Public Comment

Setting the Record Straight on the Oakland Zoo Expansion Plan

by Laura Baker, East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society
Saturday January 18, 2014 - 04:24:00 PM

In last week's Oakland Tribune (1/9/14) Joel Parrott called for unity to launch the Oakland Zoo's disastrous expansion plan in Knowland Park, a plan reminiscent of many grandiose projects that appeal to a seductive illusion. Parrott lashed out at park proponents who aren't buying that destroying park land to create an illusory experience is better than holding on to the real deal. The California Trails project would fence, grade, and destroy 56 acres of prime park land in an effort to transport visitors back in time to pre-1850 California and charge them for the experience. To sell the deal, zoo execs have resorted to using secrecy and truth twisting to make some of the more problematic aspects of the project go away. 

Their decision to sink huge resources into the project is already proving costly to the public, the park, and the zoo itself. Last year the zoo spent over $1 million trying to pass a county parcel tax (Measure A1) it claimed was crucial to maintain existing zoo operations. The measure lost—in part because opponents publicized the fact (buried in the fine print) that these tax funds could be used to build the expansion. But instead of scaling back its plans, the zoo plunged blindly on. Last month the zoo's Board announced that it was taking $1.3 million from operations to put into "capital projects”, and had taken out a $10 million bridge loan. 

The City has been complicit in depriving the public of a fully informed decision on this project by never enforcing submissions of financial information required under the zoo Management Agreement. In 2011, despite the fact that the expansion would be one of the largest capital projects in a city increasingly unable to pay for basic services, and ignoring public protests, the City Council approved the project with no capital spending plan. 

Parrott falsely claims that voters approved this project. In 2002 Oakland voters passed Measure G, providing $23 million for a $40 million Wild California project on 40 acres. No location was specified, and many voters assumed the zoo would use the abundant land available within the zoo's current footprint. Today's project would cost $60 million and fence and destroy 56 acres of the richest and most sensitive lands as well as the most frequently visited portion of the park. Parrott's claim that this project would “protect and enhance Knowland Park and its plant species” would be laughable if it weren’t tragic. Once destroyed, the rare plant communities in the project area will be gone forever. And zoo execs have insisted on keeping their options open to develop even more of Knowland Park. 

The distortions continue. Documents from a Public Records Act request revealed that to obtain the $7 million State Parks grant that Parrott claims is evidence of state and public support of this project, the zoo had to tell a real whopper: that the whole project would cost just $23 million (at the same time it was telling the City that the total cost was $72 million). The reason? The application required Parrott to certify that the grant would complete full funding to build and operate the project. It was not true then, nor is it now. 

The high costs of the project were pitched as economically beneficial to the City, including construction contracts that would produce jobs and fatten the City’s taxes. But the recently completed vet hospital shows that the zoo doesn't play fair when it comes to city law. The project cost approximately $12 million (exact figures not released), but not one contract for that project was submitted as required to the City’s Contract Compliance Unit to ensure zoo compliance with City laws requiring that 50% of the contracts go to Oakland companies and small businesses and that there were no conflicts of interest (zoo Board Members include developers). 

One of Parrott's most astonishing claims is that the zoo will be an effective steward of the park. The zoo has had decades to earn that honor, but despite the fact that it gets millions of dollars in public subsidies annually, it has spent almost nothing to care for the park beyond its footprint. Instead, it has dumped manure and trash in the highlands, and spread french broom and other weeds up into the more pristine portions. French broom removal around the vet hospital is not voluntary—it is required mitigation for that project. Community members, not the zoo, have been the true stewards of the park: the California Native Plant Society and Friends of Knowland Park have spent thousands of hours in efforts to bring the park forward out of obscurity and give it proper care by wrenching out broom, taking the public on guided tours, inviting experts in natural resources to help conduct surveys, creating a trail map and website to guide visitors to the wonders of the park. Most importantly, we have advocated tirelessly for the protection of the park while behind closed doors the zoo has relentlessly pressured regulatory agencies to grant them permits by arguing for less environmental protection. 

Perhaps to deflect attention from his own false statements, Parrott says park proponents state "mistruths" and demonstrate a “blatant disregard for facts." Ironically, he ends his comments with the most outlandish “mistruth” of all—that the project "will open Knowland Park to the more than 700,000 guests who come to the zoo every year." Parrott knows full well that this city park has been open and free to the public since 1975 when it was deeded to the people of Oakland by the state under the provision that it always remain a public park. But the zoo project would fence off scenic walking trails and other popular sites and charge admission fees to areas that were formerly free to the public. 

We believe it's imperative that the City wake up and reconsider the environmental and financial disaster that will attend the launching of this project. The very secrecy surrounding its funding is fair warning that the deal is unsound. Without public scrutiny of the finances, it's likely that, if permitted, the zoo will fence and grade the site, digging itself further into a financial hole, hoping that the opposition will go away. But the future of funding for this project through completion and the accompanying increase in operational expenses leave little room for doubt that the zoo will be back asking for more money from the public, despite the fact that the heart of the park will have been destroyed.