Industrial Land Use: So what just happened?

Better late than never, right?

Okay, so last week I talked about what the Council has been doing with respect to industrial land retention for the past few years. In September 2006, they agreed to retain a number of the City’s industrial subareas solely as industrial, but could not reach consensus on others. Instead, requests for conversions in these areas were to be considered on a project by project basis. So this was kind of where we stood until February, when Mayor Ron Dellums submitted a proposed Industrial Land Use Policy to the City Council, asking them to declare:

  • Industrially designated land in the City of Oakland is a scarce resource
  • The preservation of industrially designated land is vital for the future economic growth of the City of Oakland
  • The City recognizes that land use patterns change over time more quickly than General Plan updates occur and that General Plan amendments may be necessary
  • Amendments to the General Plan to allow conversion of industrially designated land to residential uses should be restricted to projects that make the required findings based on a set of criteria, developed through a public process, for evaluating such conversions

The report (PDF!) justified the request by explaining that although 19% of the City’s total land mass is designated for industrial uses, most of the land is under the control of the Port of Oakland, not the City. Of land the City controls, only 5% falls into the General Plan’s two industrial zoning categories, Business Mix and General Industrial. The report claimed that Oakland compared unfavorably to peer cities:

Other large cities on the west coast have comparatively more industrial land, ranging from Los Angeles with 8% to Seattle with 12% to Portland with 17% industrial land.

Of course, what the report doesn’t mention is that each of those cities are including Port land in their totals.

Anyway, the problem here is not, as you might think from reading the newspapers, that we have been losing large portions of our industrial land to housing. The Council has approved only three General Plan Amendments allowing housing on industrially zoned areas in the past few years- Wood Street, Arcadia Park, and 0.03 acres for an affordable housing project. The concern is that as long as there is a threat of General Plan Amendments for housing in industrially zoned areas, businesses will not locate there, for fear of housing appearing next door and driving them out. We want to create “certainty,” or, as Nancy Nadel puts it, to end the dynamic of blight and greed:

So when the Council discussed the proposal on March 4, Nancy Nadel introduced a motion doing pretty much what the Mayor asked, but with one exception.

Industrial subarea 4, in central Oakland, is bordered by High Street, 880, and the Estuary. The portion of subarea 4 above Tidewater Avenue will remain industrial, but the area below Tidewater, along the waterfront, will transition to Housing and Business Mix.

Ignacio De La Fuente has been saying for several years that housing should be permitted on this land (a position that caused him some embarrassment a year and a half ago when it was revealed that his then-aide Carlos Plazola, owned 2.35 acres of waterfront property in the area). Interestingly, the Council’s most vocal proponent of building housing along the subarea 4 waterfront has not be De La Fuente, but Jane Brunner, who asked the CED committee in 2006 to permit housing in the lower portion of subarea 4. The Committee declined to make a recommendation on the land at that time, instead waiting almost two years to do…well, the same thing.

Now, the Council can’t just declare the Tidewater area Housing and Business Mix by fiat. Rezoning the area will require a General Plan Amendment, which will require an Environmental Impact Report, which…well, costs money.

Conveniently, the Council’s March 4 agenda also included funding for the Estuary Policy Plan update, which CED has been discussing since September. The Estuary Policy Plan offers vague direction for future land uses along the Estuary between 19th and 54th (PDF!), and directs the City to conduct more specific planning of the area. The Community and Economic Development Committee has been trying to figure out since September how we’re going to do that, and finally settled on funding the specific plan process with $2.5 million of redevelopment funds from the Central City East and Coliseum project areas. The plan will be developed over the next 18 months through a public participation process, and in theory will be approved by the Council within 2 years.

About $1 million of this money will pay for the development of an Environmental Impact Report to accompany the specific plan. Since the Council has directed that the land in subarea 4 should become Housing and Business Mix, future uses of that space will not be discussed as part of the public input portion of the specific plan, but the zoning changes will be included in the EIR, which is scheduled to be certified two years from now.

