Let’s downzone downtown so people can squint to see old buildings!

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.

View Corridor to City Hall

Is it City Hall?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

View Corridors

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.

View Corridors 1 and 2

View Corridor 3

View Corridor 4

View Corridor 5

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.

Overhead image of view corridors

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.

Height limits in view corridors

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!

Coors Field at Sunset
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:

Texas State Capitol from Congress Avenue
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.

23 thoughts on “Let’s downzone downtown so people can squint to see old buildings!

  1. Patrick M. Mitchell

    What a ridiculous waste of time and our tax dollars. If Oakland wanted to protect the views of either of these buildings, they should have done so in the 1930′s. They’re about 80 years too late.

  2. Ken O

    View corridors of very little view. Bad idea.

    PC-ZUC would have better luck increasing the “view” of these historic buildings by renting a big blimp and dropping “blockbusters” on a five block radius around each supposed monument.

    We can see city hall and trib tower just fine from street level downtown.

    Thanks ZUC staff and city council for listening.

    Is the guy in the last screenshot getting some kind of pat on the back from anyone for this?

    Is the landmark preservation patrol another oral minority?

    The main physical landmark that ties the city together is Lake Merritt, not city hall or the trib tower. Either that or highways 880, 580, 13, 24, 980, 80.

  3. Ken O

    The highways dissect Oakland as much as they unite it.

    Other geological features uniting Oakland are its waterfront along the bay and the east bay foothills.

    Oh, and our views of treasure island and SF. ;)

  4. Mary Hollis


    That’s exactly what my best friend said of Oakland – it has great views of San Francisco.

    Sad but true.

  5. Christopher

    A view is an unobstructed line of sight from point A to point B. Choosing view-worthy points of interest (point B) is not that difficult (e.g. famous buildings).

    But how do you choose point A? Which locations should have unobstructed views of point B? The proposed point As for the view corridors seems rather arbitrary. Why are ALL views from the lake (and from the east side of the lake, at that)?

  6. Robert

    If you read the staff report, 4 of the 5 views recommended for preservation do not currently meet one of the requirements for future construction – preservation of clear sky on either side of the building in the view. You cannot preserve something that doesn’t currently exist. And apparently LPAB did not even understand this basic fact.

  7. Ralph

    That guy in the first clip was well spoken and articulate. More people should listen to him. As someone who lived in CO, I am all for protecting mtn views and natural beauty but best I can tell this whole view corridor discussion is a bunch of old people attempting to cripple growth and ensure that Oakland’s future is as poor as its present.

  8. livegreen

    Well, as long as we’re talking about preserving something that doesn’t exist, I would like to suggest: –Putting up “view finder” telescopes along Lake Merritt;
    –The Fox Theatre is a lovely building. We really should have view corridors of the Fox from Lake Merritt. It would truly bring the City together.

  9. James Robinson

    We are in the midst of an economic downturn, the city is broke, unemployment is high, and these people are worried about “views?” Really? Damn, Oakland is dysfunctional.

  10. Jim T

    V – could you clarify the implications of the end of your post? “The Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board…recommended the adoption of all five view corridors…” What is the power of the LPAB? Does this then go to the City Council?

  11. Mary Hollis

    James R

    You misunderstand. It is precisely because Oakland is collapsing all around us and nothing can be done, that the City Council is floundering around “view lines” and micro-managing the resident to yogurt store ratio.

    Because it is easier and gives the delusion of activity. Like Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

  12. Patrick M. Mitchell (Patrick)

    Mary, I burst out laughing when I read your last post. And then I called my realtor…

  13. V Smoothe

    Jim –

    The next step after LPAB is the Planning Commission’s Zoning Update Committee. The proposal went there today. I wasn’t there, but das88 tweeted the meeting, and I guess they recommended view corridors 1 and 2. Those will then go to the Planning Commission, and whatever the Planning Commission recommends will then go to the City Council’s Community and Economic Development Committee, then for final approval and actual rezoning by the City Council.

