CBD Zoning Update Update

So I’ve complained here plenty about the new downtown draft zoning chapter (PDF!) – the process has been flawed, as is the proposal itself. If you want the short version, you can check out my Novometro story from yesterday.

Anyway, since the last zoning update committee meeting, there has been one more public meeting about the proposal, organized by the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. The meeting drew over 100 people, more than any previous meeting on the issue, and wholesale opposition to the proposed zoning was near unanimous. Nearly every speaker at yesterday’s meeting opposed to plan as well, and the Committee ended up asking staff to return with a new proposal that does not contain height limits. Frustratingly, they did not direct staff to hold more public meetings. I wasn’t able to attend the meeting, and my correspondent wasn’t in top form, so I don’t know if they want just the height limits gone, or all the bulk and intensity requirements, which, frankly, are the real problem here. People are very hung up on height, but the tower floorplate and length restrictions are much more dangerous.

I also find it disturbing that staff appears completely disconnected from what’s actually happening downtown. For example, Eric Angstadt, in response to repeated complaints about the downzoning of downtown, said several times that the draft zoning chapter is actually upzoning, and that the current zoning doesn’t actually allow the recently approved projects people keep referencing. Angstadt is wrong. The new Shorenstein building at 601 City Center, at 10.5 FAR and 378 feet, conforms perfectly to the C-51 zoning on its lot, as explained on page 4 of the design review staff report (PDF!).

Angstadt later said that people were making too big a deal of the height limits, that they’re higher than any existing downtown buildings, and that “Nobody’s going to build anything close to these height limits anytime soon.” I don’t know what his idea of close is, but, at only 27 feet below the maximum height proposed for Area 5, 601, which will be breaking ground soon, seems pretty close to me. Again, the real issue here is the tower floorplate restrictions. 601 exceeds the maximum tower floorplate size for Area 5, as does the existing building 555 12th Street. We want to build office space that will attract large, high quality employers to downtown. We have plenty of small spaces appropriate for non-profits and smaller businesses. What we don’t have enough of (although recently opened Center 21 helps) is the very large full floor spaces that bigger companies desire. People are always talking about how we need to bring jobs to Oakland – right now, the vogue is to talk about the need for industrial jobs. We need office jobs, too! To restrict construction of the most in demand space makes absolutely no sense if we’re serious about job creation and revitalizing our economy.

16 thoughts on “CBD Zoning Update Update

  1. Max Allstadt


    One thing that I’ve noticed in my dalliances into city politics is that when something silly comes rolling along, there is usually a group of silly people pushing it. Who’s the political will behind this? Who thinks they’ll be hurt by a bigger downtown with fewer design restrictions? Is it really only people who are concerned about their view from the other side of the lake?

    I’m particularly worried about legislating design. It’s a surefire way to keep Oakland projects boring, restrained, and out of the running for any sort of national design recognition. The reason all the coolest buildings in the world are happening out of the US right now is partly economic. It’s also because we’ve let government run amok in how much control we give it over aesthetics.

    And I’m going to ask Eric some questions about this the next time I see him. I couldn’t make the meeting last night, but I wish I had.

  2. V Smoothe Post author

    Max –

    That’s exactly what’s so perplexing about this. Nobody seems to have any idea where it came from. When Doug Boxer asked Eric Angstadt yesterday what the genesis of the proposed zoning was, Angstadt didn’t have an answer.

    So this all started last year because people were upset about the proposed Emerald Views project on 19th Street, which a lot of people believe is too tall. Nancy Nadel and Pat Kernighan held two meetings about height limits along Lake Merritt. Their Lake Merritt zoning study was abandoned, but the comments, which were all collected by Nadel staffer Marisa Arrona, were forwarded on to the planning staff, and that comprised basically all the public input used in crafting the zoning. Nadel has been saying that tall buildings should be located along the Broadway spine, and in theory, the code is supposed to be designed to do that. But nobody appears to have looked at lot sizes, existing buildings, or market demands in crafting the plan. It makes no sense at all.

    Nadel keeps saying that the idea is to limit height near the Lake, but the code doesn’t do that either – cross the street from Emerald Views, and all of a sudden you’re in height area 5, which permits buildings as tall as 405 feet. The entire thing is basically designed to stop a single project, which wouldn’t actually be stopped by the new zoning, because the application has already been submitted, so any new rules adopted won’t apply to it.

    Even more outrageous, staff recommended, in their report to the ZUC yesterday, that the Lake Merritt apartment district be removed from the zoning and go through a separate planning process, since it was the most controversial area. So even though this entire plan was about the Lake in the first place, and the only public input collected to craft it was about the Lake, they wanted to pass it and come back to the Lake later. It’s crazy.

    I know of no political will pushing downzoning for any area other than the Lake Merritt Apartment Distict, so I really just have absolutely no idea whose idea the rest of it was. I find it very disturbing that staff appears to think the Lake is the only part of downtown that matters. High density commercial construction downtown is the responsible thing to do for both our economy and our enviroment.

