Chris Kidd: Planning on the Estuary

ABO readers, do not adjust your computer screens. Chris Kidd here, that impertinent young scamp you often see shooting his mouth off in comments. I have to admit that I totally geeked out to V about the upcoming Estuary Specific Plan and she asked me to write up a post about it while she was taking the week off.

As mentioned above, I’m super psyched about the Estuary Specific Plan process. Most people give me blank stare when I mention the ESP, so I suppose I should give some background. It’d be best to start where all things start: the beginning.

This all started with the Estuary Policy Plan (EPP) (PDF), a project developed from 1997-1999. This was a update of the city’s General Plan designed to help transition land that was previously heavy industry into a mix of light industry, commercial, park land, residential, and mixed-use residential. The Plan was really forward-thinking in recognizing the value of Oakland’s waterfront areas, but the EPP sadly had no plan for implementation. It was only a suggestion for the city to follow.

The central area of the EPP is bound by 19th, 50th, the estuary and I-880. So far, the only sections in the central estuary closely resembling the EPP’s intent are Union Point Park and the Kennedy Tract neighborhood area (also known as Jingletown). Here’s the map (PDF) from the original project for the central estuary area.

Fast forward to 2005/2006. The EPP isn’t much closer to fruition than when its recommendations were first presented. I don’t know who thought of it first, but between developers and the city planner’s office, the concept of a specific plan for the central estuary region began to take shape. Carlos Plazola was part of a group that wanted to design a privately invested specific plan for this area in this time period. You can read his own words on the subject here. I don’t know what role Dan Lindheim had in killing the project (I won’t make those kinds of assumptions). I can tell you that when the proposal to initiate a specific plan went before the city council, staff recommended a city-run specific plan process over a developer run process. Read into that what you will.

This still brings us back to, “What the heck is a Specific Plan?” SPUR just had a great article in their July issue of The Urbanist which dealt with a similar specific plan process that took place in the Market/Van Ness/Octavia neighborhood from 2002-2007. It’s a great read (I <3 SPUR), and you can find it here. For those disinclined to click on the link, I’ll do a worse job explaining it right now:

A specific plan is broken up into two major purposes/points of involvement. The first purpose involves the creation of new zoning and building specifications for the area encompassed by the specific plan (in this instance, most likely zoned closer to the Estuary Policy Plan recommendations). The second purpose harnesses this change in zoning/specifications in order to secure fees from developers to improve the specific plan area.

To carry out a specific plan, the city completes an Environmental Impact Review (EIR) for the area the specific plan encompasses. The EIR explores the environmental ramifications of a range of building specifications and zoning changes. If a developer decides to build in this area, and the planned project falls within the guidelines of the zoning and EIR performed by the city, the city allows the developer to bypass the CEQA/EIR stage and streamline the project’s approach to the planning commission. This can sometimes remove a year or more from the pre-construction phase for a developer. For the right to cut costs, and especially for the right to shorten the time to get approval, the city will extract a fee from any developers building projects within the specific plan area. The fee is usually based on a dollar-per-square-foot amount for the property being developed. All of these funds extracted from new development go into a piggy bank that can only be used for purposes in the specific plan area.

In the central area of the estuary, these funds could be used to great effect. Improving waterfront access, roads and infrastructure, and sewer systems (some of which, I am told, still have wood-frame sections); putting Measure DD projects online; and increasing police presence–these potential improvements only scratch the surface of what could be accomplished in the area with funds gathered by the implementation of a specific plan.

What causes me to geek out about this specific plan is that the slate is almost currently blank. The decisions for what kind of buildings will be covered under the EIR is wide open; the uses of the funds generated from the specific plan are wide open. It’s all contingent upon the plans drawn up by the consulting company hired and the public input received. The city planner’s office is currently asking for RFP submissions (PDF) from consulting companies. The only current piece of direction is the old 1997 Estuary Policy Plan. It will need a serious updating, considering how the area has changed in eleven years.

