.Zoo Gone Wild

The Oakland Zoo's expansion into Knowland Park would destroy rare habitat and cut off public access to open space. Can opponents stop the project before it's too late?

On a recent Friday afternoon, Joel Parrott and Nik Dehejia stood in the middle of the grassy highlands of Knowland Park in the hills of East Oakland, staring out at an incredible view of the San Francisco Bay. It was warm and sunny on our trip through the pristine city-owned park in the Oakland hills and its undisturbed natural habitat.

Parrott, president and CEO of the East Bay Zoological Society, the nonprofit that runs the publicly owned Oakland Zoo, told me to imagine bison roaming the land as he talked about the zoo’s planned expansion into Knowland Park. “What did the Bay Area look like before there was all this development? … What did it look like back when the Native Americans were here before the Gold Rush? That’s what it’s all about.”

At that moment, we were standing near the zoo’s proposed new tule elk and bison exhibit, just one piece of the so-called “California Trail” project. “[You’ll] get to see the American bison in the foreground and the San Francisco Bay in the background,” Parrott said.

To our right, Parrott and Dehejia explained, a gondola will carry visitors from the adjacent existing zoo to the project’s new interpretive center and visitors’ building, which will feature a restaurant with panoramic views of the bay. Surrounding those structures will be exhibits showcasing wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions, and more.

Simply put, Knowland Park will look and feel dramatically different than it does now. With its hundreds of acres of peaceful and wild open space — and with the dense urban development of Oakland in the flatlands below — Knowland Park currently looks like you have stumbled upon a stubborn plot of parkland that has, against the odds, avoided human interference.

Dehejia, the Zoological Society’s chief financial officer and project director for the expansion, acknowledged the uniqueness of Knowland Park, and argued that it’s an ideal setting for Bay Area residents to learn about the ecological history of the region — lessons that he said the Zoological Society would incorporate into the zoo’s new California Trail exhibit.

If the society has its way, big changes are indeed coming to Knowland Park. But critics say the changes will irreversibly destroy valuable habitat and cut off the public from open space parkland it has a right to access. Opponents also say that if the $61 million California Trail project is built as planned, it will not spread a message of conservation, as the Zoological Society contends, but instead will set a troubling precedent for the seizure of public parkland and the development of environmentally harmful projects on natural landscapes that are home to threatened and endangered species.

Conservation advocates and Knowland Park neighbors have been fighting the expansion proposal for years as it has weaved its way through the regulatory process. And though the Zoological Society is nearing the finish line — with the goal of breaking ground in 2015 and opening in 2017 — the proposed 56-acre project is not, as the society presents it, a done deal.

Because the Zoological Society has chosen to develop on high-quality natural habitat on the Knowland Park ridgeline — which supports a threatened snake species and features rare plant communities, native grasslands, and more — state and federal regulators are now requiring that the society and the city set aside additional land for “mitigation.” That means the project can’t move forward unless the city, which owns the zoo, agrees to block off parkland from the public to make up for the habitat loss caused by the zoo expansion.

Currently, the Zoological Society is proposing to take an additional 21 acres of Knowland Park — on top of the 56 acres of parkland it already plans to use in its expansion. The 21 acres of additional parkland would become a “conservation easement” that would be inaccessible to the public in order to protect threatened and endangered species in the area.

Zoo Gone Wild by Bert Johnson on Vimeo.

Activists have long pointed out the irony of the Zoological Society destroying sensitive natural habitat in order to build an artificial exhibit that would feature animals that have disappeared from the East Bay because of habitat loss. And now they contend that the society’s plan to take part of a public park away from the public is not only unethical and illegal, but also a bad solution to a problem that the nonprofit created when it chose to develop on sensitive habitat in the first place. The Oakland City Council is expected to vote this fall on the Zoological Society’s request to close the additional 21 acres of Knowland Park, in what could be the final major hurdle for the zoo’s expansion.

