By Norman La Force
Sometime soon, the Oakland City Council must decide whether to take 53 acres of beautiful free public parkland away from the public forever.
Many people are upset that such a painful situation would arise in the first place since it was avoidable from the beginning. Located in East Oakland, Knowland Park was given to the people of Oakland under the condition that it always remains a public park.
It’s a spectacular piece of land that many Oaklanders have never heard of. More likely, they know the Oakland Zoo, which lies at the foot of the park. The zoo’s private operator is planning a large development on the highest ridge of the park.
The tradeoff for that development is the loss of enough free public open space to fill 40 football fields.
The zoo actually has plenty of space on its own existing property to build this project. It doesn’t need to take Knowland Park away from the public and to destroy habitat for endangered species.
Moreover, the Sierra Club and other groups who want to preserve Knowland Park have offered an alternative that allows the Zoo to expand: Just not on prime parkland and habitat for the Alameda Whipsnake.
In 2011 at public hearings, planning staff told councilmembers that there would be no significant impacts of the project that couldn’t be fixed and that the project didn’t need a full Environmental Impact Report because there had been a thorough review.
The zoo’s CEO announced that the public would have all the rest of the park to use and that no new public funding would be needed to pay for the $62 million project.
Nearly four years later, none of that has proved true. In fact, the impacts to wildlife are so devastating that in order to offset the destruction, regulatory agencies are requiring dozens of acres of parkland be closed forever.
The public’s loss of parkland is even greater.
And the cost?
Despite the promise to utilize private funds for the expansion, zoo management spent $1million on a campaign to increase taxes for the project, only to lose in the end.
So now zoo management is pressuring councilmembers to accept new terms, claiming a potential financial loss otherwise and claiming that the project’s a done deal.
They also claim that the loss of public access is minor. As for who pays for the project, no one knows because zoo management isn’t talking.
There is a way of this mess. The City Council can say NO to the new terms. It can tell the zoo that it should work with the Sierra Club and the environmental community to come up with an alternative that will allow the Zoo to expand but protect Knowland Park and endangered species.
The Sierra Club and California Native Plant Society have a plan that will do both. The City Council just needs to give the Win-Win solution a chance.
Norman La Force is chair of the Sierra Club’s East Bay Public Lands Committee