CBD, back at ZUC

The Central Business District (that means downtown) zoning update is back at the Zoning Update Committee today, and even though the Commissioners directed staff at the last meeting to come back with a new proposal that does not have height limits except in the historic areas, staff has, naturally, returned with a proposal that still has height/size restrictions everywhere. Why they insist on this bizarre tower/base architectural style is beyond me. Anyway, read all about it over at theoakbook.com.

32 thoughts on “CBD, back at ZUC

  1. Max Allstadt

    OK, so here’s a little bit of rationale for why this is silly.

    1. Height limits are unnecessary because the one reason people keep bringing up, light and air, is not a problem. There is one block downtown with a shadow canyon effect: between 16th and 17th on Franklin. I haven’t found one anywhere else. We have light and air rules. We might make them stronger for highrises. They may already be. But an arbitrary height limit is overkill for this. It does nothing by itself. Multiple tall buildings near eachother are the problem. Regulate that. Not height in and of itself.

    2. Tower/base design guidelines are silly because they too are attempts to create light and air. If you want light and air, don’t mandate a particular design solution. Mandate light and air. If you give a designer a challenge, they’ll solve it their own way and innovate. If you give a designer a design, you’re making them redundant, resentful, and stifling innovation.

    3. Lake Merritt: People talk about a “bowl effect” with height limits becoming stricter in proximity to the lake. None of the people who’ve suggested this have bothered to model a shadow study of what would be adequate regulation in order to keep the lakeshore sunny. A tall skinny building, for instance would have minimal effect. The Scottish Rite Temple, which is short and stout, casts a big fat shadow at the end of the day. This is why FAR matters. Even so, it isn’t about height, it’s about light. If you want to keep shadows of the lake, require shadow studies. Make the legislation about the shadow size and duration, not about the height.

    The more restrictive we are with design, the less quality design we’ll get. Starchitects don’t come to Oakland. Loosen up the design review requirements and that may change. When was the last time and Oakland project made it into a national design magazine? Anybody know? I’ve never seen a single article!

  2. Chris Kidd

    Good points there, Max.

    Are there examples of other cities that have used light-and-air based or shadow-study based legislation to determine their zoning in their downtown areas? It’d probably be a great way to see if such an approach were feasible.

    My only real concern is how realisitic or applicable such an approach would be. It’s much easier from a planning standpoint to set down strict groundrules about base height, tower height, tower sq. feet and whatnot than to try and base approvals on light and air or the way each new building would interact with its neighbors. There’s a large amount of subjectivity in decisions like that. To be clear, I think you’re really on to something here Max; You’ve kinda distilled the intentions of the new zoning, removing the process and striking at the positive results they want to create. I’m just not sure how I would feel about giving the planning commission or similar bodies largely subjective powers and tools. There could be a lot of abuse of power in those types of situations. Would a positive shadow study be an instant approval for a new project? What’s to say what constitutes a new building that is a positive contribution with respect to its neighboring buildings? This is leading to lots of interesting new questions.

    So how would we create a zoning structure for downtown that’s more directly based on the goals that we want to achieve in the retention of light-and-air and keeping of shadow off Lake Merritt? Planning party!! I’ll bring the chips and dip.

  3. Max Allstadt


    If you look at existing rules about shadow in particular, they’re very objective and scientific. When dealing with highrises, it’s even easier, because every highrise built today is computer modeled, and every 3D cad program does shadow studies as an integral feature.

    Make rules about:

    1. the area of the shadow,
    2. the encroachment of the shadow on to the street, lakeside, and neighbors.
    3. the duration of the encroachment at the equinoxes and solstices.


  4. Max Allstadt

    As for subjective design stuff, the planning commission and city council don’t ever have to justify their votes with any guidelines anyway.

  5. oaklandhappenings

    When’s the party, Chris?? If you are calling the shots, let us know…if you are serious that is.
    As for the article–thanks, V, for showing the 6 zoning areas. I didn’t know that there was no limit for towers in 5 and 6; I was under the impression–because of Earthquake issues and not wanting to Manhattanize the downtown–that there were limits in all zones, but I was misinformed.
    Also, slightly off topic–if any of you didn’t know already, SKS’s planned building for 1100 Broadway is hopefully going to have its groundbreaking any day now (approved last month by the planning commission). There is a large picture of the building at the site; it will be 20 stories, and VERY green (literally and environmentally). I am excited about this project starting, as (1) looking at the Key System Headquarter’s “decayed” north wall almost makes me want to lose my lunch; (2) if tenants show interest early, it will hopefully succeed in filling up faster than 555 City Center did. Hopefully it won’t become another center 21 disaster, which has taken forever to lease to tenants.
    Anyway, sorry to be long.

