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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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And when the Zoological Society finally submitted a report this year, it included a single page of capital improvement information — one chart with estimated costs for the expansion project and on-site renovations and maintenance. "The absence of detail is striking," Pulich said. "It's certainly not what is described in the management agreement."

The Zoological Society has also refused to release a California Trail financial feasibility study, even though it has produced one internally (a fact society officials confirmed). Because the society is not a public agency, it does not have to release the report, but its refusal is concerning, said Hanson, who argued that the city council should have required that the report be publicly available.

Hanson pointed out that in another Oakland public-private partnership, the renovation of the Fox Theater, the city auditor in 2011 specifically cited the lack of a comprehensive financial feasibility study as one of the factors that led to the city spending significantly more money on the project than initially estimated.

Baker of the California Native Plant Society has also repeatedly requested from the city copies of construction contracts for the zoo's veterinary hospital, which was completed in 2012. The Zoological Society's management agreement with the city spells out a number of requirements, including local hiring practices, for construction projects. But officials with the city's Contracts and Compliance Division told Baker that there was nothing on file for the zoo's hospital project.

A city spokesperson told me in an email that "the agreement between the Zoo and the City is for management services only" and that it appeared the Zoological Society was not obligated to submit a report for the hospital construction. But that statement seems to contradict what's actually in the society's contract, which specifically references requirements for "construction contracts."

Hanson further argued that the limited information that is publicly available raises alarms. For example, the Zoological Society board approved a $10 million loan for the expansion project last year — but, according to Hanson's public records requests, the city council never reviewed it. This is despite the fact that the society's management agreement requires the council to approve loans.

Hanson also pointed out that, in 2012, the Zoological Society itself publicly stated that it was in a difficult financial position and needed more funding for its existing zoo operations. The society made that argument as part of its push for a controversial county parcel tax, Measure A1.

At the time, the society argued that the tax, which would have funneled more than $100 million to the zoo over 25 years, was critical for animal care needs, education programs, and to keep zoo admission prices down. The measure failed to get the required two-thirds vote, and Hanson and other Zoological Society critics have questioned whether it's financially wise for the organization to move forward with a large expansion if it has needs in its existing zoo that have gone unmet.

William Marchant, co-chair of the Zoological Society board of trustees, told me that the A1 defeat meant a loss of financial security against a bad year — one with lots of rain, for example. "We have to continue to increase our revenue."

Regarding contract compliance concerns, Dehejia told me: "We have never been notified that we have been in breach of contract." And Parrott, in reference to the Zoological Society's internal feasibility study, said, "It's private, because people like the Friends of Knowland Park, what do they need to look at our business plan for? ... They're not here to help us improve the business plan." Parrott also declined to tell me the source of the $10 million loan, but said this type of bridge loan was very common. Dehejia argued that this type of loan also does not require council approval.

Parrott said that the Zoological Society would continue to raise funds for the projects that the A1 parcel tax would have allowed, including new exhibits for the chimpanzees and tigers at the existing zoo. But in the immediate future, he said, "a lot of opportunity for our guests and the animals here at the zoo have been lost." Still, he argued that financing for the expansion is fully in place, and separate from the funding for the current zoo: "We wouldn't be moving forward if we weren't really confident."

The California Trail plan, Parrott added, "is extremely feasible, and on top of that, it will enhance our mission to expose children to nature and wildlife."

On a recent summer afternoon, three Knowland Park advocates took me on a trip to the Oakland Zoo. Along the way, they pointed out different exhibits and areas that they thought seemed overdue for an update or renovation, and described other opportunities for growth — within the existing zoo.

They are not opposed to the zoo building major new attractions, they emphasized. But from an education standpoint, they questioned the value of building on parkland, rather than coming up with innovative opportunities to celebrate it — having zoo docents lead hikes through Knowland Park, for example.

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