“The zoo will never, ever live this down,” said John Taylor, a UC Berkeley professor of plant and microbial biology who has analyzed some of the unique features of the park. “If we build something on top of the most interesting habitat, we can’t get it back. … That would be one of those really sad events, where to celebrate something — native plants and animals — you destroy them.”

And if the council gives the green-light to the final plan, critics say it will be yet another example of Oakland city government supporting the Zoological Society at the expense of taxpayers — through a public-private partnership that has become increasingly problematic over the years. According to opponents of the zoo expansion — who have requested and analyzed extensive public records — the Zoological Society has continued to receive substantial public funding, including roughly $24.5 million for its expansion efforts, without adequate oversight or scrutiny by the city.

The activists fighting to save Knowland Park also say the city has not only repeatedly failed to require meaningful environmental reviews of the expansion, but has continued to support the zoo’s growth without proper assurances that the taxpayer-funded project is even financially feasible. In fact, activists say the limited records they have obtained raise a number of questions about the fiscal merits of the plan.

That means if the project advances as proposed, Oakland residents could lose more than just sensitive natural habitat.

With roughly four hundred acres of open space, Knowland Park is the City of Oakland’s largest, and by some measures, most biologically diverse park. The western highlands of the park feature a rare type of vegetation called maritime chaparral, as well as grasslands and plants native to California, fields of wildflowers, and hundreds of lichen and fungal species.

The park’s habitats support a range of plants and animals — including the threatened Alameda whipsnake and California red-legged frog — and make the area an important wildlife corridor for mountain lions, migratory birds, and other native East Bay species.

Government officials have long acknowledged the unique value of the land, which was designated a public park in 1948. That year, the park’s namesake, Joseph Knowland (longtime editor and publisher of the Oakland Tribune), who was then the chairman of the California State Park Commission, helped negotiate the purchase of the land from a bank that had a mortgage on the property.

Recalling Knowland Park’s inclusion into the state park system in a 1972 interview on file at the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library, Newton Bishop Drury, who was director of the National Park Service in the 1940s, described it as “a wonderful piece of rolling land quite typical of the coast range.” And state memos from the 1950s indicate that numerous officials, as part of a Knowland Park advisory committee, had discussed the importance of preserving the site’s valuable natural habitat.

“Knowland Park spoke to people,” said Laura Baker of the East Bay chapter of the California Native Plant Society, who recently obtained historical records from the state parks department. “They recognized it was a beautiful piece of land.”

The park memos discussed conservation priorities and the importance of “protect[ing] the native areas so they could start the processes of natural renewal.” Baker, one of the lead activists opposing the zoo’s expansion, said that historical records indicate that “when Knowland became a state park, only a portion of it was supposed to be for the zoo.”

And an early state parks “statement of purpose” for Knowland Park said the mission of the site was: “To supply day use park facilities and to provide for the development of an arboretum and botanical garden along with limited zoological exhibits.”

The Oakland Zoo, which was originally founded in 1922, moved from its previous location in Joaquin Miller Park to Knowland Park in 1939. In 1975, the state transferred Knowland Park to the City of Oakland with an agreement that the site always maintain “public park” uses. If the city “ceases to use the property for public park purposes,” the deed of transfer stated, the park “shall revert to the state of California.”

Environmental activists are now citing this so-called “reverter clause” as a reason why the city should not approve the Zoological Society’s proposal to eliminate public access to 21 additional acres in Knowland Park. And communications between state officials and Zoological Society representatives — which Knowland Park advocates have obtained through public records requests and shared with the Express — reveal that there have been recent internal discussions about whether closing off parkland would violate the terms of the 1975 deed.

But to understand how the Oakland Zoo got to this stage in its project, you first have to understand the history of how the city has given the Zoological Society increasing authority over the zoo operations and the park. In 1982, in what the zoo describes on its website as a “major turning point in the Zoo’s development,” the city gave the East Bay Zoological Society the responsibility of managing the entire zoo and all of Knowland Park. And soon after, both the city and the nonprofit began setting the stage for the zoo’s expansion into previously undisturbed parts of Knowland Park.