  6. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    1100 Broadway is also known as T12, right? If so, I heard through the grapevine last night that they will be applying on July 1 and they’re ready to go immediately. If I understood what I heard last night correctly, they’re waiting for the City’s new fiscal year to start.

    I also heard that 14th & Jefferson may go belly up. Not good for Olson Company.

    At least 14th & Jackson seems to be back on track… maybe. Hopefully. After 2+ years, it’s about freaken time.

    As for filling up office space, it does take time. That’s completely normal unless a company builds it specifically for their own needs. Okay, even then they don’t always fill it up right away.

    They’re already marketing Jack London Market (previously known as Harvest Hall) and have people interested in the office space. I think it would be easier for them if they were closer to BART, but they’re probably going to have to reimplement the shuttle like they used to have.

    As for height limits, I used to be for them, and now, having lost our view in every direction and feeling towered over from each direction, I don’t care. But someday when you spend $400K on a home and you lose your light and views – which we knew at purchase would likely happen – you’ll see that it still hurts. My roof garden will now have a lovely parking garage view instead of an Estuary view. It sucks. It’s progress, but it still sucks. :) And I’ll go to my grave saying that it was the wrong spot for a parking garage for JLS…

  7. V Smoothe Post author

    Some quick responses –

    Chris –

    High rises development downtown is subject to CEQA, and light, air, and shadow impact studies are part of the Environmental Impact Report process. Or, will be as long as anyone asks for them in a scoping session.

    oaklandhappenings –

    The previous proposal had tower height limits in all zones. The Committee asked staff at the April meeting to return without height limits, and staff declined to do so, but did return with a proposal not limiting tower heights in Areas 5 and 6. Although I don’t like the tower height limits, I’m much more concerned about the base/tower design requirement and maximum tower floorplates, which create buildings that aren’t necessarily pedestrian friendly and that will not provide the type of space most desirable to the type of employers we need to be attracting.

    Is 1100 Broadway breaking ground soon? The Trib had an article last month saying it was on hold until they landed an anchor tenant. I’ll make some calls and find out what’s going on there.

    Joanna –

    T12 is the Shorenstein building at 601 12th St. They got their approval last December and are planning on starting construction this summer.

  8. Chris Kidd

    Re: the planning commission point. I know that they don’t have to justify their votes for what comes before them, but they often do reference zoning and planning code when giving comment before final votes. It also makes their decision more accountable and less open to interpretation.

    A clear zoning code gives more and better ammunition to citizens and speakers who are, for whatever reason, trying to oppose projects. A highly subjective or non-existant code would take that weapon out of their hands, or at least severely blunt it. Having a black-and-white point of contention goes a long way.

    Don’t get it twisted, I’m not trying to champion the CBD plan. I’m trying to smooth out my own concerns about an alternate type of plan and play a little devil’s advocate while I’m at it.

  9. Max Allstadt

    That’s exactly why I’m arguing for the only black and white to be about impact.

    Zoning should be about impact and not about aesthetics. To some degree I accept the need for a historic district here and there, but when we have people like STAND going around calling 80 year old houses historic, I have to chuckle a little. I always say “My grandmommy is 96, and if you called her historic, she’d finish her martini and slap you upside the head”.

    I don’t see anything wrong with private citizens forming neighborhood associations voluntarily. If you want to write in an association membership requirement to your deed, it’s your deed, go ahead. If I don’t want restrictions, I don’t have to buy your house….

    But the second the government tries to design anything, look out. Design by committee and committee attention to the squeeky wheel will ensue. Design by lowest common denominator leads to the kind of bland work that is emblematic of this city. I can think of one building in this entire town built after 1980 that I think took any real chances, and that has any real character. It’s in Jack London. Anybody guesses?

    If Oakland wants to have an architectural, design, and otherwise aesthetically oriented review board, I oppose that. As an artist, I believe in creative freedom, along with the freedom to look away from ugly stuff, or the freedom to look at ugly stuff, think it’s ugly and learn about beauty by counter example.

    That’s why I say again, throw out the aesthetic and design guidelines, and go with impact. And don’t tell me that the fact that you think something’s ugly is an impact. If people insist on that line of thinking, I say they’re ugly and they should leave town to mitigate their impact on me.

    Impact. Impact. Impact.

  10. Chris Kidd

    Wouldn’t impact be relative to the site that it’s being built upon? A highrise on Broadway between 10th and 20th would have a vastly different impact than that exact same highrise, but deposited on Lakeshore. Maybe I’m just unclear on how impact would be black and white across the board.

    I suppose I’m a little way of ‘impact’ and what it entails. I suppose it would all hinge on what sort of metric you’d use to measure this impact. You mentioned earlier that shadowwing regulations were quite strict and clear. Would removing all other code and leaving only shadowwing regulation and light n’air for highrises be your ideal situation?

