Monthly Archives: April 2011

Three budgets for Oakland

I was going to wait until tomorrow when I had more time to post about the budget, but then I was kind of surprised not to see anyone commenting about it here, so I just wanted to make sure you are all aware that Oakland Mayor Jean Quan has released her proposed budget for the City Council.

Well, proposed budgets. The Mayor has provided the Council with three budgets, which they will receive a report from the City Administration about and discuss on this coming Thursday, May 5th.

Yes, I think it is weird, too.

The first budget (PDF) shows what would happen if the City was not able to get any concessions from the employees and also not get a new parcel tax.

It includes such draconian measures as cutting the library down to only four locations closing recreation centers and pools, eliminating cultural arts grants and the film office, and closing four fire stations. I don’t really know what the point of putting out this one was, other than to make people feel bad for the city. It seems completely improbable that no concessions whatsoever from the employees will be agreed upon, so this just seems like a boo-hoo poor us type thing.

The second budget (PDF) represents what would happen if we got employee contributions but no parcel tax. It keeps libraries and fire stations open, closes no rec centers but leases them to the Housing Authority instead, closes Live Oak Pool during the summer, and cuts but keeps the film office and arts grants.

This seems to me like the most likely scenario to happen, so I kind of wish the Mayor had focused on presenting different variations on this depending on the degree of concessions rather than one budget based on a likely scenario and two based on unlikely ones.

The third budget (PDF) represents a scenario where we have both employee contributions and a parcel tax. We would have 10 more police officers and hold two police academies, not close the pool or the library or senior centers, open the East Oakland Sports center, not cuts to park maintenance or arts or outside agencies.

Obviously we’re supposed to want this one. I find this whole exercise really frustrating. Instead of focusing on the budget, the Mayor appears to be focusing on selling her parcel tax. They passed out this little comparison of the three options (PDF) and this pamphlet outlining the basics of the budget process (PDF), both of which are helpful things to have, but there was no focus (or even information, really) about the specifics of how the budget was balanced under each scenario.

The worksheets make the third scenario (the one with the tax) seem so rosy — you would look at that and think nothing would change. But it does change some things. For example, the Library, Parks & Rec, and Human Services would all be consolidated into one agency (an umbrella Life Enrichment Agency, something we used to have only a few years ago and got rid of). The number of meetings televised by KTOP will be reduced to only City Council, Port Commission, and Planning Commission. Public Ethics and Equal Access offices are reduced. It also, like all the scenarios, relies on the sale of the Kaiser Convention Center to keep us afloat and reduces elected offices (including City Auditor and City Attorney) by 15%. None of the budgets address the PFRS problem.

Before the briefing started, the Mayor was talking about how they had been up all night working to get it done, and how she went home at 5 AM and this whole story about this harried process, and all I could think was that while I’m glad to hear they worked hard on the budget, maybe it wouldn’t have taken so long if they had made only one in the first place.

League of Women Voters talk redevelopment

Redevelopment! It’s a huge issue in California, and it’s a huge issue in Oakland. Despite the tremendous amount of money spent Statewide on redevelopment every year, few people seem to know that much about it.

How does redevelopment work? What would it mean if it were eliminated? How successful has redevelopment been in California?

You can get answers to these questions and more tonight at the League of Women Voters Oakland monthly Hot Topics meeting, which will focus this month on Redevelopment:

Understanding Redevelopment

Governor Brown’s proposal to eliminate redevelopment districts has made many of us examine how much we really know about redevelopment. How does it work in Oakland and other communities? Why does the does the governor think the districts should be phased out? Why do some mayors, including Mayor Quan, disagree?

Monday, April 25
6:30 – 8:00 p.m.
TransForm Conference Room
436 14th Street, Suite 600

For those of you who haven’t come to a Hot Topics meeting before because you didn’t want to drag yourself all the way out to Redwood Heights, you’re in luck! The fabulous folks at Transform have generously allowed to League to use their conference room for Hot Topics meetings, located in the heart of downtown Oakland. The offices are right by 14th and Broadway (in the same building Rite-Aid is in — walk down 14th past Rite-Aid to go into the building), on top of a BART station and many major bus lines.

I will be there tonight, and I hope to see some of you in attendance as well. It should be an educational and exciting discussion.

The meeting will be help tonight, Monday, April 25th from 6:30 to 8 PM in the TransForm Conference Room in downtown Oakland at 436 14th Street, Suite 600.

And if you want to be extra prepared for the discussion, below are some resources explaining the issues surrounding redevelopment agencies you may want to read.

Oakland Zoo expansion: The environmental impacts of environmental education

This post was originally about an item that was scheduled to come before the Planning Commission tomorrow, April 20th. I was just about to publish it when I was told that the meeting has been canceled due to lack of quorum. I have tried to go through and remove all references to April 20th and “tomorrow,” but it is possible I have missed some. The item will come back to the Planning Commission at some future date. When that happens, I will probably write about it again.

Yesterday, I wrote about how excited I was for the Oakland Zoo’s upcoming expansion and California project. For details on the project itself, go read that post or visit the Zoo’s website about the project.

The short version is that the Zoo wants to build an expansion in Knowland Park that would showcase native California animals. The expansion was approved by the City Council in 1998, but the Zoo has made some alterations to the approved plans (reconfiguring the animal exhibits and replacing a planned shuttle bus with an aerial gondola), and they have to come back to the City to get the revised plans approved.

The plans received the unanimous support of Oakland’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission at their March 2011 meeting (PDF). Tomorrow At an upcoming meeting, the Planning Commission will be voting on whether to approve the Zoo’s amended plan and adopt something called a Mitigated Negative Declaration for the expansion.

The vote

The second part sounds boring, but it will be important later, so let’s take a second to understand what exactly it means.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires that before anything gets built basically ever, you have to evaluate how it will impact the environment. Under CEQA, “environment” is used in a fairly broad sense, and can encompass everything from air quality and hydrology to traffic congestion.

The first step in the CEQA process is called an Initial Study. In an Initial Study, you describe the proposed project and the surrounding environment, then you go through a checklist of different ways the project could possibly impact the environment. Once it is complete, one of three things will happen.

