After getting thumbs up from council, Oakland Zoo ready to expand
on July 1, 2011
“The experience starts in the gondola. You’re leaving civilization, so to speak,” says Nik Dehejia, the Oakland Zoo’s director of strategic initiatives.
He’s standing on a hillside in Oakland’s Knowland Park that has a breathtaking view of the San Francisco Bay, and talking about a California exhibit that would be part of a proposed zoo expansion. “It sort of sets the tone. It’s kind of taking you back in time to what California was, and giving you that juxtaposition,” he says.
Last week, the Oakland City Council voted 8-0 to approve an amendment to the East Bay Zoological Society’s 1998 Master Plan to expand the zoo, a project that has been in the works since at least the mid-1990s. Later in July, the zoo hopes to break ground on an $11-million veterinary hospital, the first part of the $72-million, 56-acre project. In about a year, the goal is to begin building the California Trail Project, which Dehejia said will feature animals native to this area like grizzly bears, California condors, and mountain lions. An overnight camping area is also part of the project, and a new gondola system will lift visitors from near the zoo’s entrance to the California exhibit.
The hill setting and spectacular view are a key part of the expansion and the California Trail exhibit, Dehejia said. “For us, there was no better place to start the experience,” he said as he motioned to an area with some Eucalyptus trees that will have to be cut down to make room for the gondola. “It’s a great setting.”
The land the zoo has been approved to expand onto is currently part of Knowland Park, a 525-acre park owned by the city in the Oakland Hills that has walking paths that snake through grassland.
But some think that the zoo, by expanding into the hillside of Knowland Park, is harming native wildlife in an effort to showcase it. “There’s some terrible irony here,” said Laura Baker, the conservation chair of the East Bay chapter of the California Native Plant Society. “Putting up a so-called conservation exhibit that is dedicated to telling the story of how we lost wildlife species, while wiping out native habitat, some of which is excellent habitat for another threatened and disappearing wildlife species, really calls into question the conservation ethic of the zoo.”
The zoo expansion is opposed by the groups Friends of Knowland Park, the California Native Plant Society, the California Native Grasslands Association and The Sierra Club. Among the issues they have raised are concerns that there will be more traffic and visitors than projected, and that native plants, grasslands and species would be at risk. These include the California red-legged frog and the Alameda Whipsnake, which members of the Friends of Knowland Park group says is at risk of extinction.
After the expansion project was approved by the Oakland Planning Commission in early May, the groups appealed to the city council, which voted to deny the appeal last week. They argue that the plan has changed significantly since it was approved in 1998 and needs a new Environmental Impact Report because it’s now a new project.
At the city council meeting last week, city planner Darin Ranelletti said that the city did a “thorough analysis of potential environmental impacts of the project” and updated the 1998 environmental report, so that “all potential impacts [are reduced] to a less than significant level.”
For critics opposed to the expansion, the next step, according to Baker and Ruth Malone of Friends of Knowland Park, could be litigation. They have 30 days from the city council decision on June 21 to file a suit. “One of the reasons we’ve spent so much meticulous time reviewing all the information that has come out is that we want to build the public record,” Baker said. “And you need to do that in order to be able to sue.”
Dehejia said the zoo’s expansion project won’t negatively affect the hillside ecosystem because the project celebrates that area. “This is where the animals existed, so we don’t need to create a habitat,” he said. “This is their natural habitat.”
In response to the environmental groups’ demand for a new Environmental Impact Report, he said the city signed off on the updated, 1,300-page version of the 1998 report because it is sufficient. “We made some changes that we thought were better, were environmentally superior, that made more sense from an animal standpoint, that made more sense from a visitor flow standpoint,” he said. “The City of Oakland makes that determination, and they basically decided that an EIR was not required because of the changes.”
Now that the council has made its decision, Dehejia said the zoo is eager to break ground and begin the project. “We understand not everybody will be satisfied with change, or this particular project,” he said. “We think we’ve developed a project that is better than what it was in ’98. It’s environmentally a better project, and it provides an opportunity for the community that we think is fantastic. We’re excited about moving forward.”
When the California Trail exhibit is completed, habitats for grizzly bears, wolves, jaguars, condors, mountain lions, black bears, beavers and waterfowl will line a circular path. There will be a camping area for organized overnight camps down a path from the California exhibit. The new gondola system will deliver visitors to the hill exhibit from the park below.
According to a 2009 economic impact report by the zoo, future construction will contribute $111 million in spending to the region, and the new facilities will generate an additional $39 million in indirect spending in Alameda County. “[The project] totally changes the face of the zoo, it changes the face of Oakland,” Dehejia said. “It becomes an attraction because there isn’t anything else like this out there.”
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