Update: The Planning Commission hearing on temporary conditional use permits for surface parking lots has been delayed to
February 2nd February 16th so please put that on your calendar.
So, like I mentioned the other day, the Oakland Planning Commission will consider a proposal tonight to create something called a “temporary conditional use permit” (TCUP). If this is the first you’ve heard about it, you can get caught up by reading the following posts:
I was hoping to write about the proposal earlier (like, yesterday) and in more detail, but unfortunately, I was unable to do so, since the staff report for the item was not made available on the City’s website until around 4:30 yesterday afternoon and I had a fully booked evening.
What is wrong with the Planning Department?
Okay. So most of this post is going to be about the TCUPs, but you guys will just have to indulge me while I stray a little off topic momentarily — this is ridiculous. It is a constant problem getting these reports for the Planning Commission meetings. I mean, I usually don’t throw a temper tantrum over it because generally I’m not super invested in any of the items on the agenda, so the fact that the reports almost never go up until Monday or Tuesday is just a mild annoyance. I mean, in my dream world, I’d be able to have them to read over the weekend, and I can think of maybe three or four items over the past six months that I was sort-of planning to blog about but ended up not doing so because the reports weren’t available until Monday, at which point I was too busy. Wev.
So I’m particularly annoyed today, but it is not like this is some one time occurence. I completely fail to understand why it is so difficult for the Planning Department to make these reports available to the public in a timely fashion. Oakland’s Sunshine Ordinance says you’re supposed to give this stuff to the City Clerk so it is available to the public at least 72 hours before the meeting. Now for reasons beyond my comprehension, the Planning Department is apparently too good to give their reports to the City Clerk, since the City Clerk never has them, and if you call or e-mail anyone trying to get the reports, all they will ever tell you is that you can get them online. No matter if the reports aren’t online, that’s just what they say. “Go to the website.”
And I want to be sympathetic — I know noticing requirements are a pain in the ass, and sometimes holidays make things even more difficult, but the fact is that even if these reports got posted first thing Monday morning, that is still not giving people 72 hours to read through them. Why can’t they just put it up on Friday? Somehow, the staff for every other Board and Commission manages to get these suckers up in a reasonable time frame. Whether it’s for the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board or the Measure Y Oversight Committee or even the freaking WOPAC (a body so uninterested in complying with open government laws, BTW, that I have watched them take votes by secret ballot on more than one occasion), I can always get the damn reports three days before the meeting. But not for Planning! Apparently if I want to be prepared for a Planning Commission meeting, I should be satisfied with 25 hours in which to read and digest the report.
Don’t even get me started on their giant agenda packets that force you download like a 400MB file just to look at the agenda and required me to install special software for my computer so I could read them.
Okay, deep breath. Anyway. The reason I wanted to hold off on writing specifically about today’s meeting until I could read the report (PDF) was because I anticipated that there would be some substantial changes from what came before the Commission in October based on the comments various Commissioners gave at that meeting. This turned out to be the case.
Previously, staff had presented this long menu of options for different variations of TCUPs that varied in what types of uses they would permit and where they would apply (only for surface parking lots vs. no surface parking lot, only downtown vs. everywhere expect downtown). That’s all gone now.
My recollection of that hearing (which I admit could be faulty) was that most of the Commissioners did not seem very into the idea of adding these temporary surface parking lots, and that there was at least some mention of a TCUP proposal coming back that would not allow surface parking downtown. But that’s not in there either.
Instead, what they recommend the Commission adopt is:
a trial program to consider Temporary Conditional Use Permits (TCUPs) throughout the city for a period of eighteen months, which could permit temporary uses for a period of up to three years.
In reality, these uses would be permitted for four years, not three. But since when do the details matter when it comes to zoning?
Are you wondering what this “trial period” is all about? Well, the staff report explains (PDF):
The trial program would allow TCUP applications to be considered for a period of eighteen months, and permits issued during that trial period would be valid for up to three years. The program would include the possibility of a one-time, one-year extension for each permit. The program would therefore run for a maximum duration of six years. During this time, City decision-makers could review and evaluate the success and viability of the program during or after the trial program, and decide whether or not to extend the program.
Am I the only one who sees a tremendous disconnect here? I mean, the entire premise of having TCUPs is that the economy is bad right now, so we need to allow for temporary uses (4 years isn’t really my idea of temporary, but wev, I’ll use their language) to hold us over until the economy recovers. Now we need to evaluate the program after a year and a half cause we might continue it? What? For how long? Indefinitely? How is this temporary anymore? That’s ridiculous.
Does the public get a say? Who knows?
Another weird aspect of the proposal is that there would be two types of TCUPs — major and minor. Minor TCUPs would be approved just by staff with no public hearing, while major ones would have to go before the Planning Commission.
Now, I’m usually pretty good with figuring these things out, and maybe if I had been able to access this report more than 25 hours before the meeting started, I might have had time to make sense of it. But at the moment, I cannot for the life of me figure out if adding a new surface parking lot downtown would count as a major or minor TCUP. A paranoid person might think the report is intentionally obtuse on this matter in order to obscure the reality of what is being voted on. But I’m not paranoid, so I’m sure it was just an oversight.
How will TCUPs be used?
The examples provided in the staff report of ways the TCUPs might be used are beyond ludicrous — we apparently need them because someone might want to provide free legal services to the poor out of a shipping container on a vacant lot. Seriously. It says that.