First, if the project is anticipated to have potentially significant impacts that require further study, an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) will be prepared. An EIR takes a long time to complete and costs a great deal of money. Impacts are considered “significant” when and if they reach certain predetermined thresholds (PDF) — creating winds in excess of 36mph or resulting in a certain amount of greenhouse gas emissions, for example.

Second, if the Initial Study determines that the project can’t possibly have impacts on the environment that would rise to the level of being considered significant, a negative declaration is issued, which basically just says “This project is fine, there’s no need for an EIR.”

The third option is something called a mitigated negative declaration. What this says is essentially “This project could have significant impacts on the environment, but we already know what they are and don’t need more study to figure them out, and we have determined that all these impacts can be mitigated if the project applicant does x, y, and z.”

In 1998, the Zoo received a Mitigated Negative Declaration (PDF) for their expansion plans. For the amendments to the plan, an update to the environmental review has been completed, resulting in what’s called a Subsequent Mitigated Negative Declaration/Addendum (try saying that one five times fast!). It’s like 1300 pages long, but if you’ve got some time to spare and feel like reading it, here you go: Volume 1 (PDF) and Volume 2 (PDF).

“A classic NIMBYs issue”

At tomorrow’s meetingWhen this item comes up, the Planning Commission will be hearing about the zoo expansion for the third time within the past year (video of the informational update last April is available here, and last month’s discussion is online here).

So what this comes down to basically is that a group of people who live near the zoo don’t want anything built near them, and see these amendments to the original plan as another opportunity to stop the project.

A significant amount of public comment opposing the zoo expansion was submitted prior to last year’s meeting, almost all of it along the lines of this (PDF):

I urge you to stand with the citizens, the people, and not the business interests who have once again found a way to supplant the interests and will of the people in what is allegedly their government. I urge you to stand for the environment and wildlife, stand for peace and the true spirit of representative democracy. I urge you to work to decrease pollution that will be brought on by and expansion of the zoo and to respect the neighbors of Knowland Park who are being marginalized by the city.

We oppose the Zoo’s environmentally destructive plan to ignore the people and expand into the heart of beautiful Knowland Park. This is a land grab that fences off and destroys the most beautiful part of the park and reduces accessible habitat for existing wildlife. The expansion should be smaller and closer to the existing Zoo.

And (PDF):

Today I hiked through Knowland Park for the first time. I’m appalled to learn that the Oakland Zoo plans to expand into the open space of the park.

Please leave the zoo as is. Please leave the rest of Knowland Park as is. Once open space is developed, there’s no chance it will revert to open space at any time in the future.

And, of course, my favorite (PDF):

Dear zoo opportunists,

My first scary thought on reading this was: The Oakland Zoo is taking new ground, literally. Unfortunately, I fear that you may accomplish just that, and that you may never cease taking new ground.

I decided to test your real intentions with the help of simple questions: are your intentions altruistic or not. My answer is they are not. Altruistic intentions and actions are usually modest in their manifestations and strong in results. The selection of your words is typical for propaganda cases, in short — brainwashing. For example, you tout an energy-efficient gondola in your plan to prove that you know how to conserve the energy, but if you were really so intent on Conservation and saving energy, you would not expand at all. I do not believe that through your actions the Oakland Zoo and Oakland will become a center of the universe as you are presenting it. And for Goodness sake, it should not be that way.

Public comment at the meeting went much the same way — leave Knowland Park the way it is, the Zoo shouldn’t expand at all, the expansion will be a disaster like the Coliseum, we don’t want to live near grizzly bears, people will get stuck on the gondola if there’s an earthquake, and so on.

When asked by Commissioner Vince Gibbs to articulate their specific objections, the representative of Friends of Knowland Park failed rather spectacularly, and started muttering about the size of the gift shop.

The meeting ended with the Planning Commission reminding the expansion opponents that it has already been decided that the Zoo is allowed to expand, and the only thing in question here is the changes to the original plan.

Plus, Commissioner C. Blake Hunstman called them NIMBYs. Ha!

Basically, the message was “Opposing the expansion because you don’t want any development in Knowland Park is not going to get you anywhere — come up with something better.”

And now they have. They have come up with the best anti-development response there is: the project can’t proceed without an EIR.

CEQA: A NIMBY’s best friend

So. This is just kind of the way these things go.

When you’re against a project or whatever, the first time it comes up, you kind of throw out everything you can think of. There are a million reasons why this or that is terrible, and then you get to see which ones have traction.

As time goes by, and a final vote gets closer, you hone your arguments, and you have to think of a good, specific reason for people to say no, especially when you have been unable to sway general popular opinion against the project.

Conveniently, California law provides anyone and everyone with a handy argument against any development: the aforementioned California Environmental Quality Act.

Preparing an EIR costs a tremendous amount of money and takes a tremendous amount of time. Forcing an applicant to complete one could in some cases render a project infeasible, thereby killing it. At worst, it stalls things for a while, and gives you another bite at the apple later.

So if you don’t want something to be approved, your best argument is usually to say that it requires an EIR. If you say that and then it gets approved anyway, you can sue to say that it requires an EIR. And if you don’t actually have the money to sue, you can still threaten to when it comes to a vote. They don’t know, right?

And CEQA is the gift that keeps on giving. If you get an EIR, when it’s completed, you can argue that it is inadequate. If the project gets approved anyway, you sue that it’s inadequate.

I swear, sometimes I think the only people who read EIRs are the people who want to find a way to use it to stop a project. If you’re really committed, you will read every line of that sucker looking for anything that can help your case.

Like I said before, this is just how things work. There’s nothing wrong with it. I mean, it’s annoying, but it’s what everyone does. I’ve done it. Sometimes the complaints are legitimate, sometimes they’re stupid. Regardless of the actual merits, I’d guess that the people who make CEQA threats actually honestly believe they have a case about 50% of the time.

An EIR for the Zoo

So in keeping with this kind of standard process, opponents of the zoo expansion have settled on a CEQA argument. The rambling, angry public comment of before has now been replaced with a more polite objection:

The Oakland Zoo has long served as a wonderful local conservation site. Unfortunately, the planned California Project will undermine what has made the zoo great–its commitment to protecting nature and wildlife.

Fencing off more than 60 acres of land will rob the region of a natural oasis that’s been called “Oakland’s Crown Jewel.” But more than that, it will keep native animals out of one of the few areas they have left to roam in urban Oakland. This could hinder their migration patterns and, eventually, their very survival.