In 1998, the city rezoned the park as part of a massive rezoning of thousands of acres of Oakland parkland — a process that was exempt from the state’s primary environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act, because the overall initiative was aimed at increasing protections and limiting developments on open space. Knowland Park, however, gained a “special use” zoning designation in that process, which set the stage for the zoo’s expansion.

At around the same time, the Zoological Society brought forward a master plan proposal for the zoo’s future, with the goal of making “optimum use of the unique combination of historic and native Californian landscapes in Knowland Park.” That included a “California 1820” expansion project that would teach visitors about “California’s rich, natural heritage” through a development on 62 additional acres of Knowland Park. The project would be an extension of the existing, roughly 45-acre zoo at the lower part of the park, making the zoo about 107 acres total.

After the Zoological Society proposed this master plan in 1996, a group of neighbors raised a range of concerns about the proposal and the potential loss of open space, and argued that the plan warranted a full environmental impact report (EIR).

But the city decided that an EIR was not necessary and instead issued what’s known as a “mitigated negative declaration,” which meant that the city believed that with certain mitigation measures, the project would not have a significant impact on the environment. The city council unanimously approved the plan in 1998, at which point the zoo also negotiated a memorandum of understanding with neighborhood groups that addressed some of their concerns.

“It was this great spirit of compromise … and it was approved by the neighbors,” recalled Parrott, who has been running the zoo since 1985, during a recent interview inside a conference room at the zoo. “Fast forward over all these years,” he continued, flashing a grin. “New neighbors.”

For a long time, Ruth Malone had no idea that Knowland Park was even accessible to the public. At one point in the 1990s, Malone, who co-founded Friends of Knowland Park, recalled going to the zoo with her husband and asking an official at the entrance if they could hike in the park. “They said, ‘No you can’t go there,'” she said. “And we didn’t investigate it further.”

But years later, after she moved closer to Knowland Park, she discovered that she had been given false information. “I could’ve been coming here all this time,” she said.

Anyone can enter Knowland Park, though the city does not post any information online about this fact or put up any signs at park entrances. The Oakland Office of Parks and Recreation didn’t even list it as one of its city parks on its website until 2012 after advocates repeatedly demanded it. And city parks staff, Malone said, once incorrectly told Friends of Knowland Park that the parkland was privately owned. “It’s been the best kept secret in the city,” she added.

From 1999 to 2010, the Zoological Society devoted its time and efforts to new exhibits and projects within the existing zoo, spending about $25 million on improvements. At that point, the society was ready to execute the critical vision in its master plan — expanding further into Knowland Park. While the zoo said it was simply taking its 1998 plan to its logical conclusion, opponents said the proposal the zoo brought forward in 2011 was extremely different from the one the council had previously approved. And it was, they said, more environmentally destructive. “You can’t help but characterize it as a giant theme park,” Malone said.

A number of key differences alarmed environmental groups. The proposed interpretive center had increased from a 7,500-square-foot, 1-story building covering 0.23 acres to a 34,305-square-foot, 3-story building, covering 0.36 acres. It would now include offices, in addition to a restaurant, classroom, gift shop, and exhibits. The zoo had also added a gondola attraction that would require 7 towers, and an overnight camping area that could accommodate about 100 people.

The footprint of the animal exhibits had also grown from 16.23 acres to 18.07 acres and had been substantially reconfigured such that the bulk of the exhibits had moved farther away from the existing zoo and deeper into the upper part of Knowland Park. That meant that many visitors to the park’s remaining open space, including at some of the best viewpoints, would immediately see the zoo’s attractions in the foreground when looking out at the bay.