Of course, that’s just hypothetical. Later in the report, we get:
In Oakland, the only current, active interest in temporary permits is for surface parking. Surface parking may be considered an undesirable land use, even on a temporary basis…Is the use acceptable near the West Oakland BART station but not in the Central Business District? The Planning Commission could consider taking a position on surface parking in Oakland.
I thought that’s what zoning was, but apparently the City sees things differently.
How much demand is there?
Later, the report explains that the City has heard interest in TCUPs for a grand total of four lots. All of them are surface parking lots. Altogether, they would total 200 parking spaces all over Oakland.
You know, I keep trying to remind myself to be take deep breaths, and calm down, and at least try to sound reasonable, or maybe just not completely unhinged, but I’m sorry, this is fucking ridiculous. This whole TCUPs is make-work. That is all they are. There is no justification for the months that have been spent on this. This is the product of a department that apparently has way too much time on their hands.
We are going to add this whole elaborate process to the already weighty City bureaucracy, create this bizarre made-up type of permit that doesn’t exist anywhere else, all because in a 56 square mile city of 420,000 residents a grand total of four people really want to turn land that isn’t zoned for it into some tiny parking lots? Oh, and also because maybe someone might want to provide free legal services out of a shipping container? Give me a fucking break..
Look, if people need to turn their land into a surface parking lot so bad, they can apply for a damn variance. The City already granted one variance to have temporary parking lot on otherwise entitled property. There’s another one on the Planning Commission agenda tonight. Some dude wants a surface parking lot out by the airport? I don’t care. I don’t even know why they’re banned out there anyway. If people in that neighborhood don’t like it, they can come to the Planning Commission hearing and object.
What do you want downtown Oakland to look like?
I think that the best way to put this in context is to look at the findings for the planning code amendment (PDF) included as part of the proposal. Bizarrely, they are all about how TCUPs will make Oakland nicer.
Take, for example, finding K:
To especially protect and improve the appearance and orderliness of major trafficways and transit lines and views there from, thereby increasing the enjoyment of travel, reducing traffic hazards, and enhancing the image of Oakland derived by residents, businesspeople, commuters, visitors, and potential investors. Temporary uses would be subject to review to ensure that they do not further any blighted appearance and contribute to the aesthetic quality of the surrounding area, to the degree feasible.
Let’s take that at face value. I can think of an entitled empty lot on transit lines and major trafficways downtown. It’s this lot, on the corner of 11th and Broadway.
Right now, the lot is surrounded by an inoffensive fence with a sign posted on the corner showing what the building going there is going to look like, should it ever get built.
Now, I don’t think a vacant lot is a great thing to have on the major corner of a major street in one’s downtown. In fact, I think it makes Oakland look crappy. I would prefer it if the fence were prettier, and perhaps lined with art panels or something. The fence at least seems to do a decent job of keeping people out so that the walls of the adjacent buildings don’t get covered in graffiti. Unlike, for example, our newest downtown parking lot.
I think most people would agree that vacant lots on Broadway are sad. I don’t think having a vacant lot on this corner is good for Oakland’s image. It makes us look pathetic to people who get out of BART right there.
But would it be better for Oakland’s image if we had a parking lot there? Would it make Oakland more appealing to investors? It certainly wouldn’t reduce traffic hazards, since adding curb cuts and vehicle ingress and egress at that location would increase danger to pedestrians and probably degrade traffic flow on Broadway.
Would putting a parking lot there make Oakland look more attractive to investors? Really. Would it? I mean, I don’t think so. A parking lot, whether it has some esoteric three year with one year extension permit or not, looks permanent. If I were to come visit Oakland and see a parking lot right there, I would assume that we had given up on building anything at this major intersection on our major downtown street. And least the way it is now shows some potential.
And what about these other hypothetical uses from the report? Would having them on this lot improve Oakland’s image? If we took the fence away and stuck a shipping container in the middle of the lot where people could go to get free legal services, would that enhance Oakland’s image? Would that make us more attractive to investors? What about someone selling used children’s clothing on the lot all day, another of the hypothetical examples provided in the staff report? Is that a good use for that space? Would that make Oakland look like a more successful city? Would it make us look like we’re on the up?
Is it just me? I mean, is that what most people in Oakland think? That since we can’t have a skyscraper right now, we should just stick a shipping container and a swap meeting on the lot for the next four years? Do we want to look like Detroit?
Help stop more surface parking lots downtown
If you agree with me that this is insane, I strongly encourage you to let the Planning Commission know how you feel. As Becks said the other day:
Even though policy and reason are on our side, it’s possible that the Planning Commission could wash away the pedestrian gains earned in downtown zoning by approving TCUPs for surface parking lots. Please, if you care about the pedestrian experience and livelihood of downtown Oakland, email the Planning Commission (contact info below) and/or come speak on Wednesday night. The meeting starts at 6pm at Oakland City Hall, Hearing Room 1. It’s hard to say when the item will come up so your best bet is to arrive close to 6pm.
If you send an email or speak, please remember to be polite and to explain why we don’t need more surface parking lots in downtown Oakland. Feel free to use any language from this blog post that you find helpful.
I hope to see you on Wednesday!
Planning Commission Contact Info:
Oh, and if you’re wondering about all those photos I mixed in there, they were all taken this morning at the new parking lot I was talking about yesterday.I am so sick of hearing this argument for the TCUPs that adding new surface parking lots will reduce blight. They don’t. They create blight. They are blight. This is what they look like.
On positive thing about that particular lot is that some of the promised art panels went up yesterday:
On the negative side, however, the back wall still looks like this:
Okay, I hope to see some of you tonight! If you can’t go in person, at least consider sending an e-mail.