This petition is not demanding that the project be cast side, but simply that it be reconsidered following an Environmental Impact Report–a standard review required by the California Environmental Quality Act. A project of this scope should not move forward until it is clear that it is being done in the most responsible way possible–and as of now, that is not the case.

The City received an impressive 96 copies of this exact letter (PDF), thanks to change.org. It is touching to see how far the love of Knowland Park’s beauty spreads — letters were received from such distant locales as Sweden and New Zealand (total breakdown for this particular letter: 8 from Oakland, 13 from elsewhere in California, 57 from out of state, and 18 from other countries).

Friends of Knowland Park now argue that due to the tremendous scope of the project changes compared to what was approved in 1998, a full EIR (or, as one of the speakers put it, a “full IRA”) must be completed.

Again, I covered the scope of the proposed changes to the project yesterday, but for those who want a reminder:

Oakland Zoo expansion plans, 1998 and 2010

As always, some of the specific CEQA arguments are more persuasive than others. They break down basically like this:

  • Too many changes to the project: Friends of Knowland Park say (PDF) that the project has changed so dramatically since 1998, that an EIR is required for approval. This argument is unpersuasive at best. CEQA does not require an EIR because the specifics of a project change, it requires an EIR when the changes to the project would create significant new impacts that the old project would not have. A reduction in the amount space being fenced off and a road being replaced with a more environmentally-friendly alternative clearly don’t meet that threshold.

  • Loss of open space: Some, including the Sierra Club (PDF), object generally to the fencing off of open space. However (see here (PDF) and here (PDF), the Zoo’s plans are in conformance with the City’s General Plan, including the Open Space, Conservation, and Recreation element. Additionally, they are certainly no more impactful in this area than they were in 1998, an approval that is still valid, so I don’t see much of an argument there.

  • Alameda Whipsnake: Others object to the proposal on the grounds that it would imperil the threatened Alameda whipsnake, which has been found on the site (PDF). After two years of trapping, the study concluded:

    Based on current findings, it is unclear whether the project area of Knowland Park does or could support a viable long term population. The project area includes large areas of physically suitable core type habitat, but two years of trapping only resulted in a single capture of an adult male. When high quality core habitat is present and Alameda whipsnakes are detected they are usually relatively abundant and the dominant snake species.

    The original amendment plans were amended again to remove a planned amphitheater, in order to minimize potential impact on suitable habitat for whipsnakes.

  • Bristly Leptosiphon: The East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society objects to the expansion on the grounds (PDF) that it would native plants in Knowland Park would be threatened. Specifically, they are concerned for the wildflower Bristly Leptosiphon, a species which is not on Federal or State protected lists, but which the California Native Plant Society considered a priority. They argue that the Zoo’s wolves would eat or dig up all the flowers. Staff argues that (PDF) although the plant does exist in Knowland Park, it has no protection under CEQA and therefore does not merit an EIR. Additionally, they point to the Zoo’s Habitat Enhancement Plan, which they will be providing annual updates on to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, as sufficient mitigation to any potential impact. That’s one response. For my part, I think I prefer the take of this young man, a zoo employee, offered at last month’s Planning Commission meeting.

  • Views: Of course, right? You know what, the views up there are beautiful. They really are. But hey, I bet I’d like the view from up there better if I didn’t have to look at all their houses.

    Knowland Park view

    Additionally, staff observes (PDF) that the impacts the proposed project would have on views do not meet the City’s thresholds for significance under CEQA.

The arguments for an EIR all just seem flimsy to me. I strongly agree that it’s important to care for existing species and habitat, but as far as I can tell, the Zoo’s efforts to be good stewards in that regard are more than sufficient. The area will benefit from the removal of invasive species and replanting with native ones. One woman who spoke at last month’s meeting called the environmental review that had been completed “cursory,” but after reviewing 1300 pages of documents, such a suggestion seems preposterous.

The Zoo expansion & Conservation

In the end, it seems to come down to one issue — the people opposing the zoo expansion simply don’t want it there at all because they want the park to remain open. Regardless of that argument’s merits, the issue is moot. It was decided in 1998 that the Zoo has the right to expand in this area, and should the amendments be rejected by the City, the Zoo will still be allowed to proceed with the expansion as originally planned.

Even if this were not the case, I find the argument unpersuasive. The vast majority of Knowland Park will remain public open space under the plans. And the presence of the Zoo’s California exhibit will bring far more people to this beautiful place than would ever see it if it were to just remain as is. We should be jumping at the chance to show more people this amazing thing Oakland has to offer! What an incredible opportunity!

Finally, I fervently believe that an important element of environmental stewardship is education and exposure to children in urban environments. I spend probably a total of around four weeks a year in the mountains in Colorado. I consider myself very lucky to have this opportunity. It is incredible to be in such an visually arresting place. Exposure to that kind of environment, whether it is being surrounded by the majestic beauty of the Rocky Mountains, or walking through the State and National forests there, engenders a love and appreciation of nature that you can’t get through pictures or videos or books. One of the reasons I love living in Oakland so much is that I can have an urban lifestyle and still have easy access to natural beauty, through the wonders of the East Bay Regional Park system and other local and regional parks. That’s something that’s really important to me.

But (and I’ve written about this before) I worry that even with all the resources available, many children growing up in the East Bay are not exposed to nature. So I think it is fabulous, and tremendously important, that the Zoo will be bringing more people to Knowland Park. Education is one of the most essential elements of environmental stewardship. This exhibit, which will bring more people to Knowland Park specifically so they can learn about what was once there, and what’s been lost, is an extraordinary opportunity to expose generations of East Bay youth to the natural world and educate them on the impacts, bad and good, that humans have and can have on it. We would be crazy to pass that up.

Help support survivor services for Oakland’s sexually exploited minors

I don’t think I need to tell you guys that Oakland has a tremendous problem with child sex trafficking. If you read the news regularly, you are already well aware of this depressing and disgusting fact.

The City has attempted to battle this problem for years, but it persists. I’m mentioning this today because this week is Commercially Sexually Exploited Child (CSEC) Awareness Week, and I wanted to call attention to some local events in Oakland that are being organized by a local organization called MISSSEY.

