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Opponents of the Oakland Zoo's conservation easement request stand and clap during the Oakland City Council meeting.

Large crowd fills Oakland City Council meeting about Lake Merritt development, Oakland Zoo expansion

on November 19, 2014

People holding posters that read “Save Knowland Park” or wearing “It’s Your Zoo” buttons filled both the floor and balconies of the city council chambers Tuesday as councilmembers discussed the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan and the Oakland Zoo Conservation Easement late into the night.

Up first was debate over the 25-year Lake Merritt Station Area Plan proposed by the Community and Economic Development Committee, which would establish the Lake Merritt District, a special development zone around the Lake Merritt BART Station intended to attract new businesses and housing. The plan would also add multiple bike lanes, and place limits on the number and height of high-rise buildings in certain areas. The council was asked to vote on a staff resolution regarding the plan.

Speaking before the meeting, Isaac Kos-Read, public policy representative for the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said that he is in support of the plan. “It will fully realize the potential of development in this area where there is so much potential and we need to see development in this area,” he said.

But opponents, like community organizer Alvina Wong from the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, worry that new construction may push out affordable housing once the area becomes an attractive development district. “We need to think about who we’re building Oakland for,” she said.

“We need to make sure there are strict requirements for affordable housing, community benefits, better open spaces, and more parks for everyone to play in,” Wong continued. “Without any real requirements on developers, or any requirements on big developers to invest into the city, they’re basically going to buy up the land and end up moving and pushing people out.”

Discussions about the plan have been taking place for years. The staff report presented at the council meeting noted that they have held meetings on this issue since 2008. At Tuesday night’s meeting, Councilmember Patricia Kernighan (District 2), whose district includes Chinatown and the proposed development area, presented a list of amendments to the staff resolution. These amendments included requiring that all studies be done by October, 2015, increasing the number of high-rise buildings, and the use of “in-lieu” fees that would allow more reductions in parking associated with new development in exchange for funding to support improvements in the area.

Not everyone was pleased with the addition of amendments so close to the vote. “I have been to every meeting, pretty much, for the last five years, and there are many good things in the plan, and there are some things that I don’t love,” said Naomi Schiff, board member of the Oakland Heritage Alliance. “But they changed the height map at the last minute, like after 4 o’clock today.” Schiff added, “Having participated in all these meetings that they’re so proud of having, this is not an open process for the community, as you can tell. The advocates didn’t even have time to catch up with the change.”

After discussion, the vote was called, and the council voted unanimously in favor of the plan. Final passage of this resolution will be up for a vote at the next council meeting on December 9.

Next, the council tackled the Oakland Zoo Conservation Easement. The easement, if granted, would give an additional 8 acres of land in Knowland Park to the East Bay Zoological Society, which runs the Oakland Zoo, granting them a total of 56 acres.

The zoo’s current expansion plan was not up for debate at the meeting, only the additional 8-acre easement. Zoo officials say the easement is needed to secure both state and federal permits for the land, and that they will protect the native habitat and species. The easement area would not be fenced off, but would be indicated with a “No Trespassing” sign, they say. Opponents of the easement are worried about the zoo taking more land from Knowland Park. (For more on what the existing development entails and what the new easement would bring, read Oakland North’s previous coverage here.)

After the staff report was presented, Jim Martin, the lead biologist working with the zoo, made a presentation on its behalf, stating that the conservation easement wouldn’t change public access to the park lands and that it would enhance the existing habitat and provide permanent protection for the Alameda Whipsnake, a threatened species. “Project opponents’ biological claims are without merit and are clearly an attempt to stop the project,” Martin said, adding that there are no feasible alternative locations for the conservation easement available.

A coalition of groups against the proposal, including Save Knowland Park and Friends of Knowland Park, were the next to give a presentation, which focused on making sure the park stays accessible to the public. They began their conversation with Mestie Thomas, a sixth-grader who talked about what she likes to do at the park. “When I go to Knowland Park, I like to run down the hill. It feels magical,” she said.

Then Ruth Malone, a representative of the groups, stepped to the microphone, and showed a PowerPoint presentation with photos of the park. “Oaklanders do love their zoo, but they love their parks even more,” she said. As she concluded, people in the hall applauded, while a supporter hitting a poster against the bannister made the room fill with the sound of thunder.

Then began the steady stream of speakers on the issue, both for and against. There were over 100 people registered to speak, according to the city clerk, though many ceded their time to others.

“I feel that the easement will expand the opportunities for a lot of Oakland youth. The easement is essential for expansion,” Daniel Flynn said.

Jim Hanson, conservation chair for the California Native Grasslands Association who’s been involved in this effort for over three years, was opposed to the idea. “This is a magnificent site,” he said. “It doesn’t have the same thing that a more packaged and constructed operation has, and those places are getting more scarce. We can’t let any more of them go.”

“These are very important communities to keep intact,” Hanson continued. “You can’t keep chipping away at them and expect their value to stay the same.”

After more than two hours of public comment, councilmembers began to vote. Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan (At Large) and Dan Kalb (District 1) voted against the easement. The other six councilmembers, including Larry Reid, whose district (District 7) is home to both the park and the zoo, voted in favor of it. This vote was only for the ordinance’s first reading. A final vote will be taken at the December 9 meeting.

In other business, the council voted to accept reports from students who traveled to Ethiopia with the French American School. They also honored 14-year-old Hanna Solomon, who organized a coat drive, and Natthan Mesfin, who raised about $2,000 for sleeping bags for the homeless.

The next city council meeting will see the return of these two items that drew, together, over 140 public speakers, and opponents will have another chance to speak against the measures that passed on Tuesday. Once the zoo easement measure passed, its proponents began to clap. As the applause died down, an opponent shouted out, “This is not over. We will return!”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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