“When you change a project in such a way as they have, that’s significant, and that needs to go through a further environmental review,” said Norman La Force, chair of the Sierra Club’s East Bay public lands committee. But, he continued, “to do a proper environmental review costs money, and frankly, a lot of agencies don’t want to spend that kind of money, so they find every which way they can not to review it.” La Force argued that a nonprofit, especially one that takes public funding and says it’s dedicated to conservation, should be committed to participating in a full environmental review.

But just as it had in 1998, the city said an EIR was not necessary, and instead conducted a more limited review, determining that the project in its new form, with certain mitigation measures, was once again acceptable. The city council agreed and unanimously approved the project.

Scott Miller, zoning manager for the City of Oakland, said the city carefully reviewed and analyzed the updated project prior to the 2011 approval: “Those studies determined there were no significant impacts.” And the extensive arguments of the project’s critics, he added, were “thoroughly vetted.”

But one of the most critical components of an EIR is the meaningful consideration of alternative plans, including exploring other locations for a project. And according to the zoo’s opponents, there are numerous ways in which the zoo could expand on its current site, or within lower, less sensitive parts of Knowland Park. “It’s really shocking, said Mack Casterman, conservation analyst with the California Native Plant Society’s East Bay Chapter, “that when it comes to literally their own backyard, they are purposefully avoiding an alternative that would be less impactful to the really, really special natural resources that are right behind their current facility.”

Since 2011, the Zoological Society has continued to argue that its new project plan was legal and environmentally superior to its approved 1998 plan. Notably, Zoological Society and city officials said, the total expansion site has decreased from 62 acres to 56 acres, giving the zoo a total size of about 101 acres rather than 107. The Zoological Society had also abandoned a plan for an environmentally harmful road loop and shuttle system, replacing it with the aerial gondola, which would require no tree removal. And the reorganization of the exhibits will help better preserve grasslands and trees, they said.

During our interview, Parrott — darting back and forth between a 1998 master plan map on one side of the zoo’s conference room and a current project map on the other side — said: “It is the same project. Here it is, and here it is. … That was a conceptual plan. So we went onto the next level of design and development.”

Dehejia further noted that the Zoological Society has established a long-term “Habitat Enhancement Plan” as part of the project, aimed in part at eradicating invasive species and replanting native ones: “The project itself is an improvement to the habitat. There’s a whole plan that’s going to be implemented as a result of this project.”

And in June 2012, the Zoological Society got additional good news when an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled that the updated project was simply a modification of the original plan — striking down a lawsuit that the expansion opponents filed against the city after the council approved the new master plan.

Friends of Knowland Park and the California Native Plant Society, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, couldn’t afford to appeal the decision, and at that point, the California Trail project seemed inevitable.

But over the last year, as the project has inched closer to breaking ground, the Zoological Society has run into a new set of obstacles — and this time it isn’t just neighbors and environmentalists raising objections.

Before Joel Parrott became the director of the Oakland Zoo in 1985, the Humane Society had named it one of the worst zoos in the country for animal welfare. Parrott, who was previously a consulting veterinarian for the zoo, made it his mission to turn things around.

He started improving exhibits one by one, elevated the institution’s animal care standards, adopted more progressive zookeeper training policies, and launched a multi-phase renovation of the zoo that continued for the next twenty years. And he established a number of conservation initiatives at the zoo.

“Dr. Parrott’s vision is why we are here,” said Amy Gotliffe, the zoo’s director of conservation. “To make the animals have a better life and a safe future — that has filtered down to every last person who has worked at the zoo.”

Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, which has partnered with the zoo on a condor recovery project, said zoo officials were immediately excited about the opportunity to collaborate: “It was not only a ‘yes,’ it was, ‘What else can we do?’ That was really refreshing. … And they’re providing a tremendous amount of support for condors.”