MISSSEY logo

MISSSEY works to raise awareness about sexually exploited minors and to provide support for victims. You can read some of the heartbreaking stories about the kids they work with, and more about their mission on their website.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, April 20th from 11am to 3pm, MISSSEY will be holding a CSEC Awareness March and Rally. Walking through some of the neighborhoods most impacted by child sex trafficking, they hope to raise awareness of the problem. It starts at 11am at Abundant Life Ministries Church and 24th and International, and will end with a rally at San Antonio Park.

Then, on Thursday, April 21st, they will be hosting a fundraiser at Z Cafe (2735 Broadway).

Unlike many fundraisers, this one does not cost any money to go to! They will be selling raffle tickets for gift certificates to local restaurants ($5 each) and for an Ipad ($10 each). Additionally, there will be a silent auction of art work created by the children MISSSEY works with.

Here’s the details:

This is an event not to be missed!! April 21, 2011, MISSSEY is hosting a FREE CSEC awareness event and fundraiser at Z’s Cafe in Oakland from 5:00 to 11:00 pm that will include the following AMAZING events:

Book Reading and Signing By GEMS Founder Rachel Lloyd:

From 8:00 to 8:45
GEMS founder and executive director Rachel Lloyd will be doing a reading and book signing of her new book “Girls Like Us,” a first-hand account of the abuse and suffering of commercial sexual exploitation, her recovery, and remarkable transformation. Don’t miss this opportunity to listen to one of the strongest, most passionate voices in the movement to empower and protect commercially sexually exploited youth today!

I-pad and Restaurant Gift Certificate Raffle:
All night long MISSSEY will be holding a raffle that will give participants the opportunity to win a FREE I-pad (valued at $499) or Gift Certificate from a local restaurant (valued between $25 – $100)! Support CSEC and your local community and get rewarded with one of these prizes! If you are unable to attend, you’re still eligible to participate! Just contact Brandy Harris at brandy@misssey.org
to order tickets today! Tickets for the restaurant gift certificate raffle are $5, tickets for the I-pad raffle are $10.

Art Viewing and Auctions of Original Artwork by Survivors:
Here’s your chance to view and buy the original artwork of survivors! MISSSEY has recently partnered with local artists to offer art days to our clients on an on-going basis. The fruit of this effort are the amazing pieces of art that will be available at this event! The proceeds of any purchase will be split 50/50 between the artists/survivors and MISSSEY. This is a great way to support CSEC directly, contribute to MISSSEY and enjoy creative expression! Art viewing and auctioning will be taking place all night long.

Awareness Raising Movie Screening:
These film clips have been hand-picked by MISSSEY’s executive director for their relevance to the CSEC empowerment movement and their usefulness as educational and awareness raising tools. Join us for the screening from 6:00 to 7:30!

It’s a great opportunity to support an organization doing wonderful work here in Oakland, and to learn more about an important issue. If you can’t make it, but would like to support the work MISSSEY does, you can always donate online or volunteer with them.

Oakland Zoo’s California exhibit

This Wednesday, April 20th, the Oakland Planning Commission will be considering approval of an amendment to the Oakland Zoo’s 1998 Master Plan. It sounds kind of dull, but actually it is quite controversial. I wrote a piece about it last year, when the Planning Commission heard an informational report about the zoo’s plans. More recently, the plans have been covered in the San Francisco Business Times, the East Bay Express, and Bay Nature.

The vote and the controversy involve a major expansion of the Zoo’s operations and the creation of a new, California-themed exhibit. Today I am going to go over exactly what the Zoo is planning, and how it is different from what was approved in 1998. Tomorrow, I’ll cover the debate up to this point, and talk more about the issues at stake at the Planning Commission hearing. So if you hate the zoo or are really concerned about the Alameda whipsnake or the Bristly Leptosiphon, you’re welcome to leave comments about it today, but just know that I’m not ignoring those issues, I just wanted to split up the coverage for space reasons.

The Oakland Zoo

The Oakland Zoo, for those who haven’t been (go soon! it’s awesome!), sits in the bottom of Knowland Park in East Oakland just off of 580. The red marker on the map below shows exactly where:

Oakland Map with Zoo

If you’re car-free, you can take AC Transit’s line 46 bus there from the Coliseum BART station. It only runs once an hour and only on weekdays, but it is a pleasant ride and you get to go past the new 81st Avenue Branch Library!

As far as zoos go, Oakland’s is fairly small, but I’ve always liked it a lot. They have three exhibit areas — the tropical rainforest (featuring gibbons, chimpanzees, tamarins, and macaws), the African Savannah (featuring giraffes, gazelles, elands, vultures, and lions), and the Children’s Zoo (alligator, tortoise, fruit bats, lemurs, otters). There was talk about them getting pandas for a while, but the pandas never materialized and now the spot where the pandas were going to go has become a new baboon habitat.

Baboons at the Oakland Zoo

1998 Zoo Master Plan

In 1998, the City Council approved a Master Plan for the zoo (PDF). The Master Plan included improvements to the existing zoo (facility renovations, children’s zoo, and an environmental education center), as well as an expansion project to create a new exhibit called California 1820.

The plans for the new exhibit involved fencing off a 62 acre portion of Knowland Park above where the zoo currently sits. Three exhibits would have been built within the enclosure — a “woodland” exhibit with grizzly bears, a “canyon” exhibit, and a “river exhibit.” A road would be built around the exhibits featuring some sort of shuttle bus or tram that visitors would ride to travel between them, getting off at each exhibit they wanted to look at, then getting on again to go to the next one.

It looked like this:

Approved 1998 Oakland Zoo expansion plan

The expansion was controversial at the time — after all, Knowland Park is very beautiful and as you can imagine, many people living nearby like it the way it is, and do not want any of the space being taken over by the zoo. The 1997 Planning Commission approval of the plan was appealed to the Oakland City Council by neighbors, and the zoo entered into mediation with the neighbors, eventually reaching an agreement about conditions and mitigations the Zoo would have to comply with in order to build the new exhibit. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the two parties and incorporated into the City Council’s approval of the plans.