The planning process is supposed to take 18-24 months. Hopefully we’ll be able to see concrete effects of this plan in the very near future. Personally, I would love to see the full implementation of the bay trail throughout the specific plan area (with the increase in waterfront access it would entail), encouragement of industry to develop towards biotech/greentech, creation of denser housing concentrations in an area in close proximity to a transportation hub, and the retention of high levels of work/live space (being that it is a zero-commute type of housing). But that’s the great thing about a specific plan at this stage: It can be almost anything.

I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks is possible. If you live in the specific area, I suggest you keep tabs on whomever wins the bidding for creating the specific plan. They will be required to hold at least eight public stakeholder meetings during the process. If you show up, you’ll probably have a great chance to create tangible change in your neighborhood. There’s a flip side to that, however: if you don’t show up, you can be sure there are a lot of other interests that will. This is a huge project that has the potential to generate substantial funds for a small area of the city. Myriad people will want to dip their fingers into that honey pot. It’s the responsibility of all of us to make sure that the type of buildings zoned in the EIR are acceptable and that the fees generated are spent in the best possible manner.

I’ll be out of town for the rest of the week, so don’t expect me to respond to any posts/questions. Corrections and scoldings are always welcome.

8 thoughts on “Chris Kidd: Planning on the Estuary

  1. Carlos Plazola

    Chris, well done! Thanks for bringing attention to this, and describing the impacts and implications of an SAP so clearly. In my opinion, residents from the entire City of Oakland, and all the local media, should be paying attention to this effort since the waterfront is one of our greatest public assets.

    I think this is an opportunity for all of Oakland to rally around something positive. There is enough potential in this area that we may just end up creating something that everyone can rally around.

    Here’s one idea: Since, as a society, we value artist communities that spring up organically in transitioning industrial areas, and then end up losing them as development progresses, let’s create a fund through the SAP process that helps creates affordable housing in the Jingletown area specifically for artists (not at the exclusion of low income people in general, but in addition to). Perhaps this would allow the purchase of some key artists work/live sites by artisits collectives?

    Another idea: Create the first “green zone” waterfront area in the nation.

  2. Max Allstadt

    One of the things that I never get about projects on this sort of scale is this: Why do cities always sell off or parcel out huge areas of land without chopping them up. One chunk to one developer or group, all too often. Wouldn’t it make more sense to divide the area into plots that are more in scale with the existing urban context, and sell them off individually?

    If you want local contractors and developers to get most of the action, keep the parcels small, and don’t allow them to be combined. Larger development groups won’t want to bother with them, and the local little guys will be able to do something much more in sync with the culture of our city.

    I’m with you on the continuation of the bay trail, chris. I’m skeptical about trying to attract any one kind of business to the industrial portions. Instead, zone for versatility and let tenants be determined by what the demand is. As for work/live, well you know I’m all over that. Planning has really done us a solid there, I hope we can get the council to bite on their report when its issued.

    Another thing that I think it key that you didn’t mention: Oakland’s general plan repeatedly mentions emphasis on transportation corridors. That’s all well and good, but I can’t help thinking that this obsession is why we have very few “squares”. Jack London is sort of a square, but it’s dead because it’s not easy to get to on transit, and its merchant’s association is too uptight to let any rambunctious nightlife or street musicians or street vendors bring the place to life.

    Frankin square is teeny, but promising. City Hall Plaza has tons of potential, but again, too uptight. Temescal is so hurting for a square that they have to put their farmers market in the DMV lot. Lame! The mall above the 12th street BART isn’t a square, it’s a mall. Fruitvale BART is quite a bit better, but still rather mallish. This is in part related to that problem of assigning huge projects to single developers.

    So what am I saying? Divy it up as much as possible, and put a square there! Too many lines in Oakland’s street grid, not enough boxes.

  3. dto510

    Max, parcel consolidation is redevelopment 101. Developing large parcels allows for economies of scale (especially for environmental cleanup) and for developers to meet the goals of the redevelopment project. One of Oakland’s biggest challenges is that the city was parcelized almost at its inception, so there are many, many tiny parcels that are difficult to develop. This is a huge problem for industrial development in West Oakland and for retail development throughout the city, and is a big advantage for suburban “greenfield” developers who don’t need consolidation. Uptown is a great example of parcel consolidation leading to successful redevelopment.

