An alternative CBD zoning update

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.

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14 thoughts on “An alternative CBD zoning update

  1. dto510

    This is a good map that that serves the General Plan’s goals in the most straightforward way, which should be the point of zoning policy. Unfortunately, its simplicity is exactly what planning staff would object to. You hit the nail on the head when you say that elaborate restrictions reflect a distrust of the Planning Commission to make appropriate decisions. But whatever one may think of individual commissioners or specific decisions, the PC is the public’s oversight of planning and the work done by planning staff, they should have the ultimate say, not the staff’s nit-picky interpretation of a code.

    You’re also right to point out that the downtown historic districts are pretty small and they are the only ones the the law acknowledges for “respect.” Though you could make Old Oakland a little bigger, send it down to 7th St because the Victorian commercial buildings continue for another block. I also like how you include the 20th St bus mall in the max height area – more Oaklanders commute by bus than BART!

    Great job, I like how it’s straightforward, doesn’t take the Broadway spine too literally, and protects historic districts without limiting development elsewhere or getting too elaborate, as other proposals do. Maybe we should look at form-based zoning for those districts, since the idea is that they already have a clear building form?

  2. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    In further understanding FAR, can you clarify (I’ve forgotten, despite having looked it up a dozen or more times over the years, that FAR does not include floors for parking?

    My reason for pointing this out is that it can add a good 2-3 (or more) floors to a building height, yet I don’t believe that it is calculated in the FAR.

    The thing about the zones, is that you can always ask for a variance. I’ve seen so many variances from the FAR, from zoning, etc over the last few years. Anything is possible. The developer just has to go before the PC and ask…

  3. Rebecca Kaplan

    Hiya folks. To everyone who has been working on this, I apologize that I can’t get to the meeting today, but I agree that downtown, especially around transit hubs (major bus areas and BART) is the ideal place for new development and density, and we should not be taking actions to discourage density and creativity in this area.

    The proposal, while somewhat improved, nonetheless seems to have started from the wrong approach. Instead of starting with prior-era-style proposed restrictions, the conversation should start by identifying the goals. It seems to me that one of the goals for downtown, both for Oakland’s economic revitalization, and for environmental preservation and reducing oil use, is transit-oriented development. The goals should then guide the policy decisions.

    (And, the goals can certainly include historic preservation — my point is not that “transit oriented development” is the only goal, but it should be a significant one, and identifying goals should help guide the decisions).

  4. LeAndre

    Speaking of “transit oriented development” this would be a great opportunity to create a California High Speed Rail Station…I know its a little premature and a little off topic, but SF already has plans on building space for its possible station this fall…

    Although there is no “official” plans on creating an Oakland station(which I think is ridiculous considering we have three major sports teams and an international airport)…this would be a great way to demand a route to downtown Oakland…that would definitely bring new comers

  5. Chris Kidd

    Hmmm, I used to defend the CBD zoning because I supported the measures it took to encourage walkable streets and pedestrian-friendly/oriented design. But then I read the OBA proposal, and it’s just -umm- better. Where the current CBD zoning tries to achieve things in a round about manner through restrictions and strict requirements, the OBA guidelines address the problems and their solutions directly without a ton of strictures.

    I still think there are a lot of positives to be taken from the current CBD plan. I suppose that earlier in the process I wanted to work within the plan to fix the bugs. Now I’m more inclined to pluck out the positives and incorporate them into a more flexible OBA-style plan.

  6. KentLew

    Nice post, V. I agree that the zoning update process is pretty boring stuff! That’s why I thank you for actually wading through it and trying to make sense of it. That is what I like best about your blog.

