Can you make laws about building heights when you don’t know how tall buildings are?

Planning staff seems to think so.

We went over this, already, of course, after a meeting way back in March about the proposed CBD height limits, where a handout (PDF!) was distributed to help illustrate for the audience what these height limits would mean. That is, what does a 300 foot tall building look like, a 200 foot tall building, and so on. The heights on the handout were off, not just a little, but by measures of as much as 170 feet!

Another handout listed existing building heights downtown (PDF!), and the numbers there were wildly off as well. Here’s the breakdown:


Although staff denied at the first Zoning Update Committee meeting on the subject that their heights were wrong, they have since admitted the error of their initial estimates. From the staff report (PDF!) for this Wednesday’s meeting:

The height maximums previously recommended by staff for these areas were based on an estimated floor height of 15 feet for the ground floor of a building and ten feet for each floor above. GPS analysis of existing downtown high-rise buildings performed since the original regulations were proposed indicates that, on average, each story above the ground floor is about 13 feet in height.

Don’t even get me started on how those estimates got made in the first place. Guessing building heights based on 10 feet per story is understandable if it’s coming from the random, uninformed person on the street, but totally incomprehensible from anyone who knows anything about commercial building. From a planner? Just completely inexcusable! I just don’t get it.

Anyway, in a previous meeting, the Zoning Update Committee requested a panorama of the downtown skyline from Lake Merritt, to help them visualize what the proposed regulations would mean. An on Wednesday, they’ll get one (PDF!).

Here’s an excerpt:


So…notice anything? Like, maybe how everything about this entire graphic is just completely wrong? It’s bad enough that they’re knocking 100 or more feet off these buildings, but beyond that, the buildings they choose to label aren’t even labeled right! The tallest building in Oakland, the Ordway, is not even identified on the map. The Essex is identified as the Kaiser Center. And I think that’s 1330 Broadway, drawn together with a nearby building, that they marked as Lake Merritt Plaza, although the image is too low quality for me to be certain. It’s something in that part of downtown, anyway. That isn’t Park Plaza, and Park Plaza is totally more than 90 feet tall. If you click on the pdf and view the whole image, you’ll see that while they manage to correctly identify the Alameda County Courthouse (although not the Oakland Public Library), they assert that the 12 story building is only 80 feet tall.

These aren’t minor errors. They are huge, completely inexcusable screw-ups. How can the Zoning Update Committee possibly expect to have an informed conversation about downtown heights when the information staff is providing them is 100% inaccurate? Anyway, what I can’t figure out is whether staff is providing egregiously false information on purpose to mislead the Planning Commissioners into supporting a downzoning agenda, or if they’re just completely inept. Also, I can’t decide which is more frightening.

9 thoughts on “Can you make laws about building heights when you don’t know how tall buildings are?

  1. New resident

    I just looked at county assessor’s office and the Oakland Explorer website. They have NO square footage info. (I am doing some research on FAR in cities vs. suburban office parks.) Alameda’s GIS has every building’s square footage, same with Contra Costa County’s. I guess Oakland planners has NO IDEA how much square footage is in a building unless they can dig up some old approval from the archives (stop laughing).

    This is all a symptom of the totally broken zoning system used by 99.5% of all cities out there. Euclidian zoning is evil, and worse, it is counter-productive. I was shocked reading that OBA proposal. Like drinking from a beautiful rejuvenating mountain spring. How did all these great urbanists take over the Builders Alliance? And how can I get them to talk sense to other cities around the Bay?

    My handle? Signing lease this week, moving to Oakland (Adam’s Point) first of the month. Goodbye suburban dreariness… goodbye long commute… hello Oakland! Hope it turns out alright…

  2. ConcernedOakFF

    I am more and more disappointed in this city. There was a time I honestly had hope for it, hope that we were going in the right direction, but both from the exterior sorces (news) and interior sources (my job) I see how much farther we have to fall. We have not even seen the TIP of the iceberg of incompetence from our city workers….if the people that lived here only knew how bad it really is (including public safety)…they would either move, be furious…or both…

  3. Oh Pleeze

    Dear V

    re: “is … staff is providing egregiously false information on purpose … or (are they) just completely inept.”

    Yes. To both.

  4. V Smoothe Post author

    I have now been informed by planning staff that the handout is wrong because an “old database” was used to create it and the errors weren’t caught because they had a deadline. A new diagram will be provided at today’s meeting.

  5. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    New Resident – first of all, “Welcome to Oakland!” I wish you could use tone in text, because my neighbor has the perfect way of saying it each time I pick him up at the airport.

    As for looking at approvals from the archive and reality, they are apparently often different. For example, the building my store is in was originally approved for X of feet tall, with 4 stories. Instead, they shortened the height of each floor to the bare minimum and went for an extra floor. There was much talk of filing suit against the developer, but it was already built by the time anyone figured it out. There were fewer of us here in the Jack London District. Plus, just when construction was almost complete, the project was sold to the current owners.

    The Jack London Square Redevelopment Project is also an example. They are limited by height, not so much by square footage. The square footage affects their parking requirements, but they can figure out how to make that work for them as well.

    But it is interesting that the City doesn’t keep the final numbers on file with the plans – because I’m pretty sure they get final plans. Although, again, their record keeping sucks… when I went to change my address from Suite 101 (aka Suite 1, Suite A, Suite 1A) because of conflicts with an apartment on the 2nd floor – 101 (why?????) they said that they needed me to provide plans of the building. I even grabbed a friend who used to work in planning and he went with me to explain that planning has the plans. Nope, they didn’t. I was told that I could draw the plans on paper (me draw?!) and that would be sufficient. So I drew the plans for a doghouse as a joke. They changed the address and I went my merry way. In all honesty, it seemed like they got their kicks on making it difficult because I wasn’t a regular. Whatever. Here we are six years later and PGE, ATT, & even 911 has my old address. I have tried valently to resolve that but have come to realize that anytime someone moves in or out of apartment 101 there will be phone problems. Hopefully apartment 101 will never need 911 service without staying on the phone.

  6. New resident

    Thanks Joanna/OnTheGoJo!

    Actually your building illustrates why planners always ask for current plans when you go to get a permit.
    Case A: If you submit plans for a 5 story building, and they can find the approvals and old plans for a 4 story… Houston, we have a problem.
    Case B: If all the old plans just fall into a records keeping disaster black hole, then they need new plans because they can’t find the old plans without hours or days of searching. You do not want to pay for 12 hours of time and labor for them to find that old plan.

    As for the zoning update, I’m with V Smoothe to just chuck the current proposal out and start over. But I say it is the 21st Century, use a form-based code! OSA is on the right track with that one, the code needs to incorporate the context of what streets its on and where the building is at.

  7. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    To be fair, they probably got approvals from someone – or some inspector never noticed – because most of the approvals are based on building height.

    That’s why they’ll often get approvals for a project up to X feet high, but then build smaller. It all depends on what kind of financing they can get and how much they can get out of a building they can afford to build. Some go higher, some not. Rarely do you actually get the exact thing that was approved at the Planning Commission. Many changes are made along the way and unless they are significant, they don’t go back to the PC.

    But yeah, wouldn’t it be nice if plans were properly kept on file. Maybe the majority are, but the two times – two different buildings – I’ve needed the plans, no one could find them.