Do me a favor, and imagine yourself standing on the east side of Lake Merritt, facing towards downtown. What do you see? What makes the vista before you special? What unique features of this place do you notice the most? What is the most striking aspect of your surroundings? Here, let me help you out with a photo.
Is it City Hall?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
This afternoon, the Planning Commission’s Zoning Update Committee will discuss a proposal to downzone large chunks of Oakland’s downtown core (PDF) in order to protect views of City Hall and the Tribune Tower from four points on the far side of Lake Merritt.
Downzone by how much, you ask? Well, we’re talking about 90 feet in areas that would be otherwise zoned for 400 feet and 110 to 120 feet in areas that would otherwise have no height limits.
Why are we even considering this?
Do you guys remember that whole downtown zoning process? A proposal for new downtown Oakland zoning first came to the Planning Commission’s Zoning Update Committee in March of 2008. Lots of people, both pro and anti-development, showed up to talk about how they hated it. The Committee asked questions. It came back. The same thing happened. It came back again. And again. And again.
This went on for an entire year. There were Zoning Update Committee meetings and Landmarks Board meetings and joint meetings between the two and special workshops where they brought in a professional facilitator to help everyone work through their issues about the zoning. And over time, the plan changed, compromises were made, and a little more than a year after the new zoning first showed up at the Zoning Update Committee, it went to the Planning Commission and passed onto City Council.
Getting to the City Council didn’t mean that all the work on the new downtown zoning was done, however. The staff report (PDF) from that meeting notes two areas where work would continue – findings required for demolishing historic buildings, and view corridors.
Now, some people advocating adoption of this view corridor proposal have been going around saying that we’re doing it at the direction of the City Council. The way they tell it, you would think that there was no plan to study view corridors until the downtown zoning update came to the City Council, and that it was a motion made at Council that directed staff to do the view corridor study. That isn’t true.
What happened was this. A number of people advocating for lower height limits downtown had been asking throughout the whole year-plus long downtown zoning update process to adopt zoning that would not allow any buildings to be built that block views of the Tribune Tower and City Hall from Lake Merritt. When introducing the zoning proposal to the City Council, Deputy CEDA Director Eric Angstadt explained the status of the view corridor plans like this:
Staff has a work program in order to define view corridors and bring those back for Council approval for June of 2010.
So, yes, the Council did say to go ahead and do the view corridor study that was being planned anyway. But their approval was hardly the ringing endorsement that certain people are making it out to be. In fact, during the lengthy Council discussion on the issue, view corridors hardly came up at all.
Take, as an example, the clip below from that meeting where District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan addresses the view corridor issue.
She basically says that she’s fine with doing the study, but that her main concern is not views of particular buildings, but views of the sky. Anyway.
So what views are we talking about?
Well, there are five. All the “views” proposed for protection are of either City Hall or the Tribune Tower from the far side of Lake Merritt. The photos below (all taken from the staff report (PDF)) are labelled with the location the picture was taken from, and also with what the view is supposedly of, which is helpful, since the buildings in question are actually kind of hard to see in a lot of them.
To me, these photographs are a better argument against adopting the view corridors than anything I could come up with myself. I mean, you have to squint to see the buildings in question in any of them! How is that a “corridor”?
What would protecting these views mean?
Well, basically, if we adopted these particular corridors as protected views, it would mean that nobody would be allowed to build anything that would block the view of the building at the end of the corridor. Here’s what all the corridors look like when you put them together.
The map below shows what kind of height limits we would adopt within the corridors in order to guarantee that nothing could get built that would block the view.
In case you were wondering, the dark brown and grey areas where all the corridors converge are the parts of downtown where we zoned to allow unlimited height. The idea was to concentrate intense development along the “Broadway spine,” particularly around the BART stations.
Why on earth would we do that?
Advocates of these view corridors bend over backwards to make it sound like this is a normal thing to do. “Lots of cities have protected views,” they insist. And that is true. There are many cities in the US that have adopted ordinances prohibiting new buildings that would interfere with certain views.
What the view corridor proponents don’t tell you is that none of those protected views are at all similar to what’s being proposed here. First off, most of them are of natural features, not buildings.
Take Denver, for example. Denver has elected to protect views of the Rocky Mountains from a number of places. In fact, they actually just adopted a new one last year, which limits heights immediately west of Coors Field in order to preserve the view of the mountains from the park.
Now, Coors Field is a wonderful ballpark, and sitting there and watching the sun set over the Rocky Mountains on a summer evening is a truly special experience. If you ever happen to be in Denver during the summer, go to a baseball game!
WyoLibrarian on Flickr
The arresting beauty of that view is hard to capture in a photograph, but you get the idea. The mountains are big, they’re striking, and the are the most prominent feature of your view. If I lived in Colorado and my blog was called “A Better Denver,” I totally would have supported the Coors Field view plane ordinance.
Another example people like to give to justify view corridors is Austin, TX, where views of the Texas State Capitol are protected from a number of places (by both State and City law). Now, I’m from Texas, and I actually lived in Austin for a while. The Texas State Capitol is a magnificent building. No offense to the Trib Tower or City Hall, but seriously, there is just no comparison.
Here’s an image of one of the protected view corridors for the Texas State Capitol:
daleexpress on flickr
Don’t have to squint to see that one, do you? No. Just like in the previous example, the protected view is actually protecting something that is the most prominent thing in the view.
The view corridors proposal came to the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board last Monday, and the Board recommended the adoption of all five view corridors by a
3 to 1 4 to 3 vote (Sorry, I have no idea how that happened.) This post is already ridiculously long, so I’m not going to talk about that discussion right now, but if you’re interested, I encourage you to view the video clips below. The first three clips show statements from the three dissenting Boardmembers, all of whom I thought had very good arguments, and the last one shows the argument of the Boardmember who made the motion to support the corridors.
If that wasn’t enough on view corridors for you, you can watch the entire LPAB conversation here.