Amending the Master Plan

Since 1998, the Zoo has completed the improvements to their existing facilities outlined in the Master Plan. They are now ready to move on to the expansion phase, but they want to make some changes to the project that had been approved. The changes include:

  • Replacing the shuttle bus and road that went around the exhibit with an aerial gondola that would drop people off at the top of the hill
  • Reconfiguring the layout of the animals within the exhibit
  • Building a new Veterinary Hospital to replace their existing one (by the parking lot)

The revised plan looks like this:

Oakland Zoo 2010 proposed expansion plan

And here are the old plan and the new plan side by side.

Oakland Zoo expansion plans, 1998 and 2010

And here is a presentation by Oakland Zoo Executive Director Joel Parrott explaining the amendments to the plan to the Oakland Planning Commission a year ago.

California!

So what about this exhibit? I will start right out by saying that I think it sounds really cool.

The idea behind the California project is to showcase our State’s native species — black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions, wolves, jaguars, eagles, and condors.

Oakland Zoo California Exhibit Map

Before last year’s Planning Commission discussion on the zoo, I hadn’t really thought much about the California exhibit. I mean, sure, native animals, it sounded fine. But when I watched the meeting, I was very moved by the way Dr. Parrott described the exhibit. This starts at around minute 6 of the above video, but for those who don’t want to watch, here is the part of his presentation that so affected me:

As you go through this, the animals are not just what are native, but they are also representative of what animals have been taken to the brink of extinction and in many cases out of the state itself, but because of the impact of humans, brought back from it. So where the California Condor went down to 16 birds, people made a difference and it’s back to 300. The wolf went to the endangered species list, it is now being delisted. The grizzly bear was recovered in Yellowstone, simply because people made a difference. The bald eagle was endangered. Those are the examples for what people can do as an inspiration, as educational purpose to make a difference in wildlife, especially the wildlife that are so near and dear to us, which is the California collection.

So. I spend a great deal of time trying to show people how they can help influence decisions made at the local level, and encouraging people to become involved and engaged with the City. Activism is frustrating, and progress often happens slowly, if at all. This is true in local politics and even more true when it comes to bigger issues like conservation and environmental protections. So it is easy for people to get discouraged and start thinking that their involvement doesn’t matter.

So I have an almost instinctual affection for anything that reminds people of how their actions, however small, can make a difference in the world around them. In keeping with this, I find the concept of the California exhibit very inspiring. What a wonderful way to expose children to an important part of our State’s history, and potentially spark a love of nature, conservation, and activism in kids growing up in urban environments!

The details

So right now the zoo sits on 42 acres in lower Knowland Park. The California project expansion would fence off a 56 acre area immediately above the existing zoo (a slightly smaller area than had been approved previously).

Oakland Zoo in Knowland Park

Thirty-six acres of that would be devoted to an ecological recovery zone. There would be no exhibits in this space, but the Zoo would remove the invasive non-native plants (such as French Broom, the bushy darker green plants in the photo below) and replant the area with native species.

French Broom

The remaining 20 acres of the space would be for the exhibit proper, which sits higher up on the hill. Instead of the previously planned shuttle bus stopping at each exhibit, visitors would take a gondola up from the existing zoo and get off up here. The gondola building would also house an interpretive center.

Oakland Zoo gondola exit

Across the way from the interpretive center, you’d see the grizzly bear exhibit. From there, visitors would simply walk around the paths to see all the exhibits (which seems so much nicer and better for everyone than the previously planned bus, IMO).

Oakland Zoo expansion model

Outside the fence, walking paths would provide access for the public to key viewing points in Knowland Park. Like this one.

Knowland Park

Veterinary Hospital

The other major change to the 1998 plan is that the zoo wants to build a new veterinary hospital. It would be located at the back of the existing zoo, behind the parking lot.

Vet Hospital site

The expanded facility will allow the zoo to better care for their animals, and serve as a center for research and recovery work with endangered species such as the California Condor.

What’s not to like?

So like I said above, I think the zoo’s expansion plans are pretty freaking cool. Not everyone feels that way, though. The staff report (PDF) for Wednesday’s Planning Commission discussion will give you a sense of the objections, or you can just check back here tomorrow to read about them.

Happy Birthday, Future Oakland!

Since I just wrote a nostalgic reflections on blogging post a couple weeks ago, I don’t really have much new to say on the subject. But I couldn’t let the day pass without noting that today marks the five year anniversary of the Oakland blog Future Oakland, which dto510 and I started during the 2006 Mayoral election campaign.

Future Oakland logo

Five years later, both of us are still at it. dto510 took a little hiatus last year in order to work on Rebecca Kaplan’s Mayoral campaign, but is now back. (If you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to check out his new post about how well new Mayor Jean Quan is delivering for Oakland.)

He is also, along with me and Becks, one of the bloggers beyond honored by the League of Women Voters Oakland with the Making Democracy Work award at their annual luncheon on Wednesday, April 27th. If you haven’t bought your tickets yet, there’s still time to do so, but not much. So hurry!.

And please, head over to Future Oakland and congratulate dto510 on five years!

A better Snow Park

Last night, I attended a community meeting about improvements to Snow Park, 20th Street, Lakeside Drive, and Harrison Street.

Where is Snow Park?

If you spend a lot of time around downtown, you’re probably familiar with Snow Park. If not, here’s the area we’re talking about.

Snow Park area map

It starts on 20th street, between Harrison and Lakeside Drive. Across 20th Street is the Kaiser Center, and across Lakeside is Lake Merritt. If you walk in this area much, you are well aware of what a tremendous pain this intersection is for pedestrians.

The Lake Merritt Master Plan envisioned a redesign of this intersection that would allow for a more natural pedestrian connection to the Lake from downtown and an expansion of Snow Park.

Snow Park Lake Merritt Master Plan

The Snow Park/20th/Harrison project was included in 2002′s Measure DD project list. The image below shows more clearly the planned change to the street alignment.

20th Street Plan Measure DD

Basically, that chunk of 20th Street between Harrison (on one side of Snow Park) and Lakeside (on the other side of Snow Park) would be removed, and the extra space from where the street used to be as well as the pointless triangle of land on the other side would become part of Snow Park. Lakeside Drive would be narrowed and moved a little farther away from the Lake in order to create more park area along Lake Merritt.

