Rezoning downtown, for better and for worse

So, as I said yesterday, tonight’s Planning Commission meeting (PDF) will include a discussion of the Central Business District zoning update (PDF) proposal.

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.

The Good

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 not so good

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?

The awful

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.

32 thoughts on “Rezoning downtown, for better and for worse

  1. doug boxer

    Hey V:

    Not sure what you are referring to but I am still a voting member of the PC, as far as I know. If you’ve got other info, I’d like to know about it cuz I’m preparing to spend many hours in city hall tonight


  2. OnTheGoJo/Joanna

    Page 15. (Doug Boxer).

    And I admittedly might be missing something, but I looked at one of the first few pages that listed requirements, and being a citizen and/or registered to vote did not appear to be a requirement. Hmmm, I might know someone that could serve the City. He is a taxpayer and property owner here in Oakland…

    p.s. – congrats, Doug, on the new baby girl!

  3. Aaron Priven

    Billboards are fugly. Even Jane Jacobs wrote about ugly billboards (“blighting up the view up Fifth Avenue from the library” if I remember rightly although for some reason my copy of _Death and Life_ isn’t here).

    Self-storage is not ideal because it is a use that generates no activity, and downtown is a place where the highest level of activity should be ensured. Build a housing unit or an office cubicle downtown and you’ll have that person on the street every day; build a self-storage unit and you’re lucky if you get the person who rents it to visit it twice a month.

  4. V Smoothe Post author

    It’s unrealistic and impractical to expect the highest level of activity in every building. Self-storage that people visited twice a year would represent an increase in activity for tons of buildings downtown. We also have to consider the needs of all the people living downtown. Self-storage fills an important need for area residents, which we’re allegedly trying to attract more of.

    Just compare the street experience and activity around the Tribune Press Building before an after it became a self-storage facility. The improvement at 13th and Franklin is astronomical.

  5. OnTheGoJo/Joanna

    I swear that often the self storage place down the street from my store is busier than my store. Remember that many storage places are visited daily by many of their renters because people run businesses out of them. Especially contractors, plumbers, that sort of thing.

    Storage is definitely better than an empty building. (IMHO)

    Since so many of the new spaces built have very little storage, having a nearby storage place is handy. We keep old documents, camping gear, off-season clothing, and other bits and bobs in our storage unit. We probably go once a month. More in the summer when we’re camping more often. I often stop at the hardware store when I go.

  6. dto510

    Storage is an important part of economic activity. How can we expect people to live in relatively small condos when there’s no storage nearby? What are businesses supposed to do without nearby storage services? And advertising, billboards and all, have been a part of downtown Oakland (and every other American downtown) for ever. There are ads painted on even the oldest buildings. Unfortunately, as V pointed out, there has been no opportunity to even discuss these arbitrary changes at a public meeting.

  7. Patrick

    I think they’re worried that we’re going to end up with one of those orange and gray concrete monstrosities with a lighthouse on top. At least that would adhere to the base and tower requirement, though.

    All these rules do is make a place look cookie cutter and sterile. Like Emeryville. These rules are fine for the suburbs, which thankfully we’re not. I want billboards. And neon – lots of neon.

  8. livegreen

    Self storage units are a tough issue for the City because they take up a lot of space yet provides low tax revenues and low employment comparative to other businesses (they’re very automated and customers do all the work. 1 to 3 people can manage a facility where 10, 20 or more people could be fully employed in either commercial or industrial work spaces).

    Of course it is needed, for all the reasons mentioned. So it’s a tough balance.
    BTW, there are at least 5 self storage business in or near downtown…

  9. Rebecca Kaplan

    To me, the “use” section (aka “Permitted Activities”) wins the award for the highest ratio of “importance” to “public attention.” I have received no constituent comments on the use section of the proposal, despite the fact that it will have a very significant impact on our downtown’s future development.