    Regarding the specifics, I would make the following comments:
    1) Shouldn’t zoning updates make mention of walkability? For instance by thinking about making more areas pedestrian-only and removing car lanes? The CBD is actually pretty ped-friendly, but I find that the grid layout and 3-lane one way streets (Webster, Franklin) give it a very empty feeling after 5 p.m. on weekdays, and pretty much the whole weekend (with the exception of Chinatown). One change I would like to see, for instance, is make 17th between Webster and Franklin ped-only. There are already several popular shops and restaurants on that block. Has anyone proposed this?
    2) LeAndre’s idea for a HSR hub in Oakland sounds radical, but makes sense. It would in fact, create pressure to build a future HSR spur down to Oakland from the east (note that the HSR authority recently decided that the Oakland spur wasn’t going to be included in the first phase of HSR – too much political clout in the south and west bay). Planning for a major transit hub that includes HSR, before anyone’s seriously talking about it, is just the kind of long-term thinking that I think this city lacks…

  7. John

    Hi V. So I am just wondering what your take was of the ZUC meeting on July 16. Any thoughts?

  8. Max Allstadt

    I’m going to chime in quickly on this because I’m in an internet cafe next to an active volcano and the clock is ticking.

    As I’ve said before design guidelines as written are a bad idea. They stifle creativity. Of course even as written, architects will ignore them. Then they’ll cajole their way through the planning commission if they’re lucky, having to shell out a few thousand dollars for variances.

    Meanwhile STAND will come to the podium and recite the design guidelines in byzantine detail. Commissioners will feign interest while quietly doing sudoku in their heads, and ultimately ignore STAND.

    Here’s a better idea:

    Make IMPACT guidelines that mandate a certain amount of light and air at street level.

    Every skyscraper designed these days is done in Revit, AutoCAD, and/or 3Dmax or comparable software. This software is capable of modeling shadows at street level with ease. Guidelines should address cumulative impact. If one tall building won’t block out the sun beyond a set threshold on a particular street, let it go up. If the next one on the same street will create shadows that cross the predetermined threshold, then it will need to have a design revision.

    If we stick to base-tower, we’ll have a whole lot of uncreative buildings until those regulations pass. If we make our guidelines about impact, architects will find more creative solutions, using transparency, multi-small-tower designs, mirrored facades, or masses that slope with height rather than step back. And that’s just what I could come up with while waiting to go see pele.

    Want good architecture? Mandate impact mitigation, not design. Simple.

  9. Robert

    Great plan Max. Only writing functional guidelines is more difficult – read more creative energy and more work – than writing a design specification. So we aren’t likely to see it from the planning commission.

  10. Max Allstadt

    Robert, the commission doesn’t generate policy directly I don’t think. The writing of these guidelines is the responsibility of planning staff. Frankly they’re really smart people who could do this easily if the political will can be summoned to direct them to do so.

  11. Robert

    I meant planning department, but commission or planning department, you are much more optimistic than I.

  12. dto510

    Here’s an idea for historic preservation, from the NY Times:

    Some thoughtful architects have sought to invent new ways of thinking about preservation. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who seems to be everywhere in China these days, has argued that designating specific buildings as landmarks creates a distorted version of history. Rather he has proposed carving out a protected wedge through the city in which all of (Beijing’s) historical layers, from hutongs on through the Communist-style projects, would be permanently preserved. The result would be a sort of living museum, a place fixed in time even as tumultuous changes unfold around it.

    Or maybe this is already what the preservationists want to do with most of downtown.

  13. Max Allstadt

    I think that actually makes a good deal of sense DTO. I do think preservationists get carried away sometimes though. What’s the cutoff date for “historic”? Who evaluates whether or not a structure is worthy of protection?

    My parents just bought a house built before Oakland existed. A lot of folks on the east coast find the notion of an 80 year old “historic” building laughable. Europeans even more so. My ex-wife’s parents lived in an old farmhouse in Normandy. Their town hall didn’t bat an eye when they wanted to rip a hole in a 600 year old stone wall and put a modern wood and glass addition in.

    I can understand maintaining a beautiful old building. But if it’s falling apart already, do the rules make us fix it up rather than demolish it?