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:
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.
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:
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:
And here are the old plan and the new plan side by side.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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).
Outside the fence, walking paths would provide access for the public to key viewing points in Knowland Park. Like this one.
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.
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.