Original post (Tuesday, Nov. 19): The Oakland City Council is expected to vote Tuesday evening on a key piece of an Oakland Zoo expansion plan that would close off public access to a large swath of the city's Knowland Park.
The zoo's proposed California Trail expansion includes a three-story, 34,000-square-foot building that will house an interpretive center, classroom, offices, restaurant and gift shop. The facility will also include outdoor exhibits for native wildlife, a campground and an aerial gondola to carry visitors from zoo parking lots.
What the council is voting on Tuesday is a 53-acre conservation easement that would allow construction in an area that's part of the habitat of the threatened Alameda whipsnake, while protecting another part of the snake's habitat.
If you're thinking you've heard about this zoo expansion plan before. you're right: Some version of it has been kicking around since 1996. The City Council approved this iteration of the plan in 2011, although voters voted against giving parcel tax revenue to the zoo the following year.
City planning staff has recommended approval of the easement, noting that it implements the council's prior decisions and "maintains the appropriate balance between protection of sensitive natural resources and public use of park land."
The zoo argues that the plan has been reviewed exhaustively by federal, state, regional and local agencies, "all of which concluded that the project strikes the right balance in Knowland Park between conservation and recreation."
But a coalition of environmental groups and neighbors, including the Sierra Club and the California Native Plant Society, opposes the plan. The Save Knowland Park Coalition points to a poll it commissioned that shows 75 percent of respondents want the zoo to limit or eliminate expansion into undeveloped parkland.
Ruth Malone, of the Friends of Knowland Park, says the zoo has chosen the wrong site for the project.
"It really is about the location, and it's always been about the location," Malone says. "I think nobody objects to a responsible expansion plan, something closer to the existing zoo, something that doesn't destroy habitat. To bulldoze wildlife habitat for an exhibit about conservation is just crazy, it makes no sense."
"This is the most biologically rich part of the park where they've insisted they have to build their three-story, 34,000-square-foot visitors' center, with a restaurant, reached by an aerial gondola because it's so far from the existing zoo," says Malone.
The city's staff report on the easement says the zoo studied other locations for the new exhibit, but all had serious problems.
Tuesday will be the first reading of the ordinance, and the City Council's final vote on the easement is scheduled for Dec. 9.