Friday, November 14, 2014

Oakland Zoo's Proposed Expansion Into Knowland Park Heads to Final Council Vote

By Sam Levin
Fri, Nov 14, 2014 at 3:04 PM

click to enlarge BERT JOHNSON / FILE PHOTO
  • Bert Johnson / file photo
The Oakland Zoo's controversial expansion into city-owned Knowland Park — the subject of the Express' September cover story, "Zoo Gone Wild" — is headed to a final vote at the Oakland City Council next week. On Tuesday, November 18, the council will vote on what is effectively the last hurdle for the zoo's so-called "California Trail" project — a proposed collection of new exhibits that make up a roughly 56-acre expansion near the existing zoo in East Oakland. Environmental activists and neighbors have been fighting the project for years, arguing that it would result in the loss of access to critical open space and the permanent destruction of rare East Bay habitat (an ironic consequence given that the zoo plans to build an artificial exhibit featuring animals that no longer live in the East Bay due to habitat loss).

The final vote this week pertains to the zoo's proposed plan to meet the environmental requirements of various government regulatory agencies, which have demanded that the zoo preserve a certain amount of parkland to make up for the habitat destruction the project will cause. The East Bay Zoological Society — the private nonprofit organization that runs the zoo (which is publicly owned) — wants to develop on high-quality habitat in Knowland Park that supports a threatened snake species and features a number of rare and native plant communities. The exhibit, which would be connected to the existing zoo through a new gondola attraction, would feature an interpretive center and visitors' building, a restaurant with stunning views of the bay, and exhibits showcasing wolves, grizzly bears, mountain lions, and more.

Given the impacts of those exhibits and structures, the Zoological Society is required to set aside roughly 53 acres of parkland to be permanently conserved. The Zoological Society's proposed solution is to close off and protect roughly thirty acres of the park within its expansion site (meaning areas where zoo visitors wouldn't be able to travel) and an additional 22 acres of Knowland Park outside of the project. Currently, these parts of the park are not part of the existing zoo and are accessible to any member of the public. In recent months, activists have devoted their efforts to scrutinizing this conservation plan, arguing that taking 22 additional acres of a public park away from the public would be an unethical land grab that sets a bad precedent for the potential seizure of publicly owned open space.

Since Knowland Park is a city-owned site, the council has to approve the Zoological Society's plan to set aside the entire 53 acres for conservation. The actual California Trail project already gained council approval back in 2011, and Zoological Society officials have continued to argue in recent months that the project is essentially a done deal — one that has already gone through significant vetting by city, state, and federal regulators. The Zoologicial Society has also repeatedly argued that the public benefits of the project and its accompanying conservation plan far outweigh any negatives. 

The council's community and economic development committee approved the proposed conservation plan on Wednesday, sending it on to council next week for the final vote. Last month, Oakland's Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, which reviews park issues and makes recommendations to council, voted five to two in favor of the project. That meant that technically it made no official recommendation to council, because six "yes" votes are required for a recommendation. 

click to enlarge Joel Parrott, president and CEO of the East Bay Zoological Society, in Knowland Park. - BERT JOHNSON / FILE PHOTO
  • Bert Johnson / file photo
  • Joel Parrott, president and CEO of the East Bay Zoological Society, in Knowland Park.

Activists, who have joined together in a coalition called Save Knowland Park, have been working to take each councilmember on a tour of the park in advance of Tuesday's vote. Laura Baker of the East Bay chapter of the California Native Plant Society told me today that her group has taken councilmembers Lynette Gibson McElhaney, Noel Gallo, Patricia Kernighan, and Dan Kalb on tours of Knowland Park, which has a total of roughly four hundred acres of open space and is the City of Oakland's largest, and in some ways, most biologically diverse park. Baker said her group will be taking Mayor-Elect Libby Schaaf on a tour on Monday and has been unable thus far to set up visits with the three remaining councilmembers — Larry Reid (who represents the district where the zoo and park are located), Desley Brooks, and Rebecca Kaplan (though Baker noted that she knows Kaplan has visited the park before). 

The activists are planning to hold a rally outside City Hall at 5 p.m. on Tuesday in advance of the vote. You can read the city's official report that the council will vote on here and the supplemental attachments here

For our in-depth coverage of the zoo's project, read "Zoo Gone Wild." 

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