  3. dto510

    The Oakland Heritage Alliance attended the ZUC meeting yesterday, but spoke more about historic preservation than height limits. Former OHA President Naomi Schiff strongly advocated for incentivizing smaller-scale infill development, but didn’t point out that setbacks and lot-size minimums make infill development more difficult. The anti-sksycraper NIMBYs weren’t really in attendance, so it seems that this discussion has moved to a more abstract level than perhaps was originally intended (I guess when Nadel spilled the beans that this won’t affect already submitted projects, a lot of folks lost interest). And who knows what staff’s thinking with the form regulations. Somebody up high thinks they’re neat.

    The proposal bans billboards, which is a pet cause of Nancy Nadel. Charter schools and nightclubs would have to jump through more hoops (in addition to the grant of a cabaret license or charter), and those institutions are unpopular with most Councilmembers. It does not restrict surface parking lots as much as downtowners would expect, and is more generous to office developers than residential developers. So, Max, you can see how some interests gain from the proposal, or are at least less impacted. You can also see those interests represented in Nadel’s list of campaign contributers.

  4. V Smoothe Post author

    To clarify dto510′s somewhat cryptic last sentence – what he’s referring to is Nancy Nadel’s $1000 in campaign contributions from Swig officials, who have submitted applications to build two buildings, one 42 stories, the other 34 stories, on 20th and Webster, right behind the Kaiser Center. Nadel has repeatedly stated that she does not approve of tall buildings near the Lake, and said at the League of Women Voters forum that the current proposal will not allow tall buildings on the Lake, as is her desire. The proposal actually allows heights up to 405 feet in this location. The taller building Swig is proposing, of course, would be higher that the allowed 405 feet, yet another example of how Angstadt’s statements about downtown development are wrong and out of touch.

  5. Max Allstadt

    Interesting. I really don’t get what the problem with nightclubs is. There’s something really schizo about a city that’s this liberal and this puritanical at the same time. I thought I’d escaped that split personality when I left Boston. I was particularly offended at a council meeting a few weeks back when a nightclub lawyer found himself promising not to have any “hyphy” at his client’s club. In demanding this, the council and the community wasn’t just being racist, they were peeing on the first amendment. What’s unpopular about a nightclub? Are there people who are dumb enough to want a suburban level of peace, and move downtown to find it? I thought Jerry Brown’s whole plan was to keep the city from being abandoned after dark.

    I’m definitely going to ask Eric who he feels is driving this process the next time I run into him. whenever I get him off the record, I feel like he gives me very objective answers.

    So we have no clear large constituency or organization backing a huge policy shift. What the hell? I really want to see V and dto510 dig into this a bit deeper. I’d also like to hear from someone on the opposite side of the argument too. Maybe if I didn’t keep cracking mean jokes about STAND, they’d chime in.

  6. Max Allstadt

    Small infill, by the way, is key, and if anybody is creating impediments to that I’m hopping mad. Projects under about 5 million are the best way to get local involvement going. People like Turner or Bovis or whoever may hire local workers, but the big money doesn’t stay in town.

  7. James H. Robinson

    I agree about small infill. In fact, I think small infill will eventually help MacArthur from 90th to the San Leandro border. I see a set of small residential projects popping up.

  8. Robert

    Small infill projects are nice, but overall development needs a mix. Also, the hope is that the smaller businesses grow, and then need larger offices – again driving to a mix of sizes.
    The opposition to mightclubs is totally bizarre. If you don’t want downtown to be a ghost town at night, you need a mix of bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and someday maybe even some (upscale) shopping to cater to all those folks we are trying to get to buy condos in the area. Or Oakland can stay like it is for the next 20 years, just as it ahs for the last 20.

  9. James H. Robinson

    I understand from a safety perspective why the city might be reluctant to have nightclubs. However, I don’t see why the city should oppose lounges and bars downtown. Those things are necessary for nightlife.

  10. Joanna

    Max, I’ll chime in on the issue of nightclubs. There are nightclubs and then there are nightclubs. Yoshi’s is fine, causes no problems. Mingles was a problem, Zazoo’s was a problem, Bluesville was a problem, the Oak Tree was a problem, On Broadway was a problem, and Air hasn’t been a problem.

    So what is the differentiating factor for these different cabaret licensed places? Hyphy is certainly one. It attracts a rougher crowd, typically more into drugs. It’s not just the patrons you have to consider, but the hanger-on types that hang out in the areas surrounding these types of clubs. I am so effing tired of hearing that it is a racial issue, because there were plenty of whites mixed in the Mingles crowd at least. It’s the specific type of music that seems to cause a problem. I’d love to hear about a hyphy club without drama.

