City Approves Oakland Zoo Expansion

By me, for Oakland Magazine‘s website, published June 23 at 4:30 p.m.
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In 2015, Oakland Zoo patrons will experience the regionally extinct and threatened delights of the grizzly bear, wolf, bald eagle and mountain lion, thanks to the zoo’s recently approved expansion plan.

The Oakland City Council unanimously approved an amendment to the zoo’s 1998 Master Plan on Monday, allowing for upgrades in the 56-acre expansion area, such as an electric aerial gondola system, a new Veterinary Medical Hospital and an overnight camping area — think Yosemite, with its giant platform tents.

“I don’t think this is a tough decision,” said Oakland City Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente at the meeting. “There is no way the city can turn away from this project.”

It’s all going to take about 42 months — or 3 and a half years — with a price tag of $72 million. The Veterinary Medical Hospital will start construction next week and should be up and running by next summer.

“We’re very excited, as is the community, to finally be moving forward with all this,” said Dr. Joel Parrott, executive director of the Oakland Zoo.

Funding is coming from some private donations as well as Measure G and Measure WW. At this point, the East Bay Zoological Society (EBZS), which runs the Oakland Zoo, is not seeking any additional city funding outside its annual subsidy. According to the City of Oakland June 9 Agenda, the 2011-13 subsidy for EBZS could range from $170,000 to $539,895 to $635,170, depending on the city’s budget.

Parts of the 1998 Master Plan have already been implemented, like the Center for Science and Environmental Education, but the grand California Trail Project remains. The Trail is designed to promote conservation and environmental stewardship and celebrate California’s native wildlife. It will include 30 acres of open space habitat and 20 acres of exhibits.

Where did all this space come from? Knowland Park, a 525-acre, city-owned wild land park. Environmental groups, namely Friends of Knowland Park, say the zoo’s expansion is an ironic invasion — the zoo promotes conservation and yet it is damaging the natural landscape. Nonetheless, the City Council denied their appeals. Among the demands, opponents wanted the city to prepare an environmental impact report, which would have delayed the project by at least a year. However, the city deemed that the amendment’s new projects wouldn’t result in any significant environmental effects, and a report wasn’t legally required.

According to Parrott, portions of the amendment were geared toward addressing the environmentalists’ concerns — a hiking trail enabling the public to access the park’s view points and the Habitat Enhancement Plan, which will study and develop a plan on how to restore the grasslands.

The Habitat Enhancement Plan is slated to cost at least $20,000, with a potential $15,000–$60,000 in enhancements. Funds will come from the EBZS budget.

“We’re all for it. We’re all in a battle to stop the invasive nonnative plants from taking over the East Bay,” Parott said.

While completely eradicating these nonnative plants is unrealistic, getting the park to be 60 percent native instead of its current 60 percent nonnative would still be an accomplishment, Parrott said.

Expansion opponents have used up the public appeals process, but they still could file a lawsuit. Parrott expects that a lawsuit would be over the lack of environmental impact report.

“We’re prepared,” he said. “We’re prepared for a lawsuit, but we’re also prepared to move on. I wouldn’t say we’re expecting either.”

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