Planning Commission approves new tallest building in Oakland – in December

So I really did mean to go to Saturday’s meeting about new downtown height limits, part of the Lake Merritt Zoning Study that was supposed to be completed last fall. But after sleeping in, hitting the farmer’s market, and riding the 1 across town to pick up some salumi, I decided I just didn’t have the energy to rush back downtown and waste such a pretty afternoon in a dreary room listening to whining from anti-development activists. So I decided to enjoy some tacos instead and take my time walking home. I justified my decision by telling myself that nobody would be there, nothing interesting would be said, and that I could get all the answers I needed from one of my helpful correspondents, who I knew was attending.

The meeting, for those who don’t know or don’t want to click through to the explanatory link above, is part of an ongoing effort to “update” the zoning for downtown Oakland, initiated last year “at the request of Councilmembers Nancy Nadel (D-3) and Pat Kernighan (D-2),” according to the Lake Merritt Townhall Meeting Yahoo! Group, an online forum about the update, moderated by Nancy Nadel policy aide Marisa Arrona. The community meetings on the matter have been hosted by Nancy Nadel and Pat Kernighan, and public comment on the study has been collected by Nadel’s office. Concerned residents have been instructed to send their thoughts to Nadel’s staff:

We are soliciting public input via community meetings as well as written comments that can be emailed to Councilmember Nadel’s Policy Aide, Marisa Arrona, at If you have been, or will be, unable to attend the community meetings, please email your input to Marisa Arrona.

Those who want to learn more about the meeting and proposals should visit the Lake Merritt Zoning Study webpage.

Anyway, I didn’t go to the meeting for the reasons explained above. I was right on the first point, at least. But after hearing about the planning staff’s proposal to downzone downtown, initiated at the request of Nancy Nadel, from said correspondent, I’m kicking myself for not going, because I now have about 10 zillion questions that won’t be getting answered. I will try my best to get something up this week explaining the plan in more detail, but for now I’ll sum it up in one sentence: 55 foot height limits downtown! Unfreakingbelievable.

Okay. It’s a little bit more complicated that that. Planning staff, as part of a downtown zoning update initiated at the request of Nancy Nadel, proposes to divide downtown into 6 totally arbitrary zones, each with its own height limit. The meeting’s handouts are too big for my scanner, the maps are apparently going to be uploaded to the City’s website next week, so when they appear, I’ll update with a link.

The planning staff’s proposed map for the downtown zoning update, initiated at the request of Nancy Nadel, was accompanied by some handouts listing the heights of existing buildings downtown. This makes sense, since people should probably have some sort of context for what x number of feet actually looks like if they’re going to be talking about how many feet tall buildings should be allowed to be. Unfortunately, the list was completely wrong.

My go-to resource for building heights is Emporis, generally regarded to be a reliable source of information – since they exist to sell their research, they have a vested interest in getting things right. Here’s a list of the tallest buildings in Oakland and their heights according to Emporis, and the heights of the same buildings listed on the handout under the heading “Top 10 Tallest Buildings in CBD.”

Un-freaking-believable. The handout not only fails to include City Hall itself, but also knocks roughly 100 feet off every building on the list!

When questioned about the numbers, planner Eric Angstadt claimed that the listed heights were accurate, and from data in official City records. I find this assertion…improbable, particularly considering the nice round numbers for each building and the little note on the document that reads “Building height and number of stories are based on an estimate of 10 feet per story and field work.”

Another handout offers images illustrating which buildings would be allowed in which zones, and gives approximate heights for each one (“based on field observations and an estimate of 10 feet per story”). Among the examples:

Spear Tower: Handout height: 430 feet. Actual height: 564 feet.
Citicorp Center: Handout height: 400 feet. Actual height: 551 feet.
50 Fremont Center: Handout height: 430 feet. Actual height: 600 feet.
Chevron Tower: Handout height: 400 feet. Actual height: 573 feet.