Design Concepts

I wasn’t sure what to expect from last night’s meeting. The flyer I had seen advertising the meeting did a poor job of previewing the planned changes. I went in with a vague sense that I disliked the plan already, although not for any good reason.

It turned out to be pretty cool.

Right now, the project is in the community input stage. So if you want to provide feedback, now is the time to do it. Some elements of the plan are not negotiable (bike lanes, the closure of 20th Street). But others aspects may still change, such as the amenities included in the refurbished Snow Park.

Snow Park Design Concepts

As it stands now, the plan is to retain the Snow Park putting green along Harrison Street, add some walking paths, and put in a tot lot. I am super in favor of walking paths! It is impossible to cut through Snow Park right now if you’re wearing heels. They just sink right into the mud. The concept also includes playground equipment for the tot lot themed like animals, a nod to the park’s history. It was the original home of the Oakland Zoo, founded in 1922 by naturalist Henry A. Snow. I thought that was a cute idea.

Where 20th Street sits now, the design concept places a wide tree-lined promenade to guide pedestrians from downtown to the Lake.

20th Street Promenade

On the other side of Lakeside Drive, the plan is to take the new park space and terrace it with seating and planting areas. I think that was probably my favorite aspect of the plan. Lake Merritt is just so pretty, and such a nice place to take a lunch or grab a cup of coffee and sit and read, but there is a terrible shortage of benches on that part of the Lake, and they are always full!

The numbers

Altogether, the removal of that strip of 20th Street and expansion of Snow Park would create a 70,000 square foot increase in contiguous open space in the area. 60 new trees would be planted, and 10 existing trees would be removed. There would also be a minor loss of parking. The project is expected to start construction sometime around the end of 2012 or beginning of 2013, and take somewhere between eight months to one year to complete.

The response

The meeting last night wasn’t particularly well attended, but did generate some interesting suggestions. Attendees were given little dots to place on boards parking the aspects of the proposal they were most excited about. The tree-lined promenade seemed particularly popular on the dot boards. I was a little disappointed with the lack of enthusiasm for the putting green.

Snow Park meeting dot boards

During the Q&A period, a couple of other suggestions for use of the space came up. One person suggested a volleyball or basketball court, someone else asked about a community garden, and a couple expressed a desire to be able to take their dogs to the park, even if it was on-leash. A friend I was talking to after the meeting said that he thought the tot lot had no place in the park, and that programmed space should be reserved for adults, since that’s most of the people in the area. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

There was a fairly lengthy discussion about the placement of the jogging path along the Lake (should it be on the inside or the outside of the walking path), and what the ideal material for the jogging path would be. I kind of tuned out of that part, because I really have no idea about the difference in all these types of materials.

New, pretty things are all well and good, but of course then you’re left with the task of keeping them pretty, which Measure DD does not pay for. I live three blocks from Snow Park, and walk past it most days on my way to work, and the state of it right now is deplorable. It is just nasty and overgrown and like this giant mud pit. It would be a shame to put all this money into making it nice only to have it fall apart again right away due to continuing cuts to park maintenance staff.

So I asked if the City had a plan for park maintenance. It turns out that they don’t have much of one, but assured the audience that they would figure it out. I did not find that particularly comforting. Volunteers were referenced, as well as the CBD. If the CBD were able to take care of park maintenance there, I think that would be awesome. But my understanding was that the City has been unwilling to let them do so because of union issues. Last I heard, that issue had not been resolved, but of course hope springs eternal.

Learn more and give your feedback

If you want to learn more about this project, want to ask questions, or have strong opinions about what should be included, but weren’t able to make it last night, you’re in luck! The plan will be presented to Oakland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee at their meeting next Thursday, April 21st. BPAC meetings are held in City Hall Hearing Room 4 from 5:30 to 7:00 pm.

Those who can’t make it to BPAC are encouraged to send their comments to Ali Schwarz of the Public Works Agency at aschwarz@oaklandnet.com.

To help guide your input, here are the questions that were provided on the feedback form:

  • Which improvements do you want to see along Lake Merritt in this project area? Answer choices: seating, lighting, public art, separate jogging trail, landscaping, other
  • Where do you prefer to locate the separate jogging trail around Lake Merritt? Answer choices: lakeside, roadside
  • What material do you prefer to jog on? Answer choices: decomposed granite, mulch, concrete, asphalt, dirt
  • What types of improvements do you want to see along Lakeside Drive? Answer choices: bike lanes, stormwater treatment, pedestrian safety/crossings, other
  • What improvements to Snow Park would you like to see? Answer choices: children’s playground, walking path, putting green, restroom facilities
  • Rank the design elements presented in order of priority: Snow Park Playground; Snow Park Putting Green; Snow Park Walkways; Snow Park Restroom upgrades; Lake Merritt Separate Jogging Trail; Lake Merritt Landscape Improvements; Benches, Lighting, Furniture

Andy Katz: Expand Lifeline Water Rates for Low-Income Families

This guest post was written by East Bay MUD Director Andy Katz. Director Katz represents EBMUD’s Ward No. 4 which is comprised of the cities of Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, El Cerrito and Kensington, as well as a portion of Oakland.

Perhaps you’ve read about the painful cuts that will be hitting California’s low-income families hard in the next fiscal year. These are tough economic times, and our social safety net provided by state government is falling through. But we can make a small, but important difference in the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), which serves Oakland and most of the East Bay.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) Board of Directors will decide on key budget matters at its meeting on April 12. One proposal includes closing critical gaps in the Customer Assistance Program (CAP). The CAP provides a 50% discount off the water bill for basic water use to households earning up to 165% of the federal poverty level: Households earning less than $24,000 for a household of 1-2, or $34,000 for a household of 4 are eligible.

This threshold is lower than California’s electricity rate relief program, CARE, which covers households earning up to 214% of the federal poverty line, about 60% of the median income. The Customer Assistance Program also does not cover EBMUD’s wastewater bill, which can be up to a third of charges that customers face.

Closing both of these gaps would only cost EBMUD an additional $450,000, a very small cost out of an annual operating budget of $450 million. Yet this would make a big difference for families earning a low income but are just out of range of our program – about 1% of a family’s annual income.

Please click here to write a personal message to the EBMUD Board of Directors urging the Board to close important gaps in the Customer Assistance Program to protect low-income households.