    The city can encourage small-scale development by relaxing outdated zoning rules that make small parcels difficult to develop, like set-back and private open-space requirements. But large-scale redevelopment requires large parcels. There are more than enough tiny parcels unsuitable for major development to go around without imposing those problems on new neighborhoods.

  4. Max Allstadt

    Well you’re right about the difficulty of developing small parcels.

    But Uptown isn’t exactly a shining example of success. Way too much dead street frontage. The opportunity to create a new public square wasn’t taken.

    5000 sf parcels are probably too small, but in terms of humanity, two acre parcels are pretty ridiculous too. Particularly when things like private streets (west end commons) become part of the situation. If we do relax zoning rules and development costs for smaller parcels, then why not parcel off land in smaller chunks. Large developers shouldn’t be the only ones who make money off of city land.

  5. dto510

    Well, again, the reason why the lots are large is to allow flexibility in design and economies of scale to meet the objectives of the redevelopment. In Oakland, most redevelopment is on contaminated land, and clean-up is far more efficient and affordable on a large parcel. The bottom line is that large-scale redevelopment can’t happen without large lots. And we’re not talking about city land, we’re talking about private land that’s being consolidated by the Redevelopment Agency and then sold off to private developers: the only reason it’s ever in the city’s possession is to assemble developable lots.

    I used Uptown as an example because that used to be like 25 parcels, we can quibble over whether you love every detail of the development, but it’s better than a hodgepodge of surface parking lots, tiny warehouses, and auto repair shops, and nothing could have happened without the intervention of the redevelopment agency to assemble the land into five large developable lots (including using eminent domain).

    This isn’t about big versus small developers (though the city staff’s lack of concern for eliminating outdated zoning restrictions, as the General Plan commands, shows they don’t really care for small developers). Most lots in Oakland are too small for large development. Theere are many opportunities for small-scale infill development – what we’re talking about here is large-scale redevelopment to accomplish large goals.

  6. Sandy Threlfall


    Your article on the Central Waterfront was wonderful. It put into clear language much of the history of this area and the importance of a Specific Plan to help the area, as it changes, to continue to relate to the surrounding assets of the waterfront.

    Thanks to your article, I reviewed the RFP for the Specific Plan and was stunned to realize that the Estuary Policy Plan (1999) chapter on the San Antonio/Fruitvale District is still missing from the Port of Oakland’s web site. Unfortunately, the RFP references the Port web site for the EPP. I believe that consultants responding to this RFP deserve the benefit of reviewing that chapter.

    When Waterfront Action noted this omission a few years ago, we contacted the Port to advise them of the missing portion in their posted copy of the EPP. We then we used a hard copy to scan the chapter make it available on our web site at

    In addition, I have contacted City of Oakland staff to alert them to this missing element, and they are working to correct the error.

  7. Chris Kidd

    Just a heads up. The firm CD+A has been selected to run the specific plan process. Their claim to fame: planning the Martinez and Vallejo waterfronts. And they’re an Oakland firm, so there’s that.

    It goes to council next week for approval of funding. I’m going to try to do a detailed writeup this weekend, but I wanted to get the information out just in case I don’t make it in time.

    I know people are probably a little pooped with politics right now, but the waterfont belongs to every Oaklander and they should make their voices heard in the planning that is about to go forward. Don’t be one of those people that doesn’t get involved and then 5 years later complains that the waterfront is screwed up because the city is in the pocket of developers or NIMBYs or whichever group ends up exerting the most sway in what is about to happen right now. We don’t get a do-over if it’s done wrong. Demand excellence from your city.

  8. Tim Rood

    Chris, thanks for noticing our selection. The CD+A Team is excited to kick off the planning process in January after the contract is executed. We look forward to working with stakeholders in an open, inclusive and transparent planning process that includes extensive analysis of the trade-offs (economic, environmental, and equity-related) among various alternatives.