If all this is confusing to you, take heart in knowing you aren’t alone. Din Lindheim, current Director of the Community & Economic Development Agency, didn’t understand it either. Or maybe he just doesn’t understand what the Council does. I’m not sure:

It isn’t that complicated really. This does not mean that there will be no more General Plan Amendments to convert industrial land to housing. Over the next two months, staff is supposed to conduct a public input process regarding criteria that should be used in evaluating proposals for conversions, then return to Council with a set of specific criteria that any project requesting an amendment will have to meet. If the Council agrees with the criteria, they’ll approve them. If not, they’ll amend them. In any case, we aren’t that far off from what we were doing before. Requests for amendments will still be considered on a project by project basis, although theoretically decisions should be less arbitrary than they sometimes are, since they will be evaluated based on specific criteria rather than the whims of politicians.

So, for the most part, I don’t really have a problem with the motion the Council approved. Although I think that claims of scarcity of industrial land in Oakland are somewhat overblown, and that lack of certainty is a minor factor in underutilization, I’m fine with the goal of retention. However, the devil is, as they say, in the details. And in their rush to preserve industrial land, the Council ignored the some very important details in at least two areas, totally screwing existing residents and property owners. More on that tomorrow.

3 thoughts on “Industrial Land Use: So what just happened?

  1. CK

    Is this the same Industrial Land Preservation Proposal that is currently stuck in CEDA committee until their next meeting? Are they allowed to run discussion about it concurrently in city council?
    As long as we’re protecting the artists in West Oakland, I’m all for the plan. Let’s just get it knocked out of the way so the city can get on to the other parts of reviving the industrial base in Oakland. Things like, you know, talking to industrial groups and lobbying for their business. That would seem like an important part too.
    And just for fun, what ARE the industrial percentages of other west coast cities without their ports included?

    Also, what’s the point of public input for the Estuary Specific Plan if they’ve already decided what they’re doing with one section of the land? Doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose? This smacks of a sweatheart deal and cheapens the purpose of the ESP in the first place. To me, it gives the impression that the ESP is just a foil to get an EIR in for Tidewater. I certainly hope this isn’t the case, as the ESP would be extremely beneficial to the rest of the specific area. It will help address things like sections of the sewers that are still made out of wood(so I’ve been told by the city planners office), improve the area’s crumbling infrastructure and extend the bay trail.
    In all fairness, I would support a change in zoning for Tidewater; It’s a perfect candidate for more HBX zoning. But to backdoor it in like this without public discourse gives me that covered-in-slime feeling.

  2. V Smoothe Post author

    CK –

    They aren’t the same thing, but they’re related. Legislation has to clear committees before coming to Council (although it is possible to bypass this step sometimes). This is an overarching policy regarding use of industrial land. What CED will be discussing in April is the specific zoning for industrial areas. Right now, the General Plan designates these areas as one of two categories, Business Mix or General Industrial. In addition to the General Plan designations, these areas are governed by existing zoning that does not correspond to the General Plan. So what the proposal in front of CED will do is create new zoning categories that do conform to the General Plan designations and replace the existing zoning in those areas with the new categories.

    Re: Tidewater and the specific plan: I can see how one might get that that idea from my post, but I didn’t mean to imply that the ESP is a foil. It isn’t. CED has been talking about the ESP since September, and it was coincidental that both issues ended up at Council on the same day. In fact, the Council only decided (at the suggestion of staff) on March 4 that the Tidewater area zoning change EIR would be a part of the specific plan process. Lumping them together is just a way to save the City money. The Tidewater area in question is only a small portion of the land that will be covered by the specific plan being created for the land along the Estuary. Since the Council has been talking about this since 2005, I don’t really think that what they did qualifies as backdooring or lacking in a public discourse. The public has had a chance to comment on HBX in the Tidewater area four times this year, and many times in previous years. The issue is more that the Council already knows what changes they want for that land, but want a public process to determine what to do with the rest of the Estuary Policy Plan area. The Estuary Policy Plan update probably deserves its own post, which I’ll try to get to next week.

  3. V Smoothe Post author

    Re: industrial percentages in other cities. I should post this, but I’m going to have to go look it up again first. I spent forever digging up that data when I was originally writing about this for Novometro (the staff report provides no sources for its assertions), and then of course didn’t save my notes.