Andy Katz
Director, East Bay Municipal Utility District
Representing north Oakland, Albany, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Emeryville, and Kensington

League of Women Voters celebrates Oakland bloggers!

Okay, first. In response to a flood a requests from readers, I have preserved last Friday’s April Fools blog for you pleasure. If you missed it that day, lucky you, you get a second chance. Thanks to everyone for the kind words about it, and if it made you laugh, throw some of those compliments over dto510′s way, because he put just as much energy into it as I did. Here’s the link.

Now onto business. I have to admit that I am kind of amazed to realize that in a couple of weeks, I will celebrate my five year anniversary of blogging. Five years is a long time! My energy for the blog has waxed and waned over that time, sometimes resulting in a somewhat manic frequency of posts, and other times going through long lulls where I just can’t muster the energy to write at all. I remain optimistic that some day I will reach a sustainable equilibrium, but who knows.

I get asked at least once a week why I started blogging, and the truth is that I don’t really have a good answer. I have about half a dozen answers that I give people depending on the context. At speaking engagements I talk about how I had started volunteering in a local election and was frustrated because I did not see myself or my concerns represented in the media narrative of the race. In more casual situations, I sometimes just shrug my shoulders and offer that I was drunk and it sounded fun. Both are true.

But whatever I was thinking when I wrote my first blog, it certainly was not that my blog and my interested in local politics would evolve into something as consuming as it has today. I never dreamed that thousands of people would visit regularly to see what I had to say. I never imagined that my blog would lead to so many wonderful friendships. And I certainly never dreamed that my little blog would end up becoming a platform for such wonderfully robust debates about civic issues as it has today.

Another thing people often ask me is what the goal of my blog is. That’s another one I haven’t always had a great answer for. What I have wanted to get out of doing this has changed a number of times over the years. When I started, I think it was mostly about trying to get people to see things my way. And while I still want to persuade readers that my perspective on the various issues I cover is the correct one, the degree to which I care about that has waned a great deal over time.

Lately, what I’ve sort of settled on is that I really want A Better Oakland to served as a springboard for civic engagement. I want this to be a place where people can come to learn about what’s going on in the city, get enough background information to be capable of participating in real discussions about complex issues, and eventually find something that interests them enough to go out and try to make a difference on that issue — whether that is just writing to their Councilmember for the first time, or speaking at a meeting, or volunteering for a local organization devoted to a subject they’re passionate about, getting involved in a local election campaign, joining a Board or Commission — whatever. Every small step someone takes towards participating actively in our government is an important one.

How well or poorly I think I am doing with that goal varies by the day. Sometimes I feel like it’s going nowhere. Other times, when I see one of my readers speaking at a meeting, or when I get CCed on messages to the Planning Commission or Council, or just when I read the long and thoughtful discussions that take place in the comments here, I feel really proud and gratified for being able to play even a small role in helping someone become more involved in the City.

LWV Making Democracy Work Awards

And so I was deeply flattered when I learned a couple of months ago that I would be one of the recipients of this year’s League of Women Voters Oakland “Making Democracy Work” awards. Every year, the League presents the awards to individuals and organizations who have made outstanding contributions to citizen engagement, government transparency, and civic life in Oakland.

This year’s organization award is going to the Bay Area Business RoundTable, and this year’s award for individuals is going to a group of Oakland bloggers for our contributions to creating a vibrant civic discourse. In addition to myself, Rebecca Saltman (or as you probably know her, “Becks”) of Living in the O, Jonathan Bair (“dto510″) of Future Oakland and The DTO, Debby Richman of Today in Montclair, Aimee Allison of OaklandSeen, and Zennie Abraham of Oakland Focus are being honored. The League has highlighted some noteworthy accomplishments of each of these individuals in their April newsletter.

It is such a tremendous honor to be recognized by the League for the work I’ve done here. That is something I definitely never imagined happening when I wrote my first blog.

LWV Annual Luncheon – Wednesday, April 27th

The Making Democracy Work awards will be given out at the League’s annual All-City Luncheon, which will be held on Wednesday, April 27th at The Pavilion at Scott’s Seafood Restaurant in Jack London Square. Registration and no-host bar begins at 11:30, and the luncheon itself lasts from noon to 1:30.

In addition to the presentation of the Making Democracy Work awards, the luncheon will also feature a talk I know that many of you will find particularly interesting. Martin Reynolds, editor of the Oakland Tribune, will be speaking about the media’s role in influencing perceptions of Oakland.

I would love so much to see a blogoaksphere contingent at the luncheon cheering on some of your favorite bloggers. After all, without you, our wonderful readers, there would be nothing noteworthy about our blogs, and I certainly would have stopped doing this a long time ago.

The luncheon is the League’s big annual fundraiser, so you can feel good buying your ticket knowing that your contribution will go to supporting important work like the local Easy Voter Guide (that thing is expensive to produce!).

So I hope to see some of you there! If you want to go, here’s how it works.

Individual tickets for the luncheon are $60 for League members and $75 for non-members. You can print out a registration form here and mail it in, or you can pay online via PayPal.

On the registration form, the League asks if you have anyone you’d like to sit with. For those who don’t know others who are attending, feel free to write “Blogoaksphere” on your form, and you will be seated with other bloggers and blog readers who did the same. If for some unimaginable reason you don’t want to meet other blog readers in real life, you may want to put down what you do for work. In that case, you can be seated with people in similar fields, and maybe make some new connections.

If you want to support the League even more enthusiastically, there is still time to become an underwriter of the luncheon. $900 gets you your own full table with ten seats to fill, and your name on the program as a Patron. $450 gets you a half table with five tickets and recognition on the program as a Donor. The form for becoming an underwriter is available here.

And as always, the League is continually recruiting members, and you can join online.

I really hope to see some of you guys there on April 27th!

Bruce Nye: Mayor Quan’s Budget Framework: May We Try This Again Please?

Bruce Nye is a board member of Make Oakland Better Now!. This guest post is presented on MOBN!’s behalf. The Oakland City Council will be holding a public workshop to discuss the budget, and Mayor Quan’s report, on Monday, April 11 at 9:00 a.m. at Joaquin Miller Community Center, 3594 Sanborn Drive, Oakland.

