City Council passes zoning update, with modifications

Last night, the Oakland City Council voted 5-2-1 to adopt a new zoning code for Oakland’s Central Business District.

Before we get started, let’s have a little refresher on the downtown zoning proposal (PDF), specifically the heights, since that was the main issue of concern last night. Under the plan, downtown is divided into seven height areas. In each of those areas, there are two different height limits. One is the base height. The base of the building can take up the whole lot that the building is built on. For most of the zones, the maximum allowed base height is 85 feet. Depending on what kind of building you have, that’s going to be between 5 and 8 stories. For two of the zones, the maximum base height is 55 feet. For the highest intensity zone, which runs along Broadway, the maximum base height is 120 feet.

The second limit is the called the tower height. This refers to the total height of the building. Portions of buildings above the base are referred to as the tower. Unlike the base, the tower portion of a building cannot take up the entirety of its lot – it has to be smaller. How much smaller depends on which height area you are in. In two height areas, no towers of any sort are permitted. In the other five height areas, the maximum tower heights range from 170 feet to unlimited. Additionally, in each height area, there is a limit to what percentage of the lot size the tower can take up and to how large the floorplate of the tower can be. This chart (PDF) lists all these limits in detail, and the map below shows what parts of downtown are assigned each height area.


I realize that’s probably too small to read. You can click here (PDF) for a larger version.

The purpose of these requirements, which force reduced bulk on the taller portion of buildings to preserve space between buildings for light and air, and also to minimize the shadows cast on the street. I happen to like the shade, and therefore am not much of a fan of the mandated tower and base form, but lots of people came out to various zoning meetings complaining about how they don’t want skyscrapers blocking all the sunlight downtown, and everyone decided this was the best way to address that issue.

Anyway, after more than a year of discussion at the Planning Commission, the new zoning finally came before the City Council last night. Let’s get the outcome out of the way first. The Council passed the zoning as proposed by staff (PDF), with a few changes:

  • 14th Street and 13th Street between Madison and Harrison, which staff had proposed to be height area 5 (85 foot base height limit, 400 foot tower height limit) will be “temporarily” zoned as height area 2 (85 foot height limit) until we can complete a study of “view corridors” to the Trib Tower and City Hall
  • Lakeside Drive between 14th and 17th, which had been proposed as height area 3 (55 foot base height, 170 foot tower height limit) will become height area 1 (55 foot height limit)
  • Any project completing an Environmental Impact Report will have to study whether views of the Trib Tower and City Hall will be impacted by the project
  • For 1443 Alice St. and 222 19th Street, two parcels which currently have applications in process for developments that would not conform to the new zoning (but would have been permitted previously), the Council decided not to exempt the lots from the new zoning, as had been suggested at Committee, but instead give direction to the Planning Commission when those projects come up for approval that the Council does not want their non conformance with the new zoning to be held against them, and that they should be considered on their own merits.

Larry Reid and Ignacio De La Fuente voted no, Desley Brooks abstained (all three had supported an earlier, failed motion, that would not have reduced the heights in those areas), and the remainder of the Council voted yes.

The outcome isn’t horrible, but the discussion was exceedingly frustrating. After like an hour of public comment, Nancy Nadel kicked things off by introducing a proposal to reduce heights along Lakeside to 55 feet, which she justified by saying that at the community meetings she had hosted about height limits along the Lake over two years ago, everyone wanted to prohibit tall buildings “except for an occasional seeded person from OBA“, who had been sent “to make sure there wasn’t a consensus.” I know I should be used to it by now, but it really never ceases to amaze me how proud Nadel is to completely dismiss the perspective of everyone who doesn’t agree with her. I mean, it’s one thing to say that people who don’t share your viewpoint are wrong and then explain why you think so- that’s normal. But in her world, if she doesn’t like what you’re saying, you don’t even exist. And for the record, there were plenty of people advocating against height limits at those meetings who live in the area and didn’t have a thing to do with the OBA, they just happen to appreciate density.

Anyway. She went on about how we should take advantage of this opportunity to control building heights so that people who live in historic areas won’t end up feeling like they’re “trapped” in a “cavern” all the time. Ugh.

Pat Kernighan started off strong, pointing out that there’s more to the zoning proposal than just height limits, and that the new zoning should encourage more active street level uses and a more pleasant pedestrian experience. Then it went downhill. She added that while she supports the view corridor study, she doesn’t like that the discussion has only been about views of iconic buildings, and that she’s interested in other views, such as those experienced by pedestrians as they’re walking around the Lake, particularly the views of sunlight between tall buildings, and that staff should consider those as well when they study view corridors.