So basically, the planning staff, in a downtown zoning update initiated at the request of Nancy Nadel, is not only suggesting we downzone downtown Oakland, its’s using lies to justify it. Deliberately lying to to citizens is hardly the sort of behavior one desires from one’s city staff, although not exactly shocking when Nadel is involved.

The most charitable scenario I can imagine is that the planning staff actually thinks that most buildings are between 100 and 170 feet shorter than they actually are, in which case, their suitability for the duty of determining height limits is, um, questionable. Even the most inept researcher should be able to plug something along the lines of tallest buildings Oakland into a Google search box and find the Emporis data on the first page of results. At the very least, you’d think this would prompt some sort of curiosity about the discrepancy in the numbers.

Anyway, if the heights on the meeting handout lists were true, the local papers sure missed out on a big story back in December, when the Planning Commission approved Shorenstein’s new 23-story, 370 foot office building (PDF!) in City Center. It’s apparently the tallest building in Oakland by nearly 100 feet! And only 30 feet short of the new proposed height limit for its lot.

16 thoughts on “Planning Commission approves new tallest building in Oakland – in December

  1. Eric

    Okay, so these numbers aren’t too hard to figure out. “Field work” means that someone stood on the street and counted the number of stories. These building heights are obviously nonsense. All it looks like she did was take the approximate number of stories counted “in the field”, multiply by 10 feet, and then add maybe 20 feet or so in some cases. So the Ordway’s and Kaiser Center’s 28 stories map onto “300 feet.” The reason why City Hall and the Trib Tower aren’t included is because apparently someone felt uncomfortable trying to estimate the height of the extra clock tower portion on top. And I’m not sure why 1330 Broadway was left out. Maybe the windows sort of confused them, when they were standing on the street counting stories?

    She seems to have done the same for the SF towers. 50 Fremont is around 42 or 43 stories, and she has 430 feet has the height. Likewise, Citicorp’s 39-stories maps onto 400 feet. The only problem here is that the “10 feet per story” criterion works fine for residential buildings, but definitely not for office towers. Assuming no extra unoccupied section on the top, office towers usually have more like 13-15 feet per story. And all the buildings that she has studied for this so-called research are office towers!

    What a joke. This sentence from the study website reeks of NIMBYism: “Councilmembers thought that more specificity would be helpful” (emphasis mine). Specificity smells just like “6 totally arbitrary zones” to me. More to the point, though, downzoning to 55 feet anything within a half mile of BART and in the CBD of a major city is not just irrational, but irresponsible. I actually sort of want to go to the second meeting this month, but I am very interested in your follow-up report, because I, too, have a flurry of questions.

  2. dto510

    The meeting was quite a spectacle, with about thirty citizens (evenly divided between real-estate professionals and activist NIMBYs from all over, with a smattering of Cal planning students) almost outnumbered by planning staff. I’ve never seen two councilmembers at an election-year meeting with so few of their constituents! Each of these meetings has attracted fewer and fewer residents (from fifty to forty to thirty), and even the anti-development types repeatedly complained about the lack of public input. Without any real public demand for radical new downtown policies, certainly none as complex as these, I expected the discussion to technical, but the proposals failed on that regard as well.

    Here’s what zoning director Eric Angstadt said in response to a sharply-worded question about his fantasy height of the Ordway: “I know there are rumors floating around that it’s 400 feet, but it never got that tall. Our building records show it’s only 300 feet.”

    The slide of the Trib Tower also incorrectly noted the next-door building as its “base height,” alhtough the next-door Art Deco building is two stories and the Trib’s base is six.

    When asked why downtown historic areas need a 55-foot height limit when there are historic buildings within those districts that are as tall as 75 feet, Mr. Angstadt said that he wanted to ensure fifteen-foot ground-floor ceilings and that the structures could be built under market conditions, saying that mid-rises are profitable. “You mean, like in Emeryville or on Telegraph?” was the follow-up. He said yes.