This commitment to conservation, zoo officials say, extends to the expansion project. “It’s not honest to say that the people associated with the zoo don’t care about conserving the natural environment,” said Jim Wunderman, a member of the East Bay Zoological Society board of trustees and president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a business advocacy group. “The California Trail project … has been done very thoughtfully and artfully.”

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, however, has questioned the Zoological Society’s approach to conservation and mitigation. State Fish and Wildlife is responsible for enforcing the California Endangered Species Act and issuing permits for projects that may harm threatened species — in this case, the Alameda whipsnake. Scott Wilson, the department’s acting regional manager, wrote a letter to Parrott in 2012 expressing concerns about the location of the interpretive center building and recommending that the Zoological Society move it to a different spot, 200 yards south. “This effort would leave the rare and high-quality maritime chaparral habitat intact [and] better conserve the Alameda whipsnake population,” Wilson wrote, later recommending something activists had long suggested: “The Project footprint could be further reduced by locating other facilities within the current Zoo footprint.”

The Zoological Society, however, has not acted on those recommendations.

Andrew Hughan, spokesperson for the state Fish and Wildlife Department, said in a recent interview that the agency has had extensive communications with the Zoological Society since Wilson wrote that letter, and that his agency plans to issue the zoo’s permit in the near future.

However, because of the serious impacts of the project, state regulators and officials with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces federal endangered species laws, are requiring that the Zoological Society set aside a total of about 52 acres for mitigation. In its most recent proposals, the society has suggested setting aside 31 acres within its current expansion site for mitigation and closing 21 acres of open space outside the project perimeter.

However, activists contend that a substantial portion of the additional 21 acres of parkland that the Zoological Society wants to set aside for mitigation is unsuitable for the threatened species and that areas within the proposed expansion that the society plans to set aside for habitat are disconnected from nearby wildlife corridors. Environmentalists further argue that the idea that the zoo is actually protecting any land in the first place is something of a farce, given that Knowland Park is already a designated open space park and therefore effectively protected from harmful development projects.

“Taking land that’s already protected and that the public already owns and calling it ‘mitigation’ … sets a really bad precedent,” said Jeff Miller, a San Francisco-based conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. Typically, developers turn privately owned land — not public land — into conservation easements for mitigation purposes.

Miller also argued that the whipsnakes would not benefit from fragmented conservation sites — especially ones that aren’t the best kind of habitat for the species. “It’s outrageous. The project is going to destroy what we know is good whipsnake habitat [for the actual zoo expansion] … and substitute it with much poorer habitat that whipsnakes don’t use and never will use.”

It is projects like these that kill off a species, Miller added. “It’s death by a thousand cuts for the whipsnake. The whole reason the whipsnake is threatened to start with is that its habitat has been fragmented by urban development.”

The Zoological Society and its consultants continue to argue that all of the chaparral plant communities, including the best habitat for the snake species, are protected in its plan either through easements or through lack of development. When state regulators expressed initial concerns, “they had been operating without seeing detailed plans and had heard from the opposition a lot of misinformation,” said Jim Martin, a biological consultant who has been working for the zoo since 2007.

Today, regulators appear to be siding with the Zoological Society, with the US Fish and Wildlife Service recently issuing a “biological opinion” that the project will not impact the status of the snake species. This document is effectively the final step before federal agencies give the society its permits.

But even if the society gets the green light from state and federal regulatory agencies, opponents are hoping that the city council will be unwilling to support a plan that calls for the removal of public access to a section of a public park.

Emails between state agencies and the Zoological Society, which activists obtained through public records requests, reveal that state officials have recently questioned whether it’s even permissible for the city to prevent the public from accessing parts of the park. In order for Knowland Park to abide by the stipulations of its deed, it must maintain “public park purposes.”

According to public records, Linda Barrera, general counsel for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, asked the Zoological Society’s attorney in March what the group’s plans were for “providing public access in and/or around the conservation area,” in order to determine whether the expansion might violate the deed’s “public park purposes” clause.

