Knowland Park is a 500-acre wildland open space in the Oakland hills, deeded to the City by the State in the 1970′s under the condition that it would always remain a park.
The largest and most pristine portion of the park is undeveloped, and yet is the most accessible to park users. The western highlands and northern slopes are currently a thriving hotspot for rare native plants and wildlife. Some of the natural highlights of the park include rare native plant communities, thriving but threatened wildlife, choice bird-watching locales, and a known-critical migratory corridor for mountain lions and bobcats.
The Oakland Zoo occupies the developed western lowlands of the park, just off I-580. The park is now gravely threatened by the ill-conceived development plans of Zoo executives. Its proposed development would sever the richest habitat from the rest of the park, and fence out the public and wildlife.
Historical Timeline of the Fight to Protect Knowland Park
The Zoo was established in 1922 in downtown Oakland. Over the years it was located at Sequoia Park, Joaquin Miller Park, and Durant Park. In 1950, the state of California purchased and renamed the land now occupied by Knowland Park and the Zoo. Eventually, the Park and Zoo were ceded to the City of Oakland with the proviso that Knowland Park always remain a public park.
In 1982 the East Bay Zoological Society entered into an agreement with the City of Oakland to manage the zoo. In 1985, Joel Parrott, DVM, was hired as Executive Director of the Zoo. He is currently CEO.
Theme Park Development Proposals
In 1996, an updated Zoo Master Plan proposed a 25-acre Zoo expansion into the park, with development sited on already-disturbed land, proposing a “California 1820” exhibit of animals now extinct from the area. The proposal was revised and presented again in 1997. After extended negotiation with groups from adjacent neighborhoods, who objected to many elements of the plan, including the loss of public open space, the Zoo agreed to a plan that addressed but did not entirely eliminate the concerns of neighbors and park users, signing a Memorandum of Understanding (see also our blog on the MOU) with various provisions. The City approved this plan with an environmental document called a Mitigated Negative Declaration, circumventing a full environmental impact report.
Some aspects of that plan were implemented, but the California 1820 exhibit—the expansion portion—was never built.
Over a decade later, the Zoo proposed a 56-acre “conservation”-themed development as an “amendment” to the 1996 Master Plan. This “bait and switch” was strongly opposed by neighbors, park users and environmental groups now aware of the park’s multiple unique natural resources. For example, Knowland Park is identified by the California Native Plant Society as one of just 15 Priority Protection Areas in the entire East Bay.
Instead of the 7500 square foot, 1-story visitor center the Zoo had proposed in the earlier version, it now sought to build a 3 story, 34,000 square foot visitor center, gift shop, restaurant and offices on a prominent ridgeline in the heart of the park, visible from Highway 580, Golf Links Road, and the remaining parkland and nearly atop a rare plant community that provides habitat for the federally threatened Alameda Whipsnake. (Click here to see what the Zoo said it will look like from Golf Links Road.) This massive structure would be reached by an aerial gondola ride with 60-foot towers. (Click here to see now the Zoo envisions the gondola ride.) The Zoo also added a new 17,000 square foot veterinary hospital and an overnight campground for 100 people, and relocated almost all the animal exhibits and animal buildings to sites much more visible and intrusive to the remainder of the parkland, marring the park’s spectacular, unspoiled views.
For more than four years now, environmentalists have tried to convince the Zoo that other alternatives more consistent with authentic conservation would be better than this ill-conceived plan, to no avail. Friends of Knowland Park, the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, the California Native Grasslands Association, California Wildlife Foundation/California Oaks, and the Northern California Chapter, Sierra Club (click here to read their letter) , all opposed the expansion as proposed, arguing that better alternatives existed that would preserve more precious wildlife habitat and natural resources. Despite repeated appeals, the City Council approved the project in June, 2011 with many questions still unanswered about the environmental impacts and the funding issues.
About the Knowland Park Coalition
The Knowland Park Coalition is an association of environmentalists, neighborhood groups, and concerned citizens from throughout the Bay Area, brought together by the common wish to preserve an amazing piece of open space.