In three decades, the East Bay Zoological Society, managing the Oakland Zoo under a contract with the city, has transformed it from one of the nation's worst facilities to one of the best. It is a jewel in the East Bay.
Today, the zoo features spacious animal exhibits, new educational facilities, a children's section opened seven years ago and a veterinary hospital that's less than a year old. Attendance is up to roughly 700,000 visitors annually, making it a regional treasure in a city that struggles to rise above its unfortunate image as a haven for crime.
The zoo sits on 93 acres at the bottom end of the picturesque, 490-acre Knowland Park, which rises from the MacArthur freeway up to Skyline Boulevard high in the Oakland hills. For 15 years now, zoological society officials have proposed expansion.
After amendments, the plans now call for adding 56 acres to the zoo. The California trails exhibit will feature condors, mountain lions and grizzly bears, and include an overnight camping area, interpretive center, restaurant and gift shop.
The site is stunningly beautiful. The project, once completed, will provide visitors with a dramatic view of the Bay Area and a wonderful opportunity to observe some of the state's key current and historic animals.
But neighbors and some environmental groups argue that the project would endanger plants and rare wildlife. They tried unsuccessfully to convince the Oakland City Council to stop the project. They also failed to convince a Superior Court judge that approved changes had undergone inadequate environmental review.
Opponents won't reveal their next moves, but it seems likely that they'll try to convince state and federal wildlife officials to deny needed permits for the project. We have confidence those officials will give the project a fair review, and we hope they will do so in a timely manner.
While we respect the opponents' concerns about preserving natural habitat, it should be noted that, even after the zoo expansion, more than two-thirds of Knowland Park will remain untouched. Meanwhile, the project could elevate the zoo to a national attraction.
Opponents claim public sentiment has turned against the project. They point to voter defeat of Alameda County's Measure A1 on the November ballot, an annual $12 parcel tax for the zoo that would have lasted for 25 years. It fell short of the required two-thirds approval, which opponents see as an indicator that voters wanted to preserve Knowland Park as is.
We don't read it that way. We also opposed the tax, for reasons having nothing to do with the zoo expansion plans. The real problem was that there was no justification in these tough economic times for a tax that lasted that long. We suspect that's what drove most voters who opposed it as well.
Moreover, the expansion project will be funded from other pots of public and private money. Zoological society officials say they have raised nearly 80 percent of the $62 million needed for the project. We think it's time to move forward.