–In 1998, the Oakland City Council approved an expansion of the Oakland Zoo into Knowland Park. Park users protested, but were persuaded by a Memorandum of Understanding signed by zoo CEO Joel Parrott to withdraw their opposition. The expansion proposed included a 7500 sq ft visitor center sited on already-disturbed land on the west side of the ridgeline. (Click here to see the 1996 Master Plan and click here to see the 1998 Memo of Understanding.)
–In June 2011 the Oakland City Council approved a vastly changed plan. Denying the appeals filed by environmental groups and without any publicly available financial information about where the money would come from to build it, the Council approved zoo executives’ plans to pave over parkland and build a 34,000 sq ft visitor center, restaurant, visitor and office complex on the ridgeline next to ecologically important natural wildlife and plant habitat in Oakland’s largest park. (Click here to see an image comparing the 1996 and 2011 plans.)
–The visitor center complex would now be reached by a planned aerial gondola ride requiring 60-foot towers, necessary because of the site’s remoteness from the existing zoo and the steepness of the terrain, which also raised fire hazard questions never fully addressed. (Click here to see the Zoo’s published gondola concept.)
–The expansion is proposed to feature a “California conservation” theme, displaying captive native California animals, including mountain lion, wolf and bear exhibits, effectively fencing out wild mountain lions, who now use this parkland for hunting, to build pens for exhibiting captives. (Click here to see a map of trees that will be cut down for this expansion.)
–The planned expansion development also includes a campground for 100 people located in a grove of heritage oaks, paving roadways, constructing additional buildings for night houses, concession stands, and widening, grading and resurfacing roads throughout the remaining parkland for emergency vehicle access.
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.