    If you want sideshows and murders – just look at how those problems went away with the departure of Mingles – try it in your neighborhood. For the Jack London District, it was drama-drama-drama and I, for one, am glad that it has calmed down. Places like Yoshi’s lose business when the other clubs nearby cause people to be afraid. I daresay that quite a few residents moved out during the Mingles drama just because they didn’t feel like the City cared. It’s a fine line between nightclubs and downtown living. The balance can be had, but you do have to consider the cabaret licenses as they are requrested.

    As a business owner I spent every morning cleaning up after the Mingles patrons and it wasn’t pretty. Now, with Covenant House in the neighborhood, I’d hate to see another club like Mingles, Bluesville, On Broadway, or Oak Tree come back. Bring on Yoshi’s, Air, and others like that. Old Oakland is certainly lively at night and I love to see it thrive.

  11. Robert

    Joanna – OK. While I might have a point conceptually, I can accept the reailty that there are night clus and there are night clubs. How we differentiate those whould best be left to the caberat approval processs, and not a zoning decision.

    If I can go back to the height limits around the lake. The same number of folks can see the lake regardless of the limits. If you step back the limits all it means is that more folks further frm the lake can see the lake, and fewer folks close to the lake can see the lake (because the buildings are shorter). This part of the discussion is a zero sum game – which is not what we should be talkig about. We should be talkng about how to maximize the value to Oakland, not individuals.

  12. Max Allstadt

    I’m with you on cabaret vs. zoning for clubs Robert. What’s more, enforcement regimes are really the way to keep them under control. Create a system of fines for cabaret license holders that forces them to be responsible. If it costs less to hire more security and clean up crew than it does to pay fines, the club will go with security and cleanup. There could even be probationary cabaret license schemes where a problem club would be required to hire more security in order to keep it’s license. Zoning is too blunt an instrument.

    And again, making rules that favor one genre of artistic expression over another violates the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. I believe that if a club was told “no hyphy” and then played hyphy and was punished, they’d be able to win a first amendment law suit. I hope that happens someday. I mean didn’t we learn anything when we watched “Footloose”?

  13. Joanna

    Enforcement? Seriously? OPD tried everything to enforce the cabaret license rules and the club lawyers fight them tooth and nail on every one. Then they agree, so that they can keep their license, but nothing really changes. Only a murder made a difference, and if I were that woman’s family I’d be suing both Mingles AND the City for failure to follow the rules that were set.

    What I saw with Zazoo’s was even more perplexing. The City didn’t want to implement or enforce too many rules because they knew it was cost prohibitive for the club and they didn’t want to see the club go under – I heard this from Deborah Edgerly on Mingles and from Barbara Killey for every single time there’s been a cabaret license hearing. But what about the residents of Portobello that lost significant sums of their housing value because of that club? Combined, it was at least quadruple what the club owner lost by going out of business.

    Height limits? I’m no longer for them. ;) My building is surrounded by taller buildings. We put in skylights and although we lost our view from every direction, I still love the charm of our old place.

  14. dto510

    Joanna is right that we have to balance the value of the club with the detrimental effects it has on residents, though clubs are a benefit to the city. The JLS issues are worse than in downtown proper, because the JLS clubs were both more problematic and much closer to homes than those downtown. But with the updated cabaret license (which stills needs another update, so that bars with DJs but no dancing don’t need one) the city has more explicit oversight authority and discretion.

    This discussion points out exactly how nightclubs have their own regulatory framework that needs improvement, and adding the Planning Commission’s one-time discretionary decision adds no value. I think the same is true for educational facilities like charter or cosmetology schools: why do they need a Planning Commission vote just to open? Also, Robert and Joanna, thanks for the kind words for taller buildings.

    PS: Surface parking lots are prohibited under the proposal. Structured and underground parking is conditionally permitted.

  15. Max Allstadt

    Surface lots are prohibited where? Everywhere in the CBD? We add 10000 people, we’ve got tons of open lots, and then we ban surface parking? Not exactly green policy is it, forcing people to build houses for cars when there’s plenty of perfectly good space for them already? Open air stackers probably oughta be excluded for a while though.

    Also, if the proposal bans billboards, whether or not anyone agrees with that, it should be a completely separate vote on the billboards at the planning commission. If it’s wrapped up in the same measure, it can be used in a cynical way to keep Michael Colbruno from being able to vote on the measure as a whole. (He’d have to recuse himself ’cause he works for clearchannel).

    And can anyone tell me about whether I’m right about that first amendment issue, or if I’m just talkin out my tookas?

  16. V Smoothe Post author

    Existing surface parking lots will not be banned, but you could not have any new ones, which is good. Surface parking lots are a horribly inefficient use of space and damage the pedestrian experience. We should do everything we can to get rid of them.

    As for Colbruno – I assume that when the time came to vote, they would just bifurcate the section about signs, so Colbruno could vote on everything else.

    I’m not going to comment on the first amendment issue, but I will say that my neighborhood is about a million times more pleasant at night now that Sweet Jimmies and @17th are closed.