OAKLAND -- A battle over using 54 acres of prime parkland for a multimillion dollar Oakland Zoo expansion into Knowland Park has pitted those rallying to showcase California grizzlies and native condors against environmentalists striving to protect purple needlegrass and pristine hiking views.
This isn't a new fight, but the latest version of a struggle between the East Bay Zoological Society, which runs the Oakland Zoo and maintains the 500-acre Knowland Park, and environmental watchdogs.
"We are concerned they are destroying the park," said Tom DeBoni, a Friends of Knowland Park board member who walks his dogs and hikes in the parkland several times a week. "There is going to be lots of noise and light pollution. They are taking the heart of the park, as opposed to humbly taking a piece of it."
In 1998, the zoo and residents had reached consensus on the zoo's master plan, which guides development for 20 years. Residents and environmentalists fought the zoo back then, and it took 18 months of negotiation before the city gave its stamp of approval.
"We are really sharing the park with the community at large. We had agreements in place in 1998," said zoo expansion project director Nik Dehejia. "Zoo director (Joel Parrott) and the neighbors got together and discussed how we are going to share the space."
But the zoo amended the plan so it had to go again before the Planning Commission, which approved it last week with a 3-1 vote. (There are vacancies on the commission and one person was absent.)
Now, the Friends of Knowland Park and the California Native Plant Society say they will file an appeal to the city to halt the project by Monday, the deadline to do so. The Sierra Club and the California Native Grasslands Association have also come out against the expansion plans. If an appeal is filed, it would go before the City Council this summer.
"Just because something has been approved 13 years ago doesn't mean that it will necessarily stand in the future," DeBoni said.
The zoo plan approved last week expands further east into Knowland Park and gives the zoo sweeping views of San Francisco and five bridges from a hilltop, something opponents say should be available to users of the land as open space. Environmentalists also say the plan threatens roaming foxes and coyotes as well as the Alameda whipsnake, a threatened species, and endangers rare native plans, such as the bristly leptosiphon and purple needlegrass.
The zoo plans to remove 4 acres of purple needlegrass, and replace it with 12 acres of the purple needlegrass in another location.
"That area is so open, and beautiful and tranquil, we think the best use of the park is allowing it to be open space," DeBoni said. "You can't cut and paste plant husbandry. It won't work. You can't chop down a bunch of plants and trees and remove them from one area and put them in another and have an ecosystem. You might have a garden, but not an ecosystem."
Since 1998, some of the projects in the zoo's master plan have been completed. The zoo has upgraded its front entrance and animal exhibits and built an education center. Now, the bulk of the plan is slated to begin moving forward: building the California Trail Exhibit with American bison, wolves, grizzlies and condors; constructing a 17,000-square-foot veterinary hospital and an aerial gondola; changing the eastern expansion area from 62 acres to 54 acres: building a taller interpretive/educational center; putting in a camping area; and moving the fencing.
"Our goal is to not only share the space, but also there is a real opportunity to bring the 600,0000 people who come to the zoo annually to this project," Dehejia said. "It's inspiring people of all ages, whether they are the underserved populations in Oakland, or families and seniors who come to the zoo, to learn and act and take responsibility for our native species and our native animals."
Dehejia said that the "animals that are selected (for the California Trail Exhibit) help us tell a variety of different stories, the stories could be habitat and ecological stories, conservation stories, they could be stories of how the animals relate to the land and people."
Critics say the zoo should focus on a smaller expansion closer to the existing zoo rather than destroying the heart of Oakland's largest remaining open space.
"When you go close to the zoo on a Saturday you know there is going to be a good amount of noise," said resident Gabriele Allen, a member of Friends of Knowland Park, as she stood on a parking hiking trail looking out at the expansion site. "Besides the environmental concerns, the tranquil character will undoubtedly be impacted."
Opponents also question whether the expansion adheres to the California Environmental Quality Act and they would like to see an environmental impact report on the proposed development area. An EIR was not required because the expansion does not significantly harm the environment, zoo officials said. The zoo's plan calls for development on about 18 acres with the remaining 36 areas slated for environmental enhancements.
The zoo's "habitat enhancement plan" calls for enhancing the grasslands, re-vegetation with native plants and protection of native trees, Dehejia said.
"What we are calling the habitat enhancement plan allows us to do what we want to do, which is enhance Knowland Park,'' he said.
The East Bay chapter of the California Native Plant Society has also come out against the zoo's plan, saying it doesn't make sense to destroy rare native grasslands and oak woodlands with wildlife species such as grizzly bears that are extinct in California.
"We're opposed to the current plan because it will damage irreplaceable natural resources at the project site,'' said Mack Casterman, a conservation analyst with the plant society. "We are not necessarily against the Oakland Zoo expanding, but we believe that alternatives need to be considered to minimize environmental damage at this valuable site"
Critics also say that some professional detached oversight is needed on the environmental impacts because the city of Oakland is both the lead agency on the project and the owner of the property. Zoo officials maintain that the zoo has gone through two environmental review processes, one in 1998 and one in 2011, with the help of independent experts in geology, air quality, biology, global climate change, noise and transportation.
If the appeal is denied, construction on the first part of the project, the veterinary hospital, could begin this summer. Opponents, however, say they have been in talks with attorneys and are keeping all options open, including the filing a lawsuit, which could hold up the project while the matter is considered in court.
Zoo officials say the vet hospital is desperately needed because the current one, built in 1961 and just 1,200 square feet, is neither large enough nor does it maintain the correct temperature for all the different species who need medical care. Animals are also living longer lives so treating complications that come with old age is becoming more common, zoo officials said.
The first two phases of the project, the veterinary medical hospital and the California Trail Exhibit, will cost $72 million. About $12 million for the entire project comes from a 2002 measure approved by voters, while the remainder is from private contributions and grants, zoo officials said.