Oakland’s new Central Business District (that’s downtown) zoning will come before the City Council for approval tonight. This process started over a year ago and I’ve written like a zillion posts about it.
Since I’ve blogged plenty about this already, I’m not going to go into detail explaining the proposal again. The very short version is that this is part of the effort to update Oakland’s zoning code so that it complies with the General Plan, and would divide downtown into four distinct zones (one for residential areas, one for areas we want strong pedestrian oriented retail, one for big commercial areas, and one for the kind of outer parts of downtown that we don’t really know what we want to do with). All zones are unique to Oakland’s downtown. It also divides downtown up into 7 height areas, each of which has their own special limits on height and density and so on. It looks sort of like this:
Of course, those are just the highlights – there are lots of other density and bulk restrictions for each height area, which you can read in detail here (PDF) if you’re so inclined.
So after spending a year at the Planning Commission, the zoning proposal made it to the Council’s Community and Economic Development Committee a couple of weeks ago. With 43 speakers signed up to talk about it, public comment on this one item took up practically the entire meeting. And it was mostly the exact same things we’ve been hearing for the last year, from the same three groups who have been at like, every last meeting on this: the Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt (CALM), the Oakland Heritage Alliance (OHA), and the Oakland Builders Alliance (OBA). Here are the highlights.
CALM remains hysterical over tall buildings by the Lake, calling all the existing high-rises along Lakeside Drive a “mistake” and demanding 55 foot height limits near the Lake. Nobody cares.
The OHA thinks that basically every part of downtown where there are old buildings should be zoned with a height limit the same as the existing old buildings. The idea behind this is that nobody will ever tear down an historic building if you’re not going to let them build something any taller in its place. Personally, I think this is a ridiculous way to go about historic preservation. The Planning Commission wasn’t into it either, and instead, the City is going to write up new findings you have to meet before demolishing an historic building. The findings are supposed to come to the Council at some unspecified date in the future, after they’ve been vetted by the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board and the Planning Commission.
The OHA is also upset about the fact that the area around the Lake Merritt BART Station is included in the zoning proposal. This neighborhood is one of the three in Oakland that are currently in the process of getting a Specific Plan. Since the Specific Plan is going to come with its own zoning, they think we should hold off on rezoning it until the Specific Plan is finished. I suspect they are afraid that the new zoning will somehow put at risk all those wretched falling apart Victorians in that neighborhood that really should be torn down. While I do not share their concern for the horrible Victorians, I do agree that we should exempt this area from the new zoning, out of respect for the Specific Plan process. If we’re doing it for developers (see below), then it’s only fair we do it here as well.
CALM and the OHA have also both latched onto this thing about “view corridors,” which, frankly, I just do not get at all. The idea is that the zoning code should protect important or “historic” views, specifically, the views from a few random spots on the other side of the Lake to the Trib Tower and City Hall. They think you should never be able to build anything that would block these views.
Proponents of the protected views are quick to point out that it isn’t some crazy idea they just came up with out of nowhere one night, and that in fact, San Francisco has protected views too, like the view down California Street to the Bay and the bridge that they put on San Francisco postcards. I don’t know why they even bring this up, because to me, it’s a perfect illustration of why we should not do view corridors. I mean, when I hear that, the first thing that pops into my mind is like “It’s true, that is a really arresting view, of course you shouldn’t allow people to ruin it. My friend sent me that postcard when she visited San Francisco on Spring Break in high school and I kept it on my fridge for years because it was so pretty.” And then you compare that image to looking across Lake Merritt, where neither City Hall nor the Trib Tower is at all the dominant feature of what you see from any point, and you’re like “Wow, how are those the same thing at all? Oh, that’s right, they’re not.”
I also find it the suggestion really offensive that people who live on the other side of the Lake are somehow more important than everyone else in Oakland. As dto510, an Old Oakland resident, is fond of pointing out, nobody cared about whether you could see the Trib Tower from his street when they built 555 12th Street. I will also note that I live like four blocks away from City Hall, and despite the fact that my windows face that direction, I can’t see it from my apartment either.
Anyway, staff says they’re working on a study of view corridors and that a proposal for them is going to come back in like a year. CALM and the OHA hate the idea of passing the rest of the zoning now with the promise of doing the view corridors later. I’d be upset, too. “Come back with x later” is City of Oakland code for something that is going to fade into the ether and never come back and eventually everyone will just forget about it forever. Since I think the view corridors are inane, this approach doesn’t bother me in the least, but I understand why CALM and the OHA don’t like it.
The OBA has decided they can live with the current proposal, and turned out 18 speakers who urged the Committee to just pass the damn thing already, except they wanted two parcels where development proposals are already underway to be exempt from the new zoning. One is the lot right next to Snow Park, the site of the proposed Emerald Views project, and the other is across the street from the Alice Arts Center, the site of another proposed high rise.
Both of these buildings would be permitted under current rules, but both are taller than what would be allowed under the proposed new zoning. Since their applications were submitted before we came up with the new zoning, the new zoning would not apply to them. However, both projects still must be approved by the Planning Commission, and the OBA fears that if the Council passes a zoning proposal under which the proposed buildings would be prohibited, then the Planning Commission could interpret that as the Council saying they don’t want these buildings. They believe the buildings should be judged on their own merits, and that new zoning would create an unfair prejudice against them, so we should leave those two spots out of the new zoning until a decision is reached one way or another on both proposals.
Oh! And District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel also showed up and basically parroted the CALM agenda – she wants the Emerald Views lot downzoned, thinks buildings along the Lake should be limited to 85 feet (her rationale for this one was great, actually: she said that since we already have a bunch of 170 foot tall buildings on Lakeside Drive, we should downzone it so every building doesn’t look the same), and of course, she thinks we should protect views from across the Lake of City Hall and the Tribune Tower.
Anyway, the Committee seemed really into the view corridors idea, saying that the study should come back quickly and we should put in place interim measures to protect the views in the meantime. Annoying. They also agreed that the two lots of concern to the OBA should be exempt from the new zoning, although the support for that one was a little wishy washy, and I’m sure it will be a subject of debate again tonight.
District 7 Councilmember Larry Reid didn’t have a ton to say about any of the particular items of controversy at hand, but piped up at the end to inform everyone in the room that he wants to make it “absolutely clear” that he is opposed to “any height restriction,” adding that he’s visited Hong Kong sixteen times and that it has “always been [his] hope and inspiration for this city.”
And that’s it, I guess. The new zoning will be discussed by the City Council tonight, and will hopefully be heard not too long after 7 (it’s the second public hearing on the agenda (PDF)). There will probably be like ten thousand public speakers.