Oakland debt will be raised with zoo’s new multi-million dollar aerial gondola

The Oakland Zoo expansion plan being pursued by zoo management with the approval of the Oakland City Council includes a big and expensive aerial gondola.

You might ask, with the new City Administrator, Deanna Santana, noting in her December budget letter that the City doesn’t have money to replace aging fire pump and ladder trucks, or pay off the debt from past City projects, or keep the City infrastructure safe,…why would Oakland choose to go further into debt to help buy and maintain the expensive cars, wires, power equipment, and massive columns for a big new zoo gondola.

It’s because the zoo wants to double in size. They want to take 56 acres of prime natural area in Knowland Park – in the process pushing out the California wild life living there now – to bring in big animals to impart a “conservation message” about how these big animals were pushed out of the Bay Area in earlier times and can no longer make it here. They are saying that this is how the modern zoo teaches kids about conservation…big animals, a bigger piece of park, a big gondola.

Based on rough estimates of gondola construction across the country, it could cost anywhere from $3-10 million, or more, to extend a big gondola onto the hillside of Knowland Park. The City of Hercules considered building a gondola, but now they’re broke. Portland built a gondola, but things got out of hand and they ended up spending lots, LOTS, more than they planned on.

Oakland residents will be on the hook to help pay for a new zoo gondola because–in the very middle of last year’s dire budget hearings – the City Council approved a much bigger zoo project ($60 million to expand into the upper park) than the voters approved in a 2005 Measure G bond measure (we ok’d about $27 million).

Plus, since the City owns the park and all the facilities, Oakland residents would fiscally underwrite all the expensive new additions for the zoo’s physical plant – the acres of new zoo facilities, the big animals, maintenance of the big gondola. They could be required to cover the operating losses if this project isn’t the big draw the Council and the Zoo think it will be.

Despite the fact that residents get the financial risk, we’re getting zip in financial transparency.  The range of potential costs for building, operating, and repairing a gondola – along with building a new 34,000 square foot building with view offices (also not part of what voters approved) – can only be guessed at. Despite public information requests, neither the City nor the Zoo has released project feasibility reports, marketing reports, or capital spending and financing reports that would allow Oakland residents to assess the risk they are subjected to with this project.

What we do know is that the City has borrowed and set aside about $8 million of bond funds to spend for zoo expansion. Tack another approximately $5 million in interest payments on that debt and an estimated another $13 million would be added to the City’s already high debt burden. Yet, it appears from the Measure G bond instruments that nearly all of this debt could be avoided if a majority in the City Council had the zoo work up a more financially and environmentally sensible “California Exhibit”.

Other zoos in California and the nation have decided that conservation is about protecting remaining natural areas. Rather than build on remaining habitat, they and the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums are working to care for the landscapes of mammals, birds, turtles, and frogs that need conservation too for wild life to be able to survive around today’s populated cities. The kids may not ride in big expensive zoo gondolas, but then again, other cities are choosing to have working fire trucks, with decently-paved streets, and local zoos that point the way to authentic conservation in the 21st century.

Jim Hanson grew up in the East Bay and originally heard about out the City’s development plans for Knowland Park from the East Bay Chapter of the Native Plant Society and the Sierra Club Yodeler. A landscape architect, Jim appreciates the subtle beauty of the native bunchgrass prairies and meadow lands of California. He has served on the Board of Directors of the California Native Grasslands Association for several years and was recently elected its President. He likes to take fellow Oaklanders and Bay Area visitors to the Knowland Park highlands to point with pride how a vibrant, busy city still keeps its natural wealth.

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3 Responses to Oakland debt will be raised with zoo’s new multi-million dollar aerial gondola

  1. Gwen77f March 10, 2012 at 6:09 am #

    This article raises questions that the City of Oakland should answer, instead of stonewalling or ignoring them.  At one “community meeting” (packed with Zoo employees) that I attended, the Zoo claimed that the expansion would bring over $100 million into Oakland.  I have no idea where that figure came from, but it seemed to convince our elected officials.  However, when I asked whether the Zoo planned to include a “Hire Oakland Residents First” policy for construction and program staffing, the Zoo officials didn’t answer.  Seems like something that a corporate good neighbor would happily do if they truly cared about the community.  

  2. Tcsayre March 13, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    on the topic  of the zoos “bringing jobs to Oakland”.Thearchitects/designer for the overall project, a Seattle firm. The architects for the vet hospital, a Berkeley firm. Two weeks ago, while walking in the park I ran into Nick, the director of strategic planning for the zoo. He was with a surveyor. I ask what they were doing and he said surveying for the new project. The surveyor’s truck-Utah license plates. It seems rather obvious that the zoos commitment to “hire Oakland” is clearly another example of the obfuscation and deception regarding almost every important aspect of this land grab. I have to wonder how many Oakland workers will be involved in building Dr. Parrot’s ridge-top office with its panoramic views of the bay? Which of course will sit squarely on top of some of the most rare plant and wildlife habitat in the whole Bay Area. This so they can teach zoo visitors about “conservation.”

  3. Jim Hanson March 14, 2012 at 6:05 am #

    Your observations raise important questions for Oakland’s economic development…how much local money would be going to businesses outside of the area on this subsidized doubling of the zoo into valuable parkland?

    One answer may have come from an Oakland Tribune article this last summer when the Zoo recycled a 2009 Economic Impact Report by the East Bay Economic Development Alliance on the current zoo and the proposed expansion.

    The article (Contra Costa Times, 7/05/2011, “Oakland Zoo’s expansion projects expected to pump millions into the econmy”) said that the expansion is expected to bring money into the region from “meals and gas paid for by construction workers, cash spent at Oakland construction material supply companies, and lodging for overnight work crews.”

    You’re right, raises questions about where the money is coming from and where it’s going. What Oakland supply company has a multi-million dollar gondola structure in their showroom, and why would a local construction tradesperson be paying for lodging?

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