She wasn’t into the OHA’s request to exempt the Lake Merritt BART Station Specific Plan area, saying that since there are currently no height limits in the area, and the new zoning includes some height limits, the new zoning will actually be more protective for people concerned about height, apparently having forgotten that there are other factors besides height that limit the size of new buildings. Noting that the Specific Plan will supercede the new zoning, she said she was fine with the temporary rezoning in the meantime.

She said that she was generally supportive of the height map, but agreed with Nancy Nadel’s proposal to take the stretch of Lakeside Drive between 14th Street and 17th Street and limit the heights there to only 55 feet, reasoning that since most of the existing buildings along that area are around 170 feet tall, limiting the heights on the remaining parcels will “break up” the taller buildings so that people walking around the Lake can retain a sense of light and air.

OMG, this was so annoying. I mean, that stretch of Lakeside is already basically all high rises, and there are four small buildings in between. Two are cute and it would be sad to lose them. The other two are hideous eyesores that should be torn down and replaced. Since this street represents such a miniscule portion of downtown, I don’t really care that much that we’re not going to let anyone build anything there in practice, but the principle of it is just so maddening. Nothing even remotely tall is permitted along the vast majority of the Lake! I just don’t understand how people can sit there and act as if putting up two buildings the same size as all the others on like two blocks is going to ruin Lake Merritt and then have everyone respond as if that’s a credible thing to say. It’s preposterous.

Kernighan went on the explain that while she does support taller building heights along 14th Street, she is also very concerned about these mysterious views, and was therefore okay with the temporary lower height limit until the view corridor study is complete.

Then Jean Quan started babbling about how Beijing looks so different now than when she visited in the 70s, and how it’s been built up way too much and she doesn’t want that to happen to Oakland. Honestly, I really don’t think she has much to worry about there. Once she finished her ode to old Beijing, she moved on to complaining about how she didn’t want to vote on the zoning because she couldn’t understand it without being able to see a map.

But apparently it wasn’t quite so bad as all that, because she did vote on it in the end. She said that she had tried to read the proposal over the weekend and even got in her car and drove around downtown a little bit to understand it. I think we were supposed to be impressed that she put in so much effort. I’ll say I found it underwhelming and leave it at that.

She then pompously informed the room that one of the problems with the zoning proposal is that it only addresses heights, and doesn’t consider where and how much of downtown should be housing or office, and suggested that the Council should hold a special workshop sometime to look at downtown in this broader sense, since she didn’t see any good reason not to take a few more months on something so important. The new zoning, of course, does actually address that pretty clearly, but hey – 37 pages is a lot to read. I can see how she might have missed it.

Rebecca Kaplan pointed out that the downtown proposal is just a small piece of the zoning update for the entire city, and that we need to move it forward so we can focus on the rest of Oakland, then reminded everyone that there had actually been a healthy discussion of a wide variety of issues during the year-plus long series of hearings, which she knew since she’d actually been to Planning Commission meetings about the zoning and witnessed the process firsthand.

Unlike her counterparts on the dais, she didn’t seem to have trouble understand the maps in front of her, but did note that the graphics could be better, and said that she wants three dimensional images and improved maps for the specific plans, and added that she’d like to return to the issue of downtown parking requirements in a separate discussion after recess. (I don’t know what was wrong with the map above, but the various Councilmembers complained and complained and complained about not having a map to look at incessantly all night long, despite the fact that it was projected right in front of them.)

She questioned what the goal of the view corridors is, saying that while she doesn’t oppose them, she worried about them being overly broad and vague – should the view of City Hall from her Temescal roof be protected?

Then it was Jane Brunner’s turn. UGH. She got off to a moderately promising start, saying she likes the idea of having more tall buildings downtown so they stay out of the neighborhoods. Then she said she didn’t want every building to look exactly the same, and asked what they can do to guarantee a mix of building heights on every block.

Eric Angstadt explained that the market and how much people can charge for space has a lot more to do with how tall people build that anything the City is going to do, then pointed out that the vast variances in lot sizes downtown pretty much ensure varied building heights, since you need a really big lot to build a really big building.

