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Zoo Gone Wild

The Oakland Zoo's expansion into Knowland Park would destroy rare habitat and cut off public access to open space. Can opponents stop the project before it's too late?



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After the Zoological Society proposed this master plan in 1996, a group of neighbors raised a range of concerns about the proposal and the potential loss of open space, and argued that the plan warranted a full environmental impact report (EIR).

But the city decided that an EIR was not necessary and instead issued what's known as a "mitigated negative declaration," which meant that the city believed that with certain mitigation measures, the project would not have a significant impact on the environment. The city council unanimously approved the plan in 1998, at which point the zoo also negotiated a memorandum of understanding with neighborhood groups that addressed some of their concerns.

"It was this great spirit of compromise ... and it was approved by the neighbors," recalled Parrott, who has been running the zoo since 1985, during a recent interview inside a conference room at the zoo. "Fast forward over all these years," he continued, flashing a grin. "New neighbors."

For a long time, Ruth Malone had no idea that Knowland Park was even accessible to the public. At one point in the 1990s, Malone, who co-founded Friends of Knowland Park, recalled going to the zoo with her husband and asking an official at the entrance if they could hike in the park. "They said, 'No you can't go there,'" she said. "And we didn't investigate it further."

But years later, after she moved closer to Knowland Park, she discovered that she had been given false information. "I could've been coming here all this time," she said.

Anyone can enter Knowland Park, though the city does not post any information online about this fact or put up any signs at park entrances. The Oakland Office of Parks and Recreation didn't even list it as one of its city parks on its website until 2012 after advocates repeatedly demanded it. And city parks staff, Malone said, once incorrectly told Friends of Knowland Park that the parkland was privately owned. "It's been the best kept secret in the city," she added.

From 1999 to 2010, the Zoological Society devoted its time and efforts to new exhibits and projects within the existing zoo, spending about $25 million on improvements. At that point, the society was ready to execute the critical vision in its master plan — expanding further into Knowland Park. While the zoo said it was simply taking its 1998 plan to its logical conclusion, opponents said the proposal the zoo brought forward in 2011 was extremely different from the one the council had previously approved. And it was, they said, more environmentally destructive. "You can't help but characterize it as a giant theme park," Malone said.

A number of key differences alarmed environmental groups. The proposed interpretive center had increased from a 7,500-square-foot, 1-story building covering 0.23 acres to a 34,305-square-foot, 3-story building, covering 0.36 acres. It would now include offices, in addition to a restaurant, classroom, gift shop, and exhibits. The zoo had also added a gondola attraction that would require 7 towers, and an overnight camping area that could accommodate about 100 people.

The footprint of the animal exhibits had also grown from 16.23 acres to 18.07 acres and had been substantially reconfigured such that the bulk of the exhibits had moved farther away from the existing zoo and deeper into the upper part of Knowland Park. That meant that many visitors to the park's remaining open space, including at some of the best viewpoints, would immediately see the zoo's attractions in the foreground when looking out at the bay.

"When you change a project in such a way as they have, that's significant, and that needs to go through a further environmental review," said Norman La Force, chair of the Sierra Club's East Bay public lands committee. But, he continued, "to do a proper environmental review costs money, and frankly, a lot of agencies don't want to spend that kind of money, so they find every which way they can not to review it." La Force argued that a nonprofit, especially one that takes public funding and says it's dedicated to conservation, should be committed to participating in a full environmental review.

But just as it had in 1998, the city said an EIR was not necessary, and instead conducted a more limited review, determining that the project in its new form, with certain mitigation measures, was once again acceptable. The city council agreed and unanimously approved the project.

Scott Miller, zoning manager for the City of Oakland, said the city carefully reviewed and analyzed the updated project prior to the 2011 approval: "Those studies determined there were no significant impacts." And the extensive arguments of the project's critics, he added, were "thoroughly vetted."

But one of the most critical components of an EIR is the meaningful consideration of alternative plans, including exploring other locations for a project. And according to the zoo's opponents, there are numerous ways in which the zoo could expand on its current site, or within lower, less sensitive parts of Knowland Park. "It's really shocking, said Mack Casterman, conservation analyst with the California Native Plant Society's East Bay Chapter, "that when it comes to literally their own backyard, they are purposefully avoiding an alternative that would be less impactful to the really, really special natural resources that are right behind their current facility."

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