I felt like kind of a jerk yesterday when I kept hearing about how amazing Uptown had been on Wednesday night, what with all the crowds showing up for the Franz Ferdinand, Green Day, and Leonard Cohen shows at the Fox, Uptown, and Paramount, and with all the restaurants and bars all filled to capacity. Living in the area, I’m starting to grow accustomed to crowds downtown, but from all accounts, it sounds like it was a particularly exciting night. I wish I had thought to wander over and check it all out at some point. Instead, I spent four hours sitting on my couch watching people talk about how we want to create a vibrant downtown. Alas.
Anyway, Wednesday’s Planning Commission discussion of the Central Business District rezoning was pretty good. The meeting began with a 40 minute presentation from staff explaining the new zoning and the process that had led to the proposal before them:
Public comment was uneventful. CALM doesn’t want tall buildings near the Lake. The Downtown Lake Merritt Neighborhood Group turned out a number of people wanting lower height limits in their neighborhood. They were particularly concerned about the sites of two proposed high-rises, the Emerald Views project on 19th and Alice, and a proposed high rise on 15th Street across from the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts. Since both projects have already submitted applications, neither will be impacted by the new zoning. When they come before the Planning Commission, they will be considered on their own merits.
The Oakland Heritage Alliance remains, obviously, primarily concerned with preservation of historic structures, and want lower height limits for a number of neighborhoods. They continue to push for a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program. The idea behind TDR is that you can help preserve historic buildings by basically zoning everything for lower density than you expect people will want, so that in order to build tall structures, developers will have to buy the density that would be allowed on the site of historic buildings were that building to be developed. This ensures that historic buildings that sell their development rights will not be torn down and also provides capital the owners of those properties can use for building improvements. I hate the idea of TDRs and think that artificially downzoning downtown would be a terrible way to go about preserving historic structures, but that’s an issue for another post entirely. Strict criteria for demolition makes much more sense, and I’m really glad that the Commission has not elected to go this route for now, although it is possible that such a proposal will be considered in the future.
Representatives of the Oakland Builders Alliance noted that the proposal does not, in fact, allow unlimited heights in any practical sense due to FAR restrictions, and requested that that the floor height minimums for retail spaces should have a 15 foot minimum height, rather than the proposed 14 feet. They complained that the “street wall” set by the maximum base heights should have a 1:1 ratio to the street’s width, not 1:1/2 as is currently proposed, calling the proposed ratio “surburan,” which it totally is and I agree with them completely on this point. I wouldn’t be so offended by the whole tower and base proposal if the bases were a reasonable height. They also had a kind of long discussion about banning liquor stores that didn’t really go anywhere.
I really, really thought, after that discussion, that we would get the self-storage, conditionally permitted and not on the ground floor. Alas, it was not to be, as later in the meeting, Commissioner Anne Mudge said she was “flummoxed” by the idea of allowing self-storage downtown, and Commissioner Sandra Galvez agreed that she was “not buying it.” This prohibition just seems so short-sighted to me. Everyone in the room, well, most people in the room, anyway, seemed to acknowledge that we want to increase residential density downtown, and the transit-oriented, green lifestyles that accompany it. But as you have more and more people living in smaller spaces, there will be an increasing need for accessible, off-site storage of recreational equipment and so on. So I was sad about that.
Commission comments lasted roughly an hour, although they didn’t end up making a whole lot of changes to the proposal. Commissioner Madeleine Zayas-Mart went on for a really long time, basically saying she wanted the whole proposal to be completely different in like, every way. She wanted lower heights, lower FAR, complete prohibition on demolition of historic structures in the inner part of downtown (we already have pretty strict limits on such demolition, and the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board is currently working on revising the criteria for better protection), and transferable development rights, shrinking height areas 5 and 6, studies of view corridors, and 3-D modeling. She wanted to keep the proposal at Planning Commission to alter it, and Commission Chair Michael Colbruno pretty forcefully shot down that idea, saying that if she had wanted to comment, she should have attended one of the nine Zoning Update Committee meetings on the issue, and that she would have ample opportunities for further comment in front of the Council.
So they passed the proposal (PDF), with changes as follows:
17th St. parcel between Madison and Jackson be moved from Area 3 to Area 1a. I used to live on this block, and it really is an adorable little street, except for this absolutely hideous bright blue building on the corner. I used to dream of it being torn down and being replaced by something even marginally less horrible to look at. While I don’t think anyone else likes that building either, the consensus seemed to be that it’s better to let the street stay as is than risk it being replaced with a building as tall as would have been allowed under height area 3. I don’t agree, but I also don’t care particularly much, and neighborhood residents really seemed so want that. So wev.
In CBD-R, personal instruction activities allowed on 2nd floor as long as they’re part of a business offering the same services on the ground floor. The idea behind this one is that sometimes a yoga studio or something like that might be located on two levels.
Allowing R&D as a conditional use in CDB-C.
Madeleine Zayas-Mart abstained and C. Blake Hunstman wasn’t there. And that was pretty much it. It was nice to see some discussion of uses, and I was glad the Planning Commission didn’t try to hold the zoning up even further and keep tinkering with it. I’m sure the Council will want to do plenty of that when they get their hands on it.