    More downtowners come to an Old Oakland Neighbors meeting than to these downtown zoning “update” discussions. It’s shameful. The meeting ended with the NIMBYs loudly complaining about the lack of public participation and that Nancy Nadel is guiding the process more than the planning staff (like her aide taking the official notes and controlling the website). And rumor has it that Ms. Nadel is seeking a grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (who loves Oakland’s density) to do the EIR needed to make this radical change to the General Plan, since she knows the Council would never pay for it. Let’s hope the Planning Department doesn’t try to weasel out of its EIR duties and pull a fast one on downtowners.

  3. John

    Vsmoothie: you are so “all over the road” with your own whining, it is hard to muster any interest in slogging through your so-called research. Particularly when you admit you thought it a waste of time. You are truly disgusting. Stop subjecting people who actually care about this city to your pathetic whining. It’s gross. Btw, second-hand information via someone who actually did make an effort to attend is called hearsay. Get a job.

  4. David Likuski

    Hey John, since you seem to have so much time on your hands to act insulting, it looks as if YOU are the one who needs to get a job…or a life. How about sharing a blog link of your own, and then we’ll find out who the real whiner is.

  5. Marisa Arrona

    The meeting and proposed mapping were presented by the PLANNING DEPARTMENT. Once again, you present misinformation on your blog. I’m not sure why you insist on misinforming the general public regarding Councilmember Nadel specifically, but if you had read the power point or attended the meeting, you would have noticed that the contact for this proposal is, as well as the Planning Department. Councilmembers Nadel and Kernighan hosted the meeting, but the presentation (and all materials and proposals) were prepared by the Planning Department. Please correct this blog post to accurately present this important information. And, in the future, please either personally attend events, or read the pertinent information, that you write about ~ it’s the responsible thing to do.

  6. David Likuski

    John, I apologize for sounding harsh and disrespectful in my previous comment, despite what you said in yours. It is just that I find this to be a very useful blog, with info that I cannot find anywhere else. Anyone who is willing to share such info with Oakland citizens, regardless of how opinionated it is (or of disagreement to some), deserves credit for making–not wasting–the time to do so. Anyway, once again, I am sorry. Thanks for the updates, V.

  7. John

    Hi David, thanks for your posts – apology accepted. The difficulties I am having here are several. First is with VS’s propensity to trash everything and everyone with whom she disagrees. It’s as though there is only one reasonable way to view the world, what Oakland should be like, and how it should get there – her way. Seriously, folks, do we really need to explain yet again that reasonable people can and will disagree? This is sooo grade school, which VS apparently never graduated from.

    VS no only disagrees, she trashes. And it is not just trashing, it is scorched-earth trashing to the point of being irresponsible. Her comments lose all appearance of trying to be helpful, or of providing useful additional information. She attacks, rather than supplements, the proceeding that took place. As such, who wants to listen to someone trashing the work of the City Council and City staff in such an unreasonable manner? I, for one, do not. It is obvious that VS is on the payroll of the developers to write this.

    VS may think she has written some cute prose about what she did last Saturday instead of attending the meeting and why she did not attend. But, it is not cute at all – it is self-indulgent and lazy, for starters. Her “story” and response to a meeting she did not attend is one of the cheapest shots I’ve seen in a long time. VS, maybe for the next meeting, you will put down your fork or sacrifice your sandwich for what will probably be the first time in your life and attend the meeting like the interested and concerned Oakland residents who aren’t on the take and who did attend last week. If you want to be the laziest person in Oakland, the least you can do is not force the rest of us to hear about it.

  8. V Smoothe Post author

    Marisa -

    My original phrasing may have been somewhat of a shorthand, but I don’t think it’s fair to call it “misinformation.” I (perhaps, mistakenly) assumed that my readers would be familiar enough with the zoning update process (or, if not, curious enough to click on the link provided) that my meaning would be clear. To address your concerns, I have altered the references to Nadel in the post to employ the exact language used in the announcements you sent out about the meeting. I have also added an paragraph with some background information, taken from the study website and Yahoo! group website. It makes for somewhat more awkward phrasing, but I’d certainly rather be guilty of writing a clunky post than mislead anyone.