On January 4, the day after her inauguration, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan promised a budget by the end of March. At her weekly press conference on February 18, she told the media she was still on target, although her budget would present options, not just a budget.

Last Wednesday, Mayor Quan released her “Informational Report on the City’s Fiscal Condition and Framework For A Balancing Plan,” which contained no budget at all. Instead of a budget, the mayor gave us a history of the City’s well-known economic woes and a calculation of the effect of cutting department requests by 15%. In her report, she proposed no priorities, no specific innovations, no specific department consolidations and no new ways of funding city government functions.

Instead, Mayor Quan laid out facts that are well-known to anyone who follows city government and asked City Council members to send her a memo by April 8 outlining what their priorities are. The San Francisco Chronicle summed it up by quoting Council Member Ignacio De La Fuente: “It’s leadership afraid to make real decisions.” Make Oakland Better Now! believes that thoughtful, disciplined, collaborative and innovative thinking in can solve many intractable problems. So we were thinking: Why don’t we give Mayor Quan a do-over? Instead of largely unspecified and hypothetical across-the-board cuts and pleas for help to the City Council, why don’t we give her the chance to take a different approach, something like this:


Dear President Reid and Members of the City Council, Department Heads, Public Employees, Unions and Citizens of Oakland:

If you have been paying any attention to what is happening in Oakland, you know revenue has plummeted in recent years and expenses have skyrocketed. You also know that in trying to deal with those realities, we in City government have subjected city services to death by a thousand cuts. So I really don’t need to spend any more time telling you about those problems. My job as Mayor is to make proposals that will solve them. Since November, I have spent all of my waking hours trying to find new and innovative ways to provide essential services with less money. I appointed a transition committee consisting of some of the smartest people in Oakland, people with deep backgrounds in business, government, economics and public policy. I spent a great deal of time listening to others. The result is the very difficult proposed budget I now present to you.

From the start, it was clear to me that we could not solve our budget problems without a complete understanding of what they were. So, I asked our budget director and her staff to provide a clear analysis of the structural deficits faced by the City over the next five years. The resulting numbers were worse than anything you or I have seen before. Previous city presentations (including this one, at page 13) have never included the unfunded PFRS obligation or the need to repay some $33 million in negative fund balances (PDF) for which there is no repayment plan. If we include these, the five year general purpose fund deficit totals at least $690 million (all numbers below in millions):

Oakland Deficit

It was also clear that neither I nor anyone else had a monopoly on wisdom when it came to solving this very large problem. So in the past three months, my transition team and I have met regularly with representatives of the City Council, department heads, and union leaders to try to work collaboratively on reimagining the City’s budget. All of them were asked to contribute their innovative ideas on how to make City government more efficient, more responsive, and less expensive. And I have listened to them. Finally, I imposed an overarching guideline for the budget process. Whereas past budget deliberations have been marked by increasingly strident discussions among interest groups competing for resources (arts vs. police, parks v. public works, etc.), during my administration decisions are based on a holistic, prioritized view of the City’s needs. As Mayor, it is my primary job to set priorities for consideration and adoption by the City Council.

Not everything can be a priority. Since at least the Roman Empire, civilization has known that governmental “core services” consist of keeping citizens safe, maintaining infrastructure, and upkeep for public property. My budget reflects these few critical priorities. Here are the other steps my administration has taken in the past ninety days:

Mediating salary and benefit issues with all public employees: While nearly all of my public pronouncements about public employee benefit costs have addressed police retirement, a full contribution by our uniformed police officers will only reduce the deficit by around $6 million to $8 million. The benefits expense problem is much greater than this, and Oakland has proved itself completely unable to reach negotiated solutions to date. Therefore, I have offered to enter into a multi-party mediation process with all of the City’s unions and representatives of the retirees to find solutions that are fair, collaborative, and manageable. I have suggested several respected third-party mediators, and have agreed that, particularly as to police and fire, there should be a full airing of issues between the unions and the City. We will be presenting second-tier salary and benefit structures, changes to employee contributions to health and retirement benefits, and “anti-spiking” changes, with estimates of the budget savings to be achieved from each proposal. We realize these are very sensitive subjects for our City’s employees, and welcome their ideas about alternative measures that can achieve similar savings.

Consolidation and Reliance On The Community and Private Sector: This budget contains much consolidation, and requires public/private partnerships. We propose combining departments. We propose combining facilities. We propose an increased reliance on community support organizations for our libraries, parks, and many other parts of government.

Leveraging Technology: Technologically, Oakland is living in the twentieth century. We need to leverage “Government 2.0” and social networking technology in a way that makes City government cheaper and more responsive. I am announcing the formation of an Oakland Technology Advisory Committee, consisting of leaders in the social networking world, to recommend ways to completely re-envision the technological interface between City government and citizens. Among other things, I hope their recommendations will facilitate the implementation of CitiStat, a data collection, data use, and management method I campaigned on.

Non-Profits and Volunteers: We will not be able to provide all the services cities have traditionally provided. We will need to look to our community’s volunteers and non-profits to help us in many operations traditionally provided by City employees. Otherwise, we will not have those services at all. I will be going to the voters with an initiative to amend our City Charter’s “contracting out” prohibition so as to provide that nothing in the Charter will be deemed to prohibit the use of non-profits or volunteers.

Performance Based Budgeting: Oaklanders must know what services they are getting for their tax dollars, and that information must be presented in a quantitative, measurable manner. Accordingly, the budget I am presenting implements performance based budgeting and shows Oaklanders exactly what services they can expect from their city and the unit costs for those services.

Budgeting for Outcomes: Finally, we are starting a year-long process to implement the “Budgeting for Outcomes” model. Our goal is to have an outcomes-based budget in place in time for the 2012-2013 fiscal year.

This proposed budget is very tough, and eliminates many services we all feel strongly about. But it is the Mayor’s responsibility to propose tough decisions, and the City Council’s responsibility to make tough decisions. When, and only when, we have enacted an honest, easily understood balanced budget that prioritizes core services, we should go to the voters with a tax measure that allows the voters to decide if they want to provide more. We are all in this together, and I look forward to working with the City Council at the April 11 budget workshop and as many further workshops and meetings as are necessary to complete the difficult tasks ahead of us.

Respectfully,
Jean Quan
Mayor of Oakland

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