    I agree about design by committee. Yuck. Don’t agree with throwing out a design review board. They serve an important purpose and I’ve seen plenty of ugly ass (not to mention inappropriate) projects really get helped out by being sent back by the planning commission to design review. There are plenty of developers who want to create interesting, exciting, groundbreaking buildings. There are plenty of others who want to throw something together on the cheap for as little as possible and flip it quickly. To them, I say “nuh-uh”(with a sassy finger waggle to boot).

  11. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    Hmmm, a building built after 1980 with character in Jack London…. there aren’t that many that were built (referbs yes, new constr, no):

    189 3rd, 240 3rd, 180 2nd, & ? – Allegro buildings – uh, no way do these win any awards. Worst. Architecture. Ever. (imho, and I’ll disclose that my store is in one of these buildings – I chose to make lemonade out of lemons.)

    288 Third (no character, imho)
    200 Second Street (people either love it or hate it)
    311 Oak (Sierra Condos – not my cuppa tea architecturally)
    JLS Site C – interesting, but to me looks like all the other construction of this era
    428 Alice – concrete hospitalesque building

    and my vote for my choice of most aesthetically pleasing -
    125 Second Street – Aqua Via Lovely building, just wish they’d put air conditioning in it to begin with.

    I’m hoping the sister building at 2nd & Harrison (known to some as the Colony Project, but waiting for renaming) will be even better.

    Site G, the JLS parking garage being built on the Amtrak lot, also has hope because we kept it from being a concrete shell.

    The Ellington at 2nd/3rd & Broadway has potential, but I want to see it finished before I give any accolades.

    Did I miss anything? What’s your fave, Max?

  12. Max Allstadt

    Chris, you can zone for different impacts in different areas. My whole point is that the main reason people are freaking out about high rises is shadows, so make rules about shadows and let architects find ways of complying, instead of making rules about shapes.

  13. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    322 Second? 377 Second is under construction, so I think you must mean the David Baker designed 200 Second Street. People either love it or hate it. I find it sad that the orange has already faded so much. It also wasn’t built with the same volume of concrete as the others.

    Oh, but then there was the proposal for 444 Embarcadero! Have you seen that? If you want unique, that’s the one to get behind.

    One issue for building a high rise is all the life saving stuff that has to be added the minute a building goes over 75′… which is why we get lots of 70′ high buildings.

  14. Chris Kidd

    Max, I agree … somewhat.

    Funny that one of your main points is that CBD code will stifle the creativity of architects. The ZUC update specifically talks about using the tower requirement as a gift to architects. Their rationale is that without tower requirements, developers would force their architects to cover the entire lot space all the way up to maximize square feet, thus stifling the architect’s creativity. Requiring tower space and limiting floorplate size in the tower will, in their eyes, require the architect to do new and creative things with the building shape. It’s good to know we’ve all got the architects’ best interests at heart. =P Save the architects! They’re the new polar bears.

    Also, a lot of the language derided in earlier drafts about staff ‘legislating design’ has been really scaled back. Stuff like window frontage, building massing and terminus design (building tops) have all been toned way down. Probably the result of the Chinatown meeting and the previous ZUC meeting.

    Was anyone at the ZUC meeting yesterday? Care to weigh in on how the new’n'improved CBD code was recieved?

  15. V Smoothe Post author

    The staff report claims that the requirements will enhance creativity, but go take that code to an architect and ask them what they think. That argument just doesn’t fly with anyone. Except planners.

    Working on a report on the meeting right now. I’ll probably post tomorrow.

  16. Max Allstadt

    Weird logic. The toning down of the terminus thing is a start, but it oughta just go.

    And it’s not about saving the architects. It’s about attracting innovation in all it’s forms.
    I still say that if you want to make architects be creative, do it with shadow requirements that really make them think. Make it relative, with impact oriented requirements based on adjacencies and context. I don’t want to see a 30 story extrusion of the Broadway Grand building any more than the next guy. But if we legislate design, we’ll get bad design in the legislated shape.

  17. ralph

    Can you help me with this, “I don’t want to see a 30 story extrusion of the Broadway Grand building any more than the next guy.”

    what building is this of which ye speak?


  18. Max Allstadt

    It’s name tells you where it is ralph. Corner of Broadway and West grand. Banal Postmodernist design. As much stucco as they could get away with. It’s maybe 7 stories? Its also one building that pretends to be 4. Each corner is designed with a different look. Developer driven design, full of condos that are overpriced for the market. It’s going to bring a lot of disposable income into that neighborhood eventually, but is sure is boring and tacky. It’s also a giant box, poorly disguised. That’s what I don’t want to see 30 stories tall, which is why I would like to see bulk restrictions, but based on impact rather than arbitrary design.

    Yeah, I just dissed the design. Yeah I think it’s ugly. Do I think we need laws to protect us from it? No.