  9. V Smoothe Post author

    Eric -

    I’m sure you’re right regarding the way the numbers were determined, but I still find the whole thing perplexing. The 10 foot per floor assumption for office towers is preposterous. I just can’t figure out why it would ever occur to anyone who knows anything about development to estimate that way.

    Odder still, the powerpoint presentation (PDF!) from the previous meeting provides a list of building heights that are neither the numbers listed in Emporis nor the numbers on Saturday’s handout (Ordway Building: 369, Kaiser Center: 357, Lake Merritt Plaza: 339, Kaiser Engineering Building: 306).

    dto510 -

    Thank you for sharing some additional details about the discussion.

    John -

    I’m sorry you don’t enjoy my writing, but you needent feel obligated to read the blog if you find it painful. I readily admit that I have a regrettable tendency towards being long-winded and rambling. I blame this guy.

    John & Marisa -

    I have to confess, I’m not entirely clear on what you think is wrong with me electing to not attend the meeting. The blog post is not about what was said at the meeting, but about the content of the handouts that were distributed at the meeting, and all three handouts that I reference in the post are in my possession and accurately quoted, so I fail to see where the problem lies.

    David -

    Thank you for reading (and jumping to my defense)! I hope that even those who don’t share my all my political views can find some useful information on my site.

  10. Jane


    Rather than handing out blame, how about just saying that you’ll see to it that the City gets it’s height numbers together. I mean, they’re blatantly blatantly factually actually WRONG.

    And while were at it, any comment on the link in the article? You know, the one that reminds us all that Nanny Nadel put a code violation into her own sidewalk and then talked smack about a neighbor’s legal sidewalks? Any comment? Didn’t think so.

  11. Steve

    There are a few ways to measure the height of a building; you’ll occasionally see “official” figures that don’t count spires or crowns, or even anything above the highest occupied floor. Heights given in S.F. planning documents are, I’m fairly certain, the latter, so One Rincon Hill for example had an “official” height of, IIRC, 550′–but it’s been pretty well established that including the water tank on top, it’s 641′ from the front door to the very tippy-top.

    It’s fairly clear, however, that that’s not what’s happening here. The proof lies in the S.F. figures. Ask someone from the S.F. Planning Department if 50 Fremont is 430′, and you’ll get a very funny look. The Millennium going up across the street is 645′. Does it look 200 feet taller? (Note that it is topped-out–what you see is what you’re going to get.)

    Emporis figures often come from blueprints. But generally, they’re about as accurate as you’re going to find.

  12. Eric

    It’s also clear that’s not what is happening based on this absurd “field observation” + 10 feet/floor “methodology.” Although that doesn’t speak to the figures in the Power Point.

  13. Deckin

    I’m not exactly sure what the problem with ‘trashing’ a view is. Human beings are owed respect, and I’ve never seen evidence of anything else on this site; but opinions are another matter. What respect is owed an opinion, especially an ill-formed and un-defended one? Who is being helped by excessive and misguided respect of opinions? The best thing that can be done for an opinion is to have it trashed. How else is one to sharpen and defend them better. I think this world, and Oakland in particular, could stand a whole lot more ‘trashing’ than even V. Smoothe does. Whether you agree with it or not, everyone is well served by a trashing.

  14. Mercedes Corbell

    If indeed the city of Oakland Planning Dept is using misinformation, on top of pursuing yet another foolish windmill, then they need to be held accountable. I will be emailing my councilperson to ask them whether the are willing to look into this. I can certainly call the planning department myself but I’m pretty sure I’ll get more of the “our information is correct” story.

    And to Ms Nadel’s aide- I second an earlier post that what you should be addressing is the facts- why is your office not looking into the lies about building height? And, why must your office be meddling with the design of the city in the first place? You have not demonstrated common sense or vision to date.