The Planning Commission, BTW, is still, nearly a year after Suzie Lee’s term expired, short one member (or, if you were to believe the City’s official 2009 Boards and Commissions list (PDF), short two members, as Doug Boxer has apparently “vacated [his] post” and is no longer a voting member. Additionally, according to this fascinating document, allegedly current as of December 30th, 2008, the Planning Commission currently lacks a Chair). Anyway, it should be an interesting meeting. I laid out the basics of the current proposed new downtown zoning yesterday, today I get to the fun part.
Design standards! This is hands-down the best thing about the current CBD Zoning Proposal (PDF). Design standards for ground-floor space are vital to ensuring a pleasant pedestrian experience. Storefront-style windows (that’s what transparency means) and high floor heights create inviting storefronts and frame the street space. Low ground-floor heights with few windows simply aren’t as nice to walk by, and businesses without big windows are less successful. So, hooray for that.
In other exciting news, it outright bans surface parking lots. If the Zoning Update Committee hadn’t dithered pointlessly about this for 10 months, we would not now have to be fighting with the City to stop them from building a new surface parking lot on Telegraph Avenue.
The height map is stupid. Yes, it’s gotten much better since it was first introduced, but I still don’t like the tower and base model, and I think that for a lot of downtown, it’s limiting in a really stupid way. Take, for example, the giant surface parking lot across from the main post office. That’s in height area 4, which allegedly encourages intense development by permitting a tower of up to 400 feet, with a maximum base height of 85 height. So, I don’t really see anyone wanting to build a 400 foot building right there, and even if they did, I’m not so sure we would even want that. But I could see somebody in the not too distant future wanting to build, say an 8 or 10 or 12 story building. But for every floor above the sixth one, you lose 25% of your space, and then when you combine that with the space you’re losing to elevators and such as you get up higher, is it worth it to deal with the weird setback and floorplate reduction stuff for just a few stories? Maybe you just build the six story building instead because it’s just easier.
At the very least, I’d like to see the base heights in areas 3-6 at least 50 feet higher each, which would represent a reasonable height for a towerless building downtown (and consistent with existing structures). But instead of something rational, we got one of those weird “compromises” the City loves so much, where the plan sacrifices the best interests of Oakland in favor of striking some sort of middle ground between two advocacy factions, who both walk away feeling like they’re getting screwed anyway. But whatever. Like an acquaintance told me the other day in response to my complaining about the new zoning, nobody’s building anything right now anyway, and by the time they want to we’ll have a new Mayor and a new Planning Commission and we can just change it then.
Anyway, apparently these tower bulk reductions are supposed to preserve “views”. To this date, nobody has been able to explain to me in a way I can understand what these “views” we’re so concerned about protecting even are, or how it is that these requirements will help preserve them. Standing on the roof of a building like twice the height you think should be permitted in a neighborhood and taking a photograph from there does not actually illustrate existing views from apartments in that neighborhood. I used to live in a three story building in the Lakeside Apartment District one and a half blocks from the Lake. Between the Lake and me there were no buildings taller than three stories. My apartment faced the Lake. But I did not, in fact, have a view of the Lake from my apartment. I had a view of the building next to me. Anyway, whatever.
Also irritating is that the use code is lousy with conditionally permitted activities. Requiring conditional use permits (CUP) for every damn thing is just one more way that the City drives businesses out. One more hoop to jump through, several more months of waiting, one more annoying check to write. Since the Planning Commission appears to care exactly zero about the use code, I have little expectation that this will be addressed tonight, but I’m hoping when it moves forward to the Council, Rebecca Kaplan will have something to say about it. After all, she won my vote by promising to reduce the number of required CUPs. The City needs to stop acting like it can or should control every single thing that happens – there is no reason, except to waste a whole lot of people’s time, to require a freaking public hearing for someone to park a taco truck downtown. Or open an arcade. Come on.
Also stupid is the fact that the CDB-R zone contains no maximum setback and the height minimums are way too low. You shouldn’t be allowed to build a 45 foot building on Broadway even if you wanted to, and the fact that two height areas have no height minimum whatsoever is disturbing. How does that encourage dense, transit-oriented development?
I find it absolutely unconscionable that we have spent a year talking about rezoning our downtown and at no point have we even talked about uses. Uses are basically not even mentioned in the staff report (PDF). That’s what zoning is supposed to be about. If people can’t get their heads away from this completely pointless height debate for like two minutes, the use portion of the code should be agendized as a separate item.
I don’t suppose anyone took me up on my suggestion yesterday to download and peruse the use code (PDF). If you had, you might have noticed some interesting things. Like, say, you were reading it and said to yourself “Gee, I wonder what ‘personal instruction and improvement services’ is? Also, ‘automobile and other light vehicle repair and cleaning’?” If you were a curious type, you might have then gone and looked, as instructed, at Chapter 17.10 of the Municipal Code, to see what the defines those activities.
And if you had done all that, you probably would have ended up mightily confused, because you would have discovered that those activities don’t actually exist in the City’s current zoning chapter. They don’t exist because the activity list is currently being amended (PDF) as part of general zoning update efforts. This involves editing definitions for almost every item, as well as creating some new categories. The Zoning Update Committee considered the proposed revisions (PDF) at their last meeting (PDF), and the full Commission will also consider this issue tonight. So, the activity list update is good and also necessary, and for the most part, I agree with the changes. Although it could use some work. For example, I cannot for the life of me figure out what makes the sandwich shop I went to yesterday a limited service restaurant (permitted) instead of a fast food restaurant (requires a CUP) except for the fact that it wasn’t McDonalds (a criteria not listed in the draft code). Anyway.
How can you responsibly discuss new zoning for downtown when that zoning includes things that don’t exist yet? How can you even know if it’s good or bad to permit or conditionally permit or prohibit an activity when you don’t know how that activity is defined?
Also, there are serious problems with said code (aside from all the aforementioned CUPs).For example, why is self-storage banned everywhere downtown? How does self-storage on upper floors hurt anyone? As downtown’s residential population grows, the area will have increasing demand for such facilities. Self-storage has already allowed for adaptive reuse of one historic building downtown, which has had the side benefit of creating a nice streetscape featuring retail where it had previously been very unpleasant to walk. And why are billboards banned? What’s wrong with billboards downtown? And so on.
And ignoring the use map is just part of it. For all the meetings and meetings and more meetings and endless discussion involved in this process, most of downtown actually received very little consideration. The downtown zoning should should have been an opportunity to envision what we want downtown to look like as it grows and create a framework that will guide and direct future growth. Instead, everyone spent 10 months arguing about laws for areas that have very little developable space anyhow. The most underdeveloped parts of the CBD, the Courthouse area and what I affectionately call the West DTO, get slapped with the haphazard label “CBD-X,” X, as an algebraic term indicating something unknown, fits this zone perfectly. Instead of thinking about how we want these underdeveloped areas to grow, we’re basically saying that we don’t care and people can stick whatever there. Annoying.
And that’s all I have to say about it for now. If you want to weigh in, or just watch the fireworks, head down to City Hall after 8 PM tonight. See you there.