    A couple pieces of good news on the “use” section:
    1) I have received clarification from staff that the proposal, as written, WILL ALLOW bike shops in the retail spaces in the CBD. (solving one of the current problems). Bike shops will be considered “general retail” which will be allowed, without a conditional use permit.
    2) Restaurants and food sales will be allowed without a CUP. In the CBD-R area there are some size limits on them, and I will follow up with staff (and any restaurant folks out there who want to share their experiences/info with me) to make sure that these limits won’t negatively impact our growing, thriving food/restaurant sector.
    3) I like that Bed & Breakfasts are allowed, I think Oakland could do well having more of these.

    Other news, is that the new Uptown Bakesale Betty has received all the city permits they need, and are now working on the physical renovations, so we should have a new Bakesale Betty in the coming months!

    In terms of the “use” proposals which I think warrant more consideration and possible changes:
    a) Self-storage is a growing need, so further discussion on how to enable some of it in a non-disruptive way (e.g. not on ground floor, maybe not in some of the sub-areas) is worthwhile.
    b) I am not sure we should have a prohibition on plant nurseries.
    c) The proposal does not allow “research and development” in the CBD and I think this might need to be re-examined, in terms of what staff intended to prohibit, since there are some forms of research and development that could work well in a downtown office building.

    Best wishes,
    -R. Kaplan

  10. Ralph

    No billboards, no neon, and no storage units. Billboards in urban settings tend to promote, alcohol and cigarettes and when they are not promoting they are generally a blight on the community. There is a reason why you don’t have ugly billboards in suburbia, people realize how detracting and unappealing they are to the community.

    No storage units – take those out of a residential area. New condos have storage units, use them for your gear and downsize.

  11. gem s

    Ralph, not everyone living Downtown lives in a new condo (and a quick perusal of The Uptown Apartments site mentions a “parcel delivery room” but nothing about storage). Never mind the fact that I would not characterize Downtown as a “residential area”, it’s ridiculous to not have storage around where people live. Why promote driving out to the boonies when 1) people out and about in the city is a good thing, and 2) many people living downtown rely on public transit? Urban life is supposed to mean that everything you need is right around you, otherwise the city center just becomes a vertical suburb.

  12. Ralph

    A quick perusal that is new on me. If the storage then can be hidden, then I could give it a ear. I just recall those ugly concrete and steel units growing up and could not imagine something like where people live. Where I gre up they were near residential/shopping areas but not in residential /shoping areas.

  13. Patrick

    Wow, Ralph. NIMBY much? Anything else? You really do want Emeryville II. Also, keep in mind that had your rules applied in the 1920s, the FOX Theater marquee would be very different from what we see today. Personally, I find the lights of Times Square very appealing – besides the WOW factor, they light up the shadows where nasty characters lurk.

    I’ll save the discussion that the Empire State Building is a base and tower structure save this point: If all “bases” have the same height, there is no advantage to anyone except on the upper floors. And what an odd sight that would be with so many buildings that have basically identical structures. It will look like Levittown on a larger scale. I suppose some of them could be gussied up with neon… I’m surprised no one has mentioned the phallic symbol angle.

    Rebecca, there really is no reason to ban plant nurseries. They rely on sunlight, for one, which is often in short supply in urban areas. And, low profit margins + large land requirements + high land costs = insolvency. Are they really banned even in CBD-X areas? I can’t imagine a reason why, other than the density issue.

  14. V Smoothe Post author

    My all time favorite building is also a base and tower structure, but that doesn’t mean I think every new building in Oakland should look like it.

    In the current proposal, plant nurseries are prohibited outright in every zone.

  15. Aaron Priven

    I think there are a lot of good points here on both sides about storage. It seems to me there are areas near to downtown, and accessible from it, that would be more suitable for storage facilities. No, not every building can be the most active, but that doesn’t mean that the lowest level of activity is good, etiher. We have a tremendous concentration of transit facilities downtown, and it makes sense to put the most intense uses there. Storage is still going to be accessible to transit users if it is put near a transit corridor outside downtown (International, Telegraph, MacArthur, etc.)

    Aren’t most contractors and plumbers who access their self-storage daily likely to do so by car? Not the ideal use for downtown space.