  14. Dave C.

    Damnit, I just lost my comment by pressing the wrong key or something. The gist was this: I mostly agree with you on this, V, but I don’t really think those photographs from the staff report really give a fair representation of the prominence of those buildings. The fact is that in person, the Trib Tower is a much more prominent feature of the skyline than it seems in those photos, and it becomes even more prominent at night (City Hall, on the other hand, is generally not prominent at all, in my opinion). I live near(ish) the east side of the lake, and I walk my dog along Lakeshore every day, and I would personally miss the Trib Tower if it disappeared behind taller buildings, not that my personal preferences matter any more than anyone else’s.

    That said, I would generally prefer a much taller, more dynamic skyline when I gaze across the lake toward downtown. The current skyline is pretty sad and stumpy, with little stubs like the Essex passing for tall buildings. I’d welcome some real skyscrapers on Lakeside Drive to liven up the view from Lakeshore, but if the powers that be settle on some middle ground which preserves one or two views from the E. 18th Street Pier, while not preserving other views, then that seems like a reasonable compromise to me.

    Mostly, however, I agree with the other commenters who said that this is a waste of time.

  15. V Smoothe

    Well, view corridors or no view corridors, there will be no highrises on Lakeside Drive. Downtown Councilmembers Nancy Nadel and Pat Kernighan ensured that last July, when they amended the staff DTO zoning proposal to create a 55 foot height maximum on Lakeside.

  16. Dave C.

    I think I knew that, but I still like to fantasize. I guess that boring buildings like the Essex will forever dominate my view when I look across the lake. Lucky me!

  17. Brad

    This is so stupid. I disagree with almost everything Mary Hollis posts here, but I actually agree with her that it’s almost criminal that city government is micro-managing the number of yogurt stores and protecting fictional view corridors while the city is wallowing in crime, debt, unemployment, and disintegrating infrastructure.

  18. Max Allstadt

    V, I think your point about highrises on Lakeside Drive brings up a really important distinction between ordinary zoning and view corridors.

    There actually could be a new highrise on Lakeside. Not soon, but in our lifetime, sure. Zoning updates are supposed to happen every decade. Oakland is late, but this update is still happening, and another one will happen a decade or
    two down the road. By then the council will likely have 8 new
    members whose sensibilities we can’t predict. Who knows? They might upzone the lakeside!

    So a zoning update is a decade long commitment. A view corridor to a historic building is much longer commitment. You can change zoning, but politically, if we impose a view corridor to City Hall and then give it 20 years to become part of our city identity, we can pretty much consider it permanent. That means that we need to make this decision more carefully.

    If we impose a view corridor, what will it look like in 100 years? 200? 400?

    If our corridor is set at a 120 foot height limit, and over the next 100 years, the city adds several dozen 400 foot plus towers, what do we get?

    The answer is Stonehenge! I we keep a narrow path low while everything else gets tall, what well have is a gap-toothed skyline. Go to the 18th street pier on the right day of the year, and the sun will set in the gap, creating a bizarre lighting effect.

    That’s a long way off of course. The most likely thing to happen in the next decade is that someone will build a very tall building near the Tribune Tower or near City Hall, without obstructing the view.

    But at 500 feet tall, you don’t need to obstruct th view, you still create radical change in the ciry’s identity. There are plenty of unobstructed views of historic buildings in Manhattan, for instance. But I remember the twin towers most. They were built shortly before I was born and because of their height, they became the icon of NYC. The same will happen the instant anything tall is built in downtown Oakland.

    So yeah. A rather awkward plan.

  19. Joe DeCredico

    As clarification, the 2 planning commissioners present did not support any of the view corridors. Both said that “if” we were going to have view corridors, that views 1 and 2 would be the ones they could see. Both of these views are from the 18th Street Pier. And, they asked for a lot more information about how many parcels would be affected, what the economic impact would be, and if it was even legal to limit height due to a view corridor, or would that constitute a taking.