You might think that this is the sort of thing someone might have learned after making decisions about land use for twelve and a half years. Apparently you would be wrong. Anyway, she seemed satisfied with the answer. Then she said she thought we should do something to make sure we preserve light and air in between all the tall buildings, and wanted to know how that issue could be addressed. Eric Angstadt patiently explained that this is the entire point of the tower and base model that the entire height map is based on. You might think that at that point, she’d be embarrassed enough about not knowing anything about the proposal in front of her and just shut up, but you would be wrong again. Instead, she countered that the tower reductions sounded fine for some height areas, but she was concerned about how to address the sunlight issue in areas that allowed for unlimited height. Did she look remotely chastened after it was explained to her that these areas also have tower bulk reduction requirements? I’ll let you guess.

Then more clueless questions, followed by complaints about how wrong it is that they’re being asked to make such a big decision without any maps (at this point, the map was still being projected on the screen, BTW). Eventually they passed the zoning with the modifications I noted above.

Like I said before, I don’t really think the outcome was that bad, but watching the discussion was simply infuriating. Everyone seemed to agree that the downtown zoning was really important, because they kept saying so over and over and over again, but apparently it wasn’t important enough to take the time to understand it enough to have a informed discussion. Instead, it was just “tall buildings” this and “sunlight” that with apparently little knowledge of what the rules actually do allow. With the exception of Rebecca Kaplan, they all sounded like the type of moderately informed but highly opinionated people you always somehow get stuck talking to when you go to a barbeque of someone you don’t know very well. There is nothing wrong with these people, I suppose, but one might think that since the City Council’s most important power is the ability to govern land use, and between them, they have seventy one and a half years experience wielding this power, they would collectively have a slightly more sophisticated grasp of how land use and zoning work that your boss’s chatty neighbor.

If I hadn’t agreed before that we should have three dimensional modeling to accompany zoning proposals, I certainly would have after last night’s meeting. It appears that without visual aids, it was beyond the ability of much of the City Council to understand the very clear charts in the zoning code.

I remain concerned in general about the Council’s tenuous grasp of how zoning works. With the citywide zoning update ahead of them, there are going to be many controversial and important issues they’ll have to address in the coming year or two, and I’m pretty sure we would end up with a better result if the decision makers were at least relatively well educated about zoning. Perhaps they should schedule themselves a special workshop to receive a “Planning 101″ lecture.

9 thoughts on “City Council passes zoning update, with modifications

  1. Max Allstadt

    Jean Quan forgets that in addition to great view corridors, Beijing in the 70s also had some great cholera. Ask anybody in Beijing if they want to go back to the way it was in the 70s. What a ridiculous comment!

    As for Nadel’s accusations of conflicts of interest at her neighborhood zoning meetings: What about Mr. Pyatok? He comes in out of the blue advocating for more low-rise development. My understanding is that he is an architect who designs low-rise developments.

    I was even more troubled that Eric Angstadt was able to concisely and completely refute all of Mr. Pyatok’s underinformed arguments. Eric did this in less than a minute, very clearly, citing sources. Eric’s a pro and has been wrapping his head around this zoning update at least five days a week for years. Pyatok shows up at the last minute with some cockamaimie theories, and more than one council member sides with Pyatok? WTF?

    I am also concerned that Eric Angstadt and his colleagues put in huge amounts of work producing documents that certain council members don’t pay any attention to. Jane Brunner needed him to explain the Tower/Base concept to her on Tuesday night. Jane Brunner is on the CED committee. She should have understood this concept nine months ago. Totally totally negligent on her part.

  2. John Klein

    Eric Angstadt could have saved himself all the paperwork and all those explanations had he simply produced even a single graphic to show the tower/base design. I hate to sound like ‘Johnny One Note” here, but again, with regard to the tower/base design, where are the graphics?

    For entire time that staff has been advocating the tower/base design as the solution for the bulk and mass issues that come with increased height, they never provided a single image or graphic depicting how it will work for us. The need for graphics was never clearer than at City Council as Mr. Angstadt was explaining the tower/base design when a single picture would have been worth 10,000 words.

    I am pretty sure that the lack of a graphic for the tower/base design was intentional. The design just doesn’t work – especially by the Lake where buildable lots are pretty small. You need a big parcel in order for the tower section to be large enough to be useful. City Hall is a tower/base design that works well because it has a large enough base with open space surrounding it. There are a couple of good tower/base buildings along the water in the Rincon Hill area of San Francisco – they, too, have large parcels and open space.