Later, after Barrera had apparently discussed these questions with the California State Parks Department — which signed the original deed of transfer — she wrote that the conservation easement could possibly be acceptable if the public would have some “limited access” to the site. Access, in this case, would come in the form of zoo visitors taking gondola rides over the site and viewing it from lookout points.

From the perspective of open space advocates, this would be a clear violation of the “public park” mandate in the Knowland deed, given that people would have to pay for admission to the zoo and then could only view this part of the park from above. “The issue became, how do you give the appearance of public access without the reality of public access?” said Baker of the plant society.

Huey Johnson, former secretary of resources for the State of California and founder of the Resource Renewal Institute, a Bay Area environmental nonprofit, said that the proposal would clearly contradict the Knowland Park agreement, and further send a troubling message about the development of parkland: “It’s like letting somebody walk in and rob a bank.”

Nancy Graalman, director of Defense of Place, a program of the Resource Renewal Institute that’s focused on protecting parklands, added: “It’s a laughable proposition that public access can be replaced by flying over it in a gondola.”

Representatives from the Oakland Parks and Recreation Department declined to be interviewed for this report, despite repeated requests over several weeks. Scott Miller, the Oakland zoning manager, defended the concept of using existing public parkland for mitigation and said the city is in discussions with the Zoological Society about the best possible solution. “Designating areas for protection of sensitive biological resources is a common park purpose,” he said. “We think it maintains an appropriate balance between the protection of natural resources and the public use of parkland.” Plus, he added: “The zoo is an incredible resource for the city.”

Vicky Waters, spokesperson for the California State Parks Department, also declined to comment, saying the state agency has no official position until permits and reviews for the project are complete. Waters also declined to say what is a permissible “public park purpose” that would meet the requirements of this kind of deed. (She did tell me, however, that the state park system currently includes nineteen conservation easements, but could not confirm if any of them were used for development mitigation).

The Zoological Society, too, continues to argue that blocking off part of a public park for conservation is a clear public park purpose and that the 21 acres of mitigation are inaccessible to the public. I hiked a section of it with Baker, who is 67 years old, and another advocate, who is 64 years old. It’s rough terrain, but not inaccessible.

“The zoo is not taking anything,” Parrott said, arguing that it is federal and state regulators that are requiring land be set aside for conservation.

Dehejia further argued that the society is adding important protections to parts of the park and that the conservation plan aligns nicely with the institution’s broader mission: “It is a wonderful idea. It’s going to protect the species. … To have an endangered species is something we are very excited about. We are a zoo after all.”

On a whim, Elise Bernstein decided to attend a board of trustees meeting at the Oakland Zoo in the fall of 2012. She was a member of the zoo and had visited often with her daughter and grandson since moving to the Eastmont neighborhood in East Oakland in 2009. By 2012, she was involved in the efforts to preserve Knowland Park and thought it would be useful to sit in on meetings of the board of trustees, which is the governing body of the East Bay Zoological Society.

The trustees, Bernstein recalled, seemed surprised to have a member of the public show up, but a staffer gave her an agenda packet. Bernstein observed the meeting and left quickly after it ended. But as she was walking toward her car in the parking lot, the staffer who had given her the agenda packet chased after her. “She came running out and said, ‘Hey. Hey. Wait. Wait. Excuse me, do you have our financial report?'” Bernstein recalled. “And she took it back. She said, ‘I’m sorry. This is not public information.'”

Bernstein said she later kicked herself for not even glancing down at the document. But the situation affirmed some of her suspicions about the Zoological Society’s lack of transparency. “The public is entitled to have information about how our money is spent,” she said. “This is a city operation. We own the zoo. … And we own the park.”

Critics of the California Trail project argue that the Zoological Society has, over the years, requested and received a significant amount of public funding without being open about its finances — with the organization often citing the fact that it is a private nonprofit. The ongoing lack of financial accountability, opponents say, is an additional red flag for the expansion.