    At one time, there was a Beauxs Art axial relationship between the pier and City Hall. Patrick you are right. If views were going to be preserved of this axis, it should have been done long ago with a public park or a broad boulevard (as in the Austin example). Now, there are numerous buildings of varying heights that have obliterated any semblance of an axis. In addition, the argument that the 18th Street Pier is a gathering place is a fiction.

    I attended the LAPB and several of the pro-view corridor members were not happy that anyone was challenging them in their own meeting. In fact, one committee member decided to chastise the public who spoke against the corridors. Not exactly the behavior we expect from commmittee members toward the public. I was happy to hear the 3 members opposed to the corridors express intelligent concerns and positions.

    But the real point I want to make here is that this if far more than a discussion about a couple of view corridors. It is a continued effort to down zone downtown. One of the public speakers at the ZUC, well respected in the Historical Preservation Community, said loud and clear that they were not going to stop with these views, that these were just a start, and that they were going to go all around the City and find additional view corridors, even from the Oakland Hills. Funny, I don’t see people clamoring to buy houses in the hills to get that view of City Hall or the Trib Tower.

    This is a slippery slope of continued down zoning being advocated by a small vocal and organized group privileged with the shield of historic preservation. I also enjoy historic buildings, but I don’t mind walking through the City to discover them and I don’t believe views of them should be preserved in a downtown business district slicing across private property from arbitrary viewpoints selected where a park bench happens to be located.

  20. Daniel Schulman

    Ralph, glad to be able to agree with you again. You are absolutely right – that guy in the first clip was awesome! In full disclosure I should point out that his name and mine are pretty similar. I’m also das88 who tweeted the ZUC meeting.

    I tried to tweet the ZUC fairly. I might have inadvertently made it look like Doug Boxer and Michael Colbruno were more supportive of VC1 and VC2 than they actually were. Joe DeCredico’s review above is absolutely spot-on – they did have big reservations and were just saying they deserved more study.

    Still, choosing the best two VC’s from a poor list may give them some unwarranted legitimacy. A few weeks back Max Allstadt had several comments on how strange ideas start seeming like good policies. Lauding the fastest snail in a race seems to fit within his arguments. Elsewhere, the decision is being spun as “the ZUC endorsed only two of the five views” – http://lakecoalition.blogspot.com/.

    I was on the short-side of the vote and did not agree with many of my fellow commissioners arguments on this issue. However, people should not get the wrong idea about LPAB. My fellow boardmembers are an extremely thoughtful and accomplished group. Some of their input on projects, given on a volunteer basis, is truly fantastic. As Oakland grows and changes, LPAB helps to preserve what is unique and best about the city.

    It’s also not easy to go against the views of the individuals & groups that show to many of the meeting. These groups do provide us with important information, viewpoints, and resources that help inform decisions. They are a valuable part of the process.

    When they do push controversial positions, it really helps to balance the discussion when other members of the public write and speak at meetings. I’d like to thank everyone who came out to speak on view corridors on all sides of the issue. Hopefully even more people will present at Planning Commission and potentially City Council, so we can further add to the discussion.

  21. Max Allstadt

    About the corridors and the equity issue that’s come up in the past:

    Check out these photos of City Hall:


    Both are taken from public parks in West Oakland.

    Both viewing areas are larger than any of the viewing areas along the lake.

    Both are closer than lakeside views of City Hall.

    Both would create view corridors that fall on top of many other historic structures that are already protected or should be.

    Both view corridors require permanent downzoning of 4 blocks. Lakeside views require 6-7 blocks of downzoning each.

    Both view points are in historic West Oakland neighborhoods, full of 1890s woodframed homes.

    In short, protecting either one of these views would create more historic preservation than any of the views from the lakeside.

    If we’re looking at view corridors, these need to be included. Lakeshore should not get more consideration than West Oakland. Very very not OK.