Social Justice and Measure A1: Changing the Face of Oakland

This guest post takes a deeper look at A1-  a measure on the Alameda County ballot for the upcoming election.

“[The project] totally changes the face of the zoo, it changes the face of Oakland."*

Those are the words of Zoo Director of Strategic Initiatives Nik Dehejia when speaking of the Oakland Zoo’s expansion plans for Knowland Park. What can it possibly mean to "change the face of Oakland"? To understand that, we have to take the expansion plans as well as ballot Measure A1 in their larger context. This includes the history of how taxes have changed over the years. Right after WW II, US corporate taxes equalled over 5% of the total economy (the GDP). By 2009, they had shrunk that to just 1%. (source: In California, we have seen a similar process, as total corporate profits increased in the state by 485% from 2001 to 2010 but their tax liability only increased by 58.3% (Source:


This process has devastated public services, especially public education, so what's gone along with this has been the increased private funding and outright privatization of services such as education. Thus, we have the Bill Gates Foundation, the Eli Broad Foundation, and others in part funding public education. Of course, they do this with a price, and the price is that these unelected corporate owners get to have a direct influence in how the education system is run, not as individual citizens, but as corporate donors. Part of that influence is to move to take education out of the public realm altogether.

Zoo Board of Directors

Ballot Measure A1 on the Alameda County-wide ballot takes this to the next level. Under Measure A1, more than $100 million of public money would flow to a private nonprofit corporation that operates the Zoo, and Zoo management and the Board of Directors get to decide how that money is spent. The measure is written very broadly so that they can spend it on almost anything related to animals or the Zoo. Oversight is only after the fact, not authority to approve expenditures, and the citizens oversight group is a nonelected body that could even include zoo employees.

To get a sense of what they are after, let's consider who sits on that board. An article in the SF Chronicle gives the lowdown on the Board members:

"Jim Wunderman is President and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a business-backed public policy organization…. Sebastian DiGrande is a Partner and Managing Director at the Boston Consulting Group, a global management consulting firm and the world's leading advisor on business strategy…. Daniel Boggan, Jr…. assisted the municipal firm of Siebert, Branford & Shank Co. in business development from 2003 to 2006…. Cassady Hudson is a Senior Revenue and Royalty Analyst at Hands-on Mobile…. Mark McClure is a partner at California Capital and Investment Group, a real estate brokerage and development firm based in Oakland CA. He has worked on both residential and commercial development projects primarily in the City of Oakland…. Lora Tabor is the General Manager, Corporate & Services HR, for Chevron Corporation in San Ramon…."

The board is self perpetuating in that in order to get on the board one has to be voted on by current board members.

Regressive Tax

Considering the complete corporate control of the Board of Directors of the Zoo (East Bay Zoological Society), it should be no surprise that the tax they are proposing in Measure A1 is regressive - that is, it hits lower and middle income people the hardest. While it is "only" $12 per residence per year, we have to realize that this means that a $200,000 single family home owner in the heart of Oakland will be paying the same $12 as the owner of a $1.5 million mansion or a 150 unit apartment complex! Under A1, business owners pay $72 per year, regardless of whether they are a mom-and-pop corner grocery store or a multi-million dollar corporation.

"Family Friendly?"

While the Zoo markets itself as a family-friendly place, it’s more friendly for some families than for others. Just to park and get into the zoo costs a family of four (with kids between 2 and 14 years old) costs $54, and that doesn't include the money parents will inevitably spend on rides and snacks. Holding a birthday party there will cost up to $410. Even some of their educational programs come with a charge. Presently the zoo is advertising a presentation on bats - at a charge of $10 per admission ticket.

Zoo's Expansion Plans

In a debate on KQED Radio Forum on Oct. 22, Zoo executive Nik Dehejia denied that Measure A1 funds will go to the zoo's expansion plans, which would site a huge building in unspoiled Knowland Park. The reality is that the measure says that the tax money collected can be used "to pay for the services and projects of the Oakland Zoo". It defines "projects" to include: "Financing the construction of new or renovation of existing Oakland Zoo capital facilities." It also includes “constructing, expanding, remodeling, renovating, furnishing, equipping, or financing of facilities.”

In other words, Measure A1 money clearly can be used to finance their expansion plans. And given the Board's demonstrated priorities, that is almost certainly what it will be used for. And what are these expansion plans?

Theme Park in Oakland?

Basically, the Board wants to turn the zoo into a theme park, complete with a huge new aerial gondola ride, an (assuredly) high price “destination” restaurant, and a gift shop-visitor center-office complex. In fact, there is hardly any limitation as to what they can build. But can a theme park pay for itself, never mind be profitable, in Oakland? Remember the Oakland Coliseum, which has cost the City tens of millions? People who live in Oakland may want to look around and ask themselves: just whose faces of Oakland are supposed to change with this plan? Is the underlying aim to accelerate the gentrification that has driven many low income people of color out of the city?

Keep Knowland Wild and Beautiful!

Oakland's Knowland Park is a precious heritage for our children. It is the largest open space park by far in the city. It is a place where children can run and explore nature. Dog owners can take their dogs there. Visitors can get unrivaled views of the entire Bay. We all need such areas to get away from it all. Everyone can go there. And it's all free.

There is a growing trend to see such undeveloped land that is free for the use as being unproductive exactly because it doesn't bring in any money. Oakland residents - and all of us in the area - have a vested interest in making sure that Knowland Park remains as it is. We have to vote down Measure A1… and then go on to make sure that the expansion plans of the Zoo are put where they belong -- where the elephants and other Zoo animals leave their "deposits".


John has been an Oakland resident since 1969 and has been active in various community and labor causes for many years. He can be reached at