    The only way to get a parcel large enough at the Lake would be to demolish existing structures. Shudder.

  3. Robert

    Tower/base does not need a graphic to understand what it is. It is not Angstadt’s job to design buildings, and as soon as you show an example the very people who seem to need graphics will latch on to the example as the way all tower/base buildings will look. And you are right, a tower/base along the lake may not make any sense – which you should think is a good thing baed on your positions. And some of those buildings along the lake front should be demolished, they add nothing to the cityscape.

    Frankly, the tower base idea is a bad concept that attempts to dictate design rather than manage impacts, but oh well.

  4. Robert

    To Kernighan’s credit, she at least seem to be aware of what view corridors have been used for in other cities, and how they might actually function. And if you are going to study view corridors, you might at least study something that is potentially beneficial, not just study a way to protect local appreciation of two old buildings that have only local interest.

  5. Naomi Schiff

    I too think visuals and 3-D would help. Most of these elected people haven’t a city planning background, and many of them are more comfortable with words than with physical reality. It was a big problem at planning commission too.

    Both OBA and OHA tried to get better planning visuals and process from the outset. The claim was made that doing a Specific Plan (which both groups advocated for) would be too time-consuming and expensive. I believe it would have saved a lot of time and perhaps also some money. Doing planning in formal meetings like this is pretty inefficient and difficult. In some places downtown the tower-base thing makes sense, and in others it does not. OHA tried to advocate for more nuance in this respect, and to say that in some areas rising vertically straight from the street is more in keeping with downtown’s historic architecture and might facilitate incorporation of historic features, but oh well. There were way too few discussions of building form and site coverage; there was not a good venue in which to have the conversation.

  6. Chris Kidd

    Beijing quite liberally uses eminent domain powers that vastly outstrip any corresponding powers held in the United States (even in comparison to the height of eminent domain powers in the 1950′s and the massive -and wrongheaded- slum clearance projects of that era in which planners & government were involved). Any type of comparison between the transformation of Beijing and Oakland, no matter how oblique, is not just wrong and irrelevant, it’s orders-of-magnitude wrong and irrelevant. We do not, and cannot, forcibly evict thousands upon thousands of residents to build high rises. We do not have a centrally planned economy. We do not shut off twitter and facebook every time there’s a protest. We.are.not.Beijing. The type of change Mrs. Quan so abhorred simply is not possible here.

    So preserving view corridors is important, but *the maximum base height of downtown is lower than both of the recognizable building features for the Tribune Tower and Oakland City Hall*. A view corridor study should not be necessary to preserve views of these two features when all you’re dealing with are the placement of towers on building bases. That’s something that can be dealt with at the planning commission on a project by project basis. Angstadt said that preparing a view corridor study that can stand alone legally will take at least a year to complete. That’s a lot of man hours and wages for a city that needs every dime it can scrape together and a whole slough of other projects that need the planning staff’s attention more than this.

    Dear city council: Thanks for deciding to waste another year, and the personel costs involved in completing a view corridor study, when I just solved the problem for you in the 2 minutes it took me to write this. Love, me.

  7. Ralph

    Commission: Visuals would be great. It just helps people get a feel for what could be. (I believe Boulder provided visuals when they were discussing view corridors. Just a nice courtesy to us commonfolk.) And while I realize tower base is not a complicated concept, please for the love of dog bring examples of cities who currently do this. I believe SF does this. I don’t think it is bad as other people have described but to each their own. My advice bring plenty of examples; last meeting I attended where you had one example everyone seemed to think that all bldgs would look like that one.

    Council: View corridor study. Yes I think some views are worth protecting. I actually like being able to see the clock tower at UC Berkeley from just about anywhere but like Chris mentioned, I think you can do this on a case by case basis.

  8. Robert

    Google Earth can be used to see what current views are like both towards Trib and City Hall, and looking out from downtown. Most of the major buildings downtown currently have 3D renderings.

  9. Max Allstadt

    While some 3-D visualizations of tower/base might have been helpful, they weren’t necessary for Brunner to get it. Nor would it take 10000 words. Angstadt explained it clearly and effectively in under 200. His departments documents did too. I got it, and the sum total of my planning experience is 1 year of admin work for an architect and 2 years of marketing for another. Most of the council has been dealing with planning issues for over a decade. If they didn’t get it, it’s because they didn’t do their homework.