  19. Ralph

    i’m not sure what you mean by “it’s name tells you where it is” Correct me if I am wrong but I believe 288 Third, 401 Alice, 170 off Third also tells you where you are.

    Interestingly enough, a couple of art murmurs ago, a friend of mine commented that they loved the 4 bldg look. Others i know happen to love the way the corner at broadway and grand comes into view as you approach from grand and harrison.

    now that i have deciphered your point, my english, in no where near as good as the natives, it seems to me that it is unlikely anyone would try to build a 30 story bldg like B/G. the design works as a 7 story but probably less so at 30. walk around sf soma and you see many bldgs like b/g.

    personally, i would prefer to see some taller bldgs with nice glassy exteriors such as the bldgs by the transbay terminal. but i’ve come to realize all manner of people have come forward to enjoin developers and progressive will sell this city short to the day they die.

    not sure what you mean by overpriced for the market, as my mom puts it everything is overpriced if you can’t afford it.

  20. Max Allstadt

    It’s named for it’s intersection.

    And no, nobody would try to make one thirty stories tall. It was an extreme example of bulk that shouldn’t get much taller. And a reference to the fact that it’s a box. It’s well built. Skilled craftsman. Lame and boring to me though.

    Overpriced for the market means the markets in the tank and it’s expensive. It’ll sell in time. The location is too good for it to stay empty forever.

  21. snappingturtle

    322 2nd…i believe thats The Leviathan, designed in the 80s by Ace Architects. I think they had their office in it. Not sure if they’re still practicing. They designed several equally quirky houses in the Fire Zone – one near Tunnel Road, and another on Broadway Terrace…
    I wouldnt want every building to look like that, but it sure makes me smile every time i walk past it. Kind of like the Tower Lofts water tower sign. it would suck if every building had one, but being that its the only one, i think it is actually ok. cheesy, but adds to the mix and character…

  22. Max Allstadt

    It is the leviathan. Every time I walk by it I think “thank god STAND doesn’t have a franchise over here”.

  23. John

    There definitely should be height limits along the Lake, from Grand Ave. along Harrison and Lakeside Drive and across the 12th Street Bridge passed the Channel. Height limits of no more than 5 floors should be implemented in the Lakeside Apartment District, Gold Coast, and the Lake Merrit Historic District at Snow Park.

    Lots of people have been asking for lower buidling heights in this area so that no tall buildings, like the Essex or Emerald Views, are allowed adjacent to the Lake. Now is the time for the City to make this change in zoning there and to make in permanent. It protects park land, views and the natural environs at the Lake and the parks. There are plenty of other places to build tall buildings downtown.

  24. Ralph

    i think i finally get it max hates b/g and that it is named for its intersection is just another reason to hate it.

    i guess 288 Third and all other places named by a street location are good designs

    the bldg that i can’t seem to figure out if i like or not is the essex on the other side of broadway

  25. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    Ooooh, I did forget one! Leviathon! And yes, Lucia Howard & Ace Architects are still there. That’s funny. It’s another building that people either love or hate. I like that it looks like a cargo ship.

    So you don’t like the architecture of Broadway Grand… but the idea behind the making one building look like 4 is to break up the massive building so that it doesn’t look so big. The reason all the buildings stick to that similar height (in particular Signature Property seems to love that height) because it’s just below the point where developers would need to add life saving measures. 288 Third, the Oak to 9th project, Broadway Grand – they’re all similar heights. (O29 does have a few tall buildings mixed in with the 6-7 story buildings.)

    I’m for nicer architecture rather than blah blah boring. At least with projects like 200 Second Street – a David Baker design – it evokes reaction.

  26. Max Allstadt

    ralph don’t be silly. I just think it’s lame. there are a lot of lame buildings in oakland. I have rather high standards.

    Joanna: They could have done a better job of making it look like four buildings. I think a little time in the sun with different aging rates on different materials may help. Still boooooring.

    David Baker is a mixed bag for me. Some stuff I love. West End Commons is a travesty. Decent interiors, but it’s a gated community in a poor neighborhood, contextually inappropriate.

  27. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    West End Commons looks cheap, imho. Bruce Beasily has been the best developer in West Oakland, imho.

  28. Max Allstadt

    There are some interesting things in Dogtown that have been built recently, can’t say I like them all, but at least over there nobody is being forced to build mock victorians. I’d say about half of what I see over there is really cool, the rest not so much. Often what turns me off the most is color palette. It’s just faddish sometimes.

  29. oaklandhappenings

    V., I slightly misspoke, perhaps, regarding 1100 Broadway: I was under the assumption that if the big picture was posted there, that it isn’t far away from being constructed. That is why I tried to be careful with my words, by saying “any day”. If you find out more detail on the groundbreaking, yes, PLEASE pass it along. I want to be there with my camera when the groundbreaking happens (work schedule permitting).