So the Planning Commission’s Zoning Update Committee (ZUC) will meet today to discuss again the zoning update for the Central Business District (CBD). I’ve written about the zoning update process at length already, and at this point, I’m kind of bored with it all. I’m tired of writing the same things about how this plan is just terrible in every way. It stifles architectural creativity. It does not take into account the demands or realities of the market. Looking at the rules about minimum lot sizes and maximum buildable lot areas, you have to seriously question whether anyone even took a walk around the CBD and looked at what land there is to develop before trying to write rules for it.
The new staff report (PDF!) has some encouraging changes, I suppose. The proposed height limits have been raised, some of the sillier demands of the code have been amended, and so on. I guess we could go on for another six months doing this, picking at this bad restriction or amending that absurd limitation, and we might end up with a new CBD zoning code that looks somewhat less like it’s from outer space. But no amount of nitpicking and amending will change the fact that the proposed code is just fundamentally flawed.
The bizarre tower/base design requirement is not only ugly, pedestrian unfriendly, discordant with the historic character of downtown, and blind to the desires of the market, it’s also just plain unnecessary. The strictly regulated forms outlined in this proposal are basically a way of saying that we can’t trust the Planning Commission to make decisions.
There’s a reason we have Design Review. There’s a reason everything over 100,000 square feet needs a Conditional Use Permit and a public hearing. We don’t need to lay out in the zoning code exactly what size and shape every last building has to be. If people propose things that are inappropriate for their location, the Planning Commission can say no to them. That’s why they exist.
Today, the ZUC will only be discussing the height, tower, and massing restrictions. So it might be easy to forget, if you were just reading the staff report, that in addition to this insanely complicated map of height areas, the zoning proposal also calls to create four different zoning designations in the CBD, which do not correspond with the height areas. It’s all just way too much! And it just keeps getting more and more complicated the more we discuss it. Check out today’s height area proposal map (PDF!):
Look, no amount of amendment or discussion is going to make this proposed code rational, good for downtown, or respectful of the General Plan, which explicitly calls for flexibility in the CBD:
The Element provides maximum flexibility for both horizontal and vertical mixing of a whole variety of land uses in the Downtown.
The entire proposed code should be scrapped and the process started from the beginning, this time using community and stakeholder input and maybe even some walks around downtown to craft a proposal. Anyway, since CALM (PDF!) and the Oakland Builder’s Alliance (PDF!) are both presenting their own ideas about what we should do with the downtown zoning at the meeting today, I figured I might as well toss my thoughts out there as well.
First, let’s look at what the General Plan lists as goals for downtown:
- To promote downtown Oakland’s position as a dynamic economic center for the region.
- To serve as a primary communications, office, government, high technology, retail, entertainment, and transportation hub for Northern California.
- To become a premier location in the region for urban residential living, by building upon existing neighborhoods, and by promoting and expanding a pedestrian-friendly, diverse, and exciting range of housing, social, cultural, and arts opportunities.
- To further develop, support, revitalize, and promote the distinct, attractive urban character of each of the downtown districts, and the respect historic resources.
The zoning suggested below is not my personal fantasy zoning for downtown, but I think it’s an example of a reasonable zoning proposal that is consistent with the General Plan.
I tried to draw these lines to respect the existing character of downtown neighborhoods. In keeping with the General Plan’s direction to concentrate building along the Broadway spine, the area outlined in black would be the highest density zone, we’ll call it Zone 1 for fun. Recognizing that there are almost no developable lots left on Broadway, and also that a spine doesn’t mean only one street, but rather should represent the core area most accessible by public transit, the area extends a few blocks on either side. I took Zone 1 all the way down 20th Street to the Lake in order to maximize space for commercial development, and to ensure that the proposal respects the existing use in the area, which is our most highly concentrated office district. 20th Street, being incredibly wide, and featuring both a BART station and the Uptown Transit Center bus mall, is a prime candidate for future office build-out.
The rest of downtown is all what we’ll call Zone 2, except for the two neighborhoods outlined in red. I have removed these two historic neighborhoods – Old Oakland and the Lakeside Apartment District – because I agree it is appropriate that they should get special treatment to ensure preservation of their historic character. I expanded the Lakeside Apartment District to a larger area than designated as the official historic district by the City’s cultural heritage survey just for simplicity’s sake, because otherwise the map looked gerrymandered as all get-out.
Does everybody know what FAR is? FAR, or Floor Area Ratio (PDF!), is basically the total square footage of a building divided by the square footage of a lot. I’m not in love with FAR, but I do like that it allows for a great deal of flexibility in design – shorter buildings in exchange for less open space, taller buildings must have a narrow footprint, which works for people who are concerned with say, preserving view corridors.
So there are your three downtown zones. Zone 1 gets a FAR of 20, which is the FAR assigned to downtown by the LUTE. Zone 2 gets a lower FAR of 14, and the historic neighborhoods get a FAR of 9. No height limits, no design requirements, just design review for everything. Zone 1 requires retail space for all new developments, no setbacks required for construction in any zone, and absolutely no private open space requirements. Someday I hope to find the time to write a long blog about how much I hate private open space, but for now, let’s just say that it’s bad for the neighborhood. I’m not a big fan of elaborate use restrictions, but getting into everything wrong with the permitted facilities and activities in the current proposed code (PDF!) would like triple the length of this post, so let’s just say that I wouldn’t prohibit nearly so many things – certainly not billboards or self-storage.
My ideal downtown zoning code would feature minimal regulation and maximum flexibility. The current proposal approaches zoning from an antiquated perspective, but I think a more fundamental problem is that it treats downtown like a regular neighborhood. Downtown shouldn’t be just Piedmont Avenue with taller buildings. If there’s any part of Oakland that deserves to be free from restrictive use and design requirements, where creativity and flexibility and crazy mixes of uses are not only allowed, but encouraged, where density is maximized, it’s the Central Business District. The plan outlined above does exactly that, whereas the current staff proposal does the opposite.
- 03.02.08: Planning Commission approves new tallest building in Oakland – in December
- 03.17.08: Zoning from Mars
- 03.20.08: CBD at the ZUC
- 04.17.08: CBD Zoning Update Update
- 05.21.08: CBD, back at ZUC