    Of course, the Press Building is better now than when it was empty, and the offices around the edge avoid the blank-wall effect that is the worst thing about storage. If you’re going to have storage downtown that’s pretty close to ideal. I don’t know whether the Press Building could have made it as anything other than self-storage, but still I think if it could, it would be a better use of the space.

  16. Ralph

    Patrick, for clarification i was thinking neon on billboards. i am all for the bright lights of the paramount and fox. it is because of those inky shadows i am grateful for the lights of broadway – especially since they seem to have a somewhat hard time keeping the street lights lit.

    NIMBY – more than likely.

    but there are some and i am one who do not like the bb on lukas and across the way. i don’t like the one sitting at 27th and mlk. just an observation from my youth that local govt had no issues with littering the darker communities with these ugly signs while other communities never saw a billboard. i will not like them on a box, i do not like them on a fox. they can go by train, they can go by plane, they can go by crankcar, i don’t really care how they go but they must go now.

  17. Patrick

    V, I didn’t mean to suggest that I think the base/tower requirement is in any way a good idea – unless every building comes out like the character of, say, the Chrysler building, which I somehow doubt. I think it’s a disaster exactly for the points raised previously – faced with those types of constraints, to maximize profit, many buildings will be built to maximum allowable height and size – identical base height, identical tower height, identical setback…the only thing that will allow for any differences will be the size of the lot. And as they all must conform to the exact same standards, architects will have little leeway.

    Neon on billboards? The thought never entered my mind, actually. I guess I really don’t notice them anymore – they’re not nearly as fun as they were when I was a kid. There was one in my hometown for coffee, and this giant hand poured coffee into a cup, and then a puff of “steam” rose out of the cup. But I digress… How do you feel about billboards on the sides of businesses that actually advertise that business?

  18. Ralph

    Patrick, I basically despise billboards in the urban landscape mostly due to the ploitics of race. Can’t quite think of billboard that advertises the business. Trying to recall what if anything is on Sears. For some reason I seem to think there is some type of bb on it. I know I hate that bldg and just about everything to do it. That be said, if something were visually appealing I am open, I am after all human. there is nothing visually appealing about that Sears store.

  19. gem s

    From the little I know of the design and construction of high rise buildings, setbacks don’t have anything to do with views; they are to allow more sunlight into the urban core, and to diminish the effects of down-drafts that happen with shear curtainwall to ground building construction. This is important since wind velocity at the base of tall buildings can be several times greater than lower buildings. Anyone who’s ever tried to sit down by the fountain in City Center Plaza has probably experienced the wind velocity acceleration that happens with the twin towers of the Federal Building; combined with the unfortunate topography of City Center, what should be a nice place to sit is often impossibly cold and uncomfortable. If setbacks help decrease planning issues like these (some cities actually do wind tunnel tests of proposed buildings before building them! ), then I lean toward base/tower configurations. It’s an unfortunate shortcut to really paying attention to design and planning, and has some problematic results, but I’m not certain that eliminating the requirement is the best option either.

  20. OnTheGoJo/Joanna

    Storage in the new condos? Ours isn’t new, but we’ve got hardly any storage. Admittedly I have a fair amount of kitchen excess, but I’ve reduced. (Subtract, do not add is our household mantra.) I did see storage at Aqua Via, but it was tiny chain link compartments. We did suggest that when buildings were in the planning phase. Parcel areas are for incoming packages and some buildings don’t have even that – which is why private mail box rentals (PMB’s) are popular. (disclosure – that would be me)

    I keep excess inventory (namely boxes) in storage and occasionally need to go there to pick some up during the week. A few times even during store hours. In some ways it’s too far as it is. We do have an upstairs unit though. I used to have my stuff in a different place, but their access wasn’t as good; their hours not as convenient; and their facilities not as nice. And yes, I drive there to pick up boxes even though it’s all of half a mile away.

    As for plant nurseries, was their a specific reason they are ruled out completely? I can think of water as a main reason, but I think breaking up tall buildings with lots can make a city more interesting, even if others see it as a waste of space. On the other hand, I can’t see the numbers working on that kind of business. Ironically I was looking at the kiosks in front of City Hall last night thinking that a florist might survive in one of those small spots if the rent was cheap enough. A few potted plants for offices would fit right in, but I’m not sure what the legal definition of a “nursery” is vs “florist” that sells plants.