As part of a $72 million capital campaign for the zoo’s growth — which includes the California Trail project and a new veterinary hospital that opened in 2012 — the Zoological Society has relied on a range of public funding sources, totaling $24.5 million. Of that amount, $13.7 million comes from a 2002 Oakland bond measure financed by city property owners, $3.5 million from an East Bay Regional Park District measure financed by residents throughout the East Bay, $7 million from a California State Parks nature education grant, and $300,000 from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, a state agency.

The Zoological Society also receives additional funding from East Bay taxpayers for its current operations. Currently, the society receives about $485,000 annually from the city’s general fund, about $500,000 from a city hotel tax, and roughly $600,000 from a regional property tax, Dehejia explained. The total of about $1.5 million in annual public funding makes up roughly 10 percent of the society’s $14 million budget (a public funding rate that Dehejia said is below industry standards for zoos and aquariums).

Although a dedicated group of project opponents has requested and analyzed public records pertaining to the Zoological Society’s current and future operations, it’s hard to imagine anyone has spent more time scrutinizing the organization’s finances than Jim Hanson, the conservation committee chair for the California Native Grasslands Association. Hanson provided me with extensive records and reports, documentation of records requests that went nowhere, and his own detailed analysis of the zoo expansion. “This is an environmental and financial fiasco,” said Hanson, who first got involved in Knowland Park because of his interest in grasslands. “For the citizens of Oakland, it’s a real tragic kick in the stomach in terms of economic development in the 21st century.”

For starters, Hanson argued that missing financial reports, including ones that he said the Zoological Society is legally obligated to provide to the city, point to a lack of accountability and raise questions about the feasibility of the California Trail project.

For years, he and another Knowland Park advocate, Mimi Pulich, have requested from the city copies of the Zoological Society’s “capital improvement budget,” which the nonprofit is obligated to submit annually to the parks and recreation department, according to the terms of its management agreement. That report, the contract states, should include a spending plan, information on actual expenses, and a description of its current and future budget.

In 2013, in response to Pulich’s request for those reports for 2005 through 2012, a city parks representative said no documents existed. The email, which Pulich shared with me, noted that the parks department had also consulted with the City Administrator’s Office and the City Auditor’s Office.

Beginning in 2013, the parks representative added in the email, the agency will be “requiring that the Zoological Society provide all reports agreed upon in the agreement.” The missing reports and seemingly new commitment to hold the society accountable signaled to the activists that the nonprofit had clearly violated the terms of its own contract. “We’re basically doing the city’s job for them,” Hanson said.

And when the Zoological Society finally submitted a report this year, it included a single page of capital improvement information — one chart with estimated costs for the expansion project and on-site renovations and maintenance. “The absence of detail is striking,” Pulich said. “It’s certainly not what is described in the management agreement.”

The Zoological Society has also refused to release a California Trail financial feasibility study, even though it has produced one internally (a fact society officials confirmed). Because the society is not a public agency, it does not have to release the report, but its refusal is concerning, said Hanson, who argued that the city council should have required that the report be publicly available.

Hanson pointed out that in another Oakland public-private partnership, the renovation of the Fox Theater, the city auditor in 2011 specifically cited the lack of a comprehensive financial feasibility study as one of the factors that led to the city spending significantly more money on the project than initially estimated.

Baker of the California Native Plant Society has also repeatedly requested from the city copies of construction contracts for the zoo’s veterinary hospital, which was completed in 2012. The Zoological Society’s management agreement with the city spells out a number of requirements, including local hiring practices, for construction projects. But officials with the city’s Contracts and Compliance Division told Baker that there was nothing on file for the zoo’s hospital project.

A city spokesperson told me in an email that “the agreement between the Zoo and the City is for management services only” and that it appeared the Zoological Society was not obligated to submit a report for the hospital construction. But that statement seems to contradict what’s actually in the society’s contract, which specifically references requirements for “construction contracts.”

