Oh, one more thing about the downtown zoning. I’ve gotten like a dozen e-mails about that story in the East Bay Express last week, so I suppose I should address it. If you didn’t read it, the article claims that Oakland is shooting itself in the foot with respect to achieving density downtown, because the proposed new zoning (PDF) will inflate property values so high that nobody will ever be able to afford to build anything:
Pyatok explained that rezoning most of the downtown for tall buildings will articifially raise property values, thereby inhibiting development. Erecting tall buildings is already a costly endeavor, so developers need to acquire land as cheaply as possible to make it work. But if the downtown is rezoned for tall buildings, property owners are going to demand more money for their land, Pyatok explained, noting the property values usually increase when land is rezoned for high rises.
The very fundamental flaw in this argument is that downtown isn’t being “rezoned” for high rises, because it was already zoned for high rises. In fact, under the old downtown zoning, there are no height limits in the vast majority of downtown. Downtown, under the existing zoning, has twelve zones – C-40, C-45, C-51, C-52, C-55, R-80, R-90, S-2, S-7, S-8, and S-17 (all PDFs). The only one of those zones that has a height limit is C-52, in Old Oakland. So anyone who whines about how downtown is being “upzoned” because the new zoning would allow “unlimited high rises” is either lying to you or clueless.
Either that, or they don’t feel like bothering to explain to you what they’re actually talking about when they use the term “upzoning”. Perhaps they think you’re too much of a simpleton to understand, or they maybe think the actual issue won’t get you quite so riled up.
That issue is density. While the existing downtown zoning for the most part has no height limits, building sizes are limited through density restrictions. One of those restrictions is a maximum permitted residential density, which allows for 1 residential dwelling unit per X number of square feet of lot area. The residential density allowed under the existing zoning permits as little as 1 residential dwelling unit for every 450 square feet of lot area in some areas, and as much as 1 residential dwelling unit for every 150 square feet of lot area in others, although you can achieve greater density with a conditional use permit after meeting certain conditions. Under the new zoning, the permitted residential density is 1 dwelling unit per as little as 90 and as much as 300 square feet of lot area.
The other way of regulating density is through the Floor Area Ratio (FAR). FAR is determined by dividing the square footage of a building by the square footage of the land the building is on. So a one story building that occupies its entire lot will have a FAR of 1. A 2 story building that occupies only half the lot also as a FAR of 1. A 4 story building that occupies a quarter of the lot also has a FAR of 1. A 4 story building that occupies the entire lot has a FAR of 4. You get the picture.
The maximum permitted FAR under the old downtown zoning varies between 3 and 7, although you can also get bonuses to increase this by up to 50%. Shorenstein’s planned office tower on 12th Street (where the giant pit is) has a FAR of 10.5, and it conforms to the old zoning because of the all the various FAR bonuses it qualifies for. You can view a chart illustrating the allowable residential density and FAR in the existing downtown zones here (PDF) and the proposed density limits in the new zoning here (PDF). Under the new zoning, the proposed maximum FAR varies from 4.5 to 20.
So in the sense that the new zoning allows for greater densities than the old zoning, it is true that downtown is being “upzoned.” So will this upzoning immediately inflate property values and keep people from building anything in downtown Oakland, as the East Bay Express article suggests? The answer is NO, and here’s why.
As I mentioned yesterday in my post about Specific Plans, a City’s zoning code is supposed to match its General Plan. As a charter city, Oakland is not actually bound by this directive, and so, after we adopted our General Plan in 1998, we didn’t update the zoning to go with it. (We’re in the process of doing this now. This new downtown zoning proposal is part of that process.)
So then, there we were, in a situation where all of a sudden we have this General Plan, our “constitution,” which says that you can build X somewhere, but the zoning says you can’t. To deal with the discrepancy, we adopted a set of interim land use controls (PDF) two months later. They basically say that if your project would be allowed under the General Plan, but is prohibited under the existing zoning, the General Plan wins and your project is allowed. Or if you want to build something that is permitted by the old zoning, but banned by the General Plan, oh well, too bad for you. They were originally only supposed to last for three years, but since we never got around to that zoning update, we had to extend them in 2001, 2003, 2006, and 2007. And we’ll probably have to do it again when they expire in January 2010 because I seriously doubt the zoning update will actually be complete by then.
Since May of 1998, these interim land use controls have allowed the General Plan to be the primary tool for governing allowable density. Under the General Plan, downtown is given a maximum FAR of 20. That’s the same as the FAR in the new zoning proposal for the two height areas that allow for the biggest buildings. It is higher than the FAR in every other proposed height area downtown. So, in effect, what this new zoning does is downzone downtown from what we have be permitting for the past 11 years. If a FAR of 20 meant that nobody would ever build anything downtown because it inflates property values too much, then nothing would have been built downtown since 1998. Obviously, that didn’t happen. And there’s no rational reason to think it would start happening now.
The East Bay Express article justifies the assertion that the best thing for density is to limit building heights by saying Seattle does it that way:
Other cities, particularly Seattle, have recognized this problem and thus limited tall buildings to small sections of the city while only allowing buildings of up to 75 feet tall eslewhere, Pyatok said. The 75-foot height limit keeps property values low, making land more attractive for developers.
It is true that Seattle limits the tallest buildings to “small sections of the city.” Problem is, that section of the city is downtown, where there are large areas that allow unlimited building heights, and other areas with height limits of 500 and 400 feet. (Also, the building height limits everywhere else are not actually 75 feet.) You can view a map explaining downtown Seattle’s height and FAR limits here (PDF). Seattle adopted these new limits in 2006, after deciding that the more restrictive zoning they had previously adopted were limiting downtown growth (PDF) too much. The new proposed zoning regulations for downtown Oakland are actually pretty similar to what Seattle ended up doing in 2006.