    I was originally ambivalent about parking on the vacant lot next to the Fox, and played devil’s advocate in asking about why the land owner couldn’t do what they wanted. But after hearing some solid arguments (namely re pedestrians), I get it and I agree that it shouldn’t be for parking. How about those big people sculptures from the Crucible’s Fire Arts Festival that are currently in a lot off Mandela? That would be cool there.

  21. V Smoothe Post author

    I just want to note quickly that there was a healthy amount of discussion of uses at the Planning Commission last night. Also, the Planning Commission passed the zoning onto Council. I’m going to write a whole post about it, but I may not get it up until tomorrow, although my goal is later today.

  22. V Smoothe Post author

    Oh, re: nurseries. A florist wouldn’t be considered a nursery – those are allowed. There used to be a florist in one of the kiosks in front of City Hall, but I guess it shut down, I don’t remember when, and I don’t know why. I used to buy stuff from there time to time.

  23. Ralph

    On parking by the Fox, I too was ambivalent. But last night as I passed by that horrendous parking structure on Telegraph, I realized that on a busy night this is an accident waiting to happen.

    My suggestion Somar, the Den, Uptown use the area to sponsor outdoor concerts for the grown folk.

  24. Michael H

    Hello all,

    After reviewing the staff report, I have come to the conclusion that “fine grain” approach is a fairly large waste of time and energy on the behalf of city staff. If the city is interested to develop design guidelines, then do a real urban study of existing infrastructural conditions, physical conditions of structures, and character and compatibility studies. This report utilizes a mix n’ match reasoning behind employing high restrictions due to the land use type, which makes no sense for new building types to be developed, that might not necessarily fit the traditional town house, or high rise residential.

    All I’m saying is, if you want to amend the land use map to encourage growth of a land use type, then fine, change it based on growth patterns or best practices. Or if you want to develop design guidelines thats fine as well, but don’t designate an area X-type residential and restrict the design structure specifically.

    This will encourage development to be done in a very specific way, and reduce the flexibility of these structures to be reused in the future.

    I would encourage design guidelines to be developed on a compatibility basis to adjacent structures, this way the development community can develop a whole spectrum of building heights and massing organizations which will allow the flexibility of additional uses in the future.

    This report feels less like future planning but rather a series of knee jerk reactions.

  25. Chris Kidd

    But why would you encourage design guidelines to be compatible with adjacent structures when some of the existing structures are out of line with the vision for the area? Just because a parcel is next to a parking lot or an obsolete 1-story building in an otherwise high-rise area shouldn’t preclude that parcel from being developed for high-density use.

  26. Chris Kidd

    Wouldn’t a compatibility basis for design guidelines encourage a much looser and arbitrary system for building design? I want to encourage imagination and variation in the architectural plans for new construction, but not at the expense of installing a murky design guildeline system that could bog down the approval process. Part of the whole zoning update process was to take away the reliance upon sercuring variants in zoning when doing new construction and replace it with something clearer. I feel like using compatibility as the driving force for design guidelines would leave a lot of wiggle room which would replace one of downtown’s existing zoning problems with the same problem, just from a different angle. Don’t get me wrong, this type of design guideline could work and be great; it could also have terrible side consequences.

  27. Naomi Schiff

    My business is in the Press Building (and helps hide its self-storage interior). The Press Building was long ago a theater, then housed the huge web presses of the Trib. Thus the interior does not have windows, requiring enormous renovation to use as housing or office. The owners did explore that option. But now, the storage spaces are not all occupied! There is an ample supply of storage for now, at least. My business used to rent space at the Beacon place at Grand and San P. and I believe they have space available too. So far, there is no shortage, and rates are fairly comparable.

    Also: many thanks to the people on this site who support a better-looking corner at 19th and Telegraph! I hope folks will continue to contact the city council on this point. We don’t need more unsightly surface parking.