Hanson further argued that the limited information that is publicly available raises alarms. For example, the Zoological Society board approved a $10 million loan for the expansion project last year — but, according to Hanson’s public records requests, the city council never reviewed it. This is despite the fact that the society’s management agreement requires the council to approve loans.

Hanson also pointed out that, in 2012, the Zoological Society itself publicly stated that it was in a difficult financial position and needed more funding for its existing zoo operations. The society made that argument as part of its push for a controversial county parcel tax, Measure A1.

At the time, the society argued that the tax, which would have funneled more than $100 million to the zoo over 25 years, was critical for animal care needs, education programs, and to keep zoo admission prices down. The measure failed to get the required two-thirds vote, and Hanson and other Zoological Society critics have questioned whether it’s financially wise for the organization to move forward with a large expansion if it has needs in its existing zoo that have gone unmet.

William Marchant, co-chair of the Zoological Society board of trustees, told me that the A1 defeat meant a loss of financial security against a bad year — one with lots of rain, for example. “We have to continue to increase our revenue.”

Regarding contract compliance concerns, Dehejia told me: “We have never been notified that we have been in breach of contract.” And Parrott, in reference to the Zoological Society’s internal feasibility study, said, “It’s private, because people like the Friends of Knowland Park, what do they need to look at our business plan for? … They’re not here to help us improve the business plan.” Parrott also declined to tell me the source of the $10 million loan, but said this type of bridge loan was very common. Dehejia argued that this type of loan also does not require council approval.

Parrott said that the Zoological Society would continue to raise funds for the projects that the A1 parcel tax would have allowed, including new exhibits for the chimpanzees and tigers at the existing zoo. But in the immediate future, he said, “a lot of opportunity for our guests and the animals here at the zoo have been lost.” Still, he argued that financing for the expansion is fully in place, and separate from the funding for the current zoo: “We wouldn’t be moving forward if we weren’t really confident.”

The California Trail plan, Parrott added, “is extremely feasible, and on top of that, it will enhance our mission to expose children to nature and wildlife.”

On a recent summer afternoon, three Knowland Park advocates took me on a trip to the Oakland Zoo. Along the way, they pointed out different exhibits and areas that they thought seemed overdue for an update or renovation, and described other opportunities for growth — within the existing zoo.

They are not opposed to the zoo building major new attractions, they emphasized. But from an education standpoint, they questioned the value of building on parkland, rather than coming up with innovative opportunities to celebrate it — having zoo docents lead hikes through Knowland Park, for example.

“There is plenty of room for them to get their expansion, without taking more public parkland,” Baker told me on the drive over to the zoo, noting that most zoos, which aren’t located next to wildland parks, find other ways to grow and change and truly promote conservation.

Hanson pointed out that some zoos have built conservation exhibits focused on native species that are endangered today — such as the Santa Barbara Zoo’s “California Trails” exhibit, which features animals at risk of disappearing from the state forever due to habitat destruction. The Oakland Zoo California Trail, by contrast, would display animals that have already mostly disappeared from the region because of habitat destruction.

At one point during our zoo trip, we stumbled upon a large banner advertising the California Trail expansion, located in the spot where visitors will get on the gondola. “Embark on the Adventure!” the sign read, featuring images of a grizzly bear and mountain lion and explaining that this is where visitors will begin their “California Trail journey.”

They will ride the gondola to the park hilltop where they will arrive at a visitor center and restaurant with bay views. From there, they can stop at a San Francisco Bay overlook, the banner read.

“We can do that any day of the week without having to get on a gondola,” Baker said. “It’s like selling air, you know?”

Staring at the large banner, looking up toward Knowland Park in the background, Hanson read aloud one part of the sign that he thought was particularly absurd: “‘IMAGINE the Bay Area in its natural state.'”

“You’re going to have to imagine it,” he said with a laugh, “because it will be gone.”


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