Dehejia said illegal signage on public property at the zoo was just "a few eager volunteers", even though one of the signs was a giant banner attached to the chain-link fence on a steep hill overlooking the freeway. And how can illegally using public property at the zoo as campaign headquarters be the result of "a few eager volunteers"? Measure A1 is no different: It explicitly covers expansion and new construction, but the zoo responds that it MUST be used for animal care. A1 covers development of conservation projects, a conveniently vague phrase for destruction of 54 acres of native wildlife habitat in Knowland Park. Knowland Park has been a well-kept secret by the zoo and the city of Oakland for years. I hope good investigative journalism like this will continue to work to shine a light on this kind of subterfuge. Good job EBX.
It's a relief to know that at least one newspaper in the Bay Area is doing careful investigative reporting. Its rarity makes it all the more important--for all of us. Thank you!
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