Sad night, Happy night at Planning Commission

So last night’s Planning Commission meeting was both very exciting and also kind of sad.

The Happy Part

So the good news is that the Planning Commission did not support the Temporary Conditional Use Permits.

I’ll try to pull together a more thorough write up once I get the DVD and have a chance to rewatch and take notes. In the meantime, check out last night’s #oakmtg stream on Twitter for the play by play.

In short, three people came out to speak in support of the TCUPs, and thirteen spoke against. Let me give a huge thank you to all the people who gave up their time to sit in City Hall all night and make their case to the Planning Commission. I know how hard it is to find time for these things, and waiting around for hours for one’s item to be called totally sucks. A few people showed up and just couldn’t stay long enough to speak on the TCUPs, and I am deeply appreciate of their efforts as well. There were several really awesome anti-TCUP speeches, and when I get the DVD, I hope to put up video of some of them.

And for those who couldn’t come out, but sent e-mails: huge thanks to you too! Your efforts really made a difference, the Planning Commission got your message loud and clear. A number of people CCed me on their messages, and I have to say, from what I saw, you guys did a really great job. It always warms my heart to see people participating in local government. You guys rock!

The end result of the meeting was that the TCUPs are essentially continued indefinitely — well, until staff completes some study about the highest and best uses for vacant property. But the sentiment was clear from the Commission that they were not interested in supporting creating this whole new policy just to make it easier to add new parking lots, that they did not want the proposal forwarded to the City Council, and that requests for new parking lots should be dealt with on a case by case basis.

So to everyone who spoke or wrote on this, give yourself a big pat on the back — you did great work. It’s so nice when things turn out the right way, isn’t it?

The Sad Part

However, despite my delight over the outcome on the TCUP item, I left last night’s Planning Commission a little bit sad. You see, it was Commissioner Doug Boxer’s final meeting.

So. I will have been doing this for five years in April. In that time, I have sat through a tremendous number of meetings. I am pretty much constantly watching or listening to meetings. When I’m puttering around the house, or cooking, or working at my computer, there is basically always some meeting or another playing in the background. Of course there’s the big ones that I try to make a point of following regularly — City Council and all the City Council Committees, Planning Commission, Public Ethics Commission, AC Transit Board, BART Board, MTC, JPC, School Board, Port Board, and so on. But I try to get around as much as possible to the more minor Boards and Commissions, too.

I’ve attended at least one meeting of every major decision making body in the area, except for the East Bay Regional Parks District Board of Directors, because they meet way up by Knowland Park and there is no way for me to get there. (I realize this sounds hopelessly dorky, but my primary motivation to get my driver’s license this year is so that I can join Zipcar and drive to an EBRPD meeting.)

Anyway. My point is that I hear a lot of meetings. And so I have seen a lot of people sitting on daises and making decisions. Listening to that many people, you hear a lot of great arguments and insight and smart ideas and all that. (You hear a lot of really dumb stuff too, but that’s a subject for another post.) I think that a lot of times, people don’t realize how much work all these people are doing for basically no compensation, and how time consuming these positions are. So everyone who is willing to do that deserves to be commended for their service.

But out of all of the people serving on all of the different Boards I follow, I can say without any hesitation that Doug Boxer on the Planning Commission was hands-down the best, and should be a role model for anyone in public service. Nothing against the other Planning Commissioners, they are also good. (The Planning Commission is my favorite of all the bodies I watch.) But Doug Boxer just really stands out even among the highest class of elected and appointed officials I have seen in meetings.

His comments are always so well-considered and insightful. I tend to agree with him a lot, but even when I don’t, and even when I vehemently disagree with his position, his assessment always leaves me with something to think seriously about, which I find really helpful for honing my arguments, and sometimes even prompts me to reconsider my position. The consistency with which he brings a superlative quality of analysis and thoughtfulness to his comments and decisions is unmatched. When he disagrees with people who came to speak, he is always exceptionally respectful about the way he says so, and does an excellent job of making people feel like they’ve been heard. Most members of the City Council would do well to spend some time reviewing old Planning Commission DVDs and looking to him for pointers about how to treat the public.

Anyway, I won’t go on gushing any longer, but I did want to say that he’s been a really great presence on the Commission and I will genuinely miss having him there.

The silver lining

But let’s end on a happy note. New Mayor Jean Quan will be making her first appointments to the Planning Commission in a couple months. This represents a real opportunity to fill what I believe is a very serious hole on the Planning Commission. All the Commissioners have different backgrounds and areas of expertise, and this diversity of interest is really helpful, because everyone is bringing a unique perspective to the table.

But what I have long felt is missing from Planning Commission discussions is someone who really has a strong background and interest in transportation and bike/ped issues. Frequently, when speakers raise concerns, especially about bike/ped problems on projects, the Commission just completely glosses over them. I don’t think this is due to the Commissioners not caring about transportation or bike/ped. It’s just that nobody there has the appropriate background to know what the right questions to ask are, and how to fix those problems in proposals, or often times, really to even understand what the problems are. It would make an enormous impact to have a member of the Commission who is properly equipped to address those subjects.

By appointing a new Planning Commissioner with such a background, Jean Quan could do a tremendous good towards advancing Oakland as a livable city, a bicycle and pedestrian friendly city, and the “transit-first” city we claim to be.

17 thoughts on “Sad night, Happy night at Planning Commission

  1. Jim T

    Hey V and all, great speeches last night all around. I particularly enjoyed Max’s interactive map presentation and Naomi Shiffs’ speech (Max, could you make that map broadly available somehow?). But really everybody was fantastic to hear (although from the comfort of my couch, sorry… :/ but I did send an email, so guilt absolved!) (and with the exception of Flora’s owner…wtf). So, a hearty congrats and gratitude to everyone who spoke.

    I also wanted to ask – did I understand the Planning Commission correctly, they believe they must not send the Council a recommendation or the Council would approve TCUPs due to ’6 politically connected landowners wanting a few extra thousand dollars’? So essentially the study for “best and highest land use” is a stall tactic to avoid allowing the council to vote? If indeed I did understand, then…Wow. I found this to be the biggest, and saddest, insight of the night. It’s one of those moments where the curtain gets pulled back on how city politics work.

    I also echo your comments on Mr. Boxer. He is a pleasure to listen to, and always insightful and clear in commentary.

  2. RdwithCypress

    Hey Jim,

    Want to see how politics in Oakland really work????

    The who the what!!!!!!
    February 17, 2011
    Employees felt that they were expected to use ethical behaviors in getting results
    Elected officials and City management treat the public with civility and respect
    Employees generally believe they are expected to follow the City’s stated policy – not individual elected or appointed officials’ directed requests or opinions
    Oakland, as my mother says, “You can piss on my head, but don’t tell me it’s raining.” Audit Oakland CEDA is committed to showing the truth in public records.

    Here is a list of complaints called in by elected official Nancy Nadel. More to come…
    1003381 – DETERIORATED SIDING (AOC notes, in the State of California, only a licensed structural pest inspector is qualified to assess deteriorated siding.)
    1003372, 1002271, 1003355
    0607313 – MAN LIVING IN A CAMPER
    0300560, 0300561, 0300562, 0300563, 0300565 – All in one day! RECYCLING FACILITY ALLEGEDLY USING THE PUBLIC ROW
    0301786 – ILLEGAL/UNDOCUMENTED DWELLING UNIT AT LOWER LEVEL:LACK MINIMUM CLNG. HGTS.;ALTERATIONS-ELEC.,PLUMB.;3 BDRMS.,KITCHEN,BATHROOM,SHOWER STALL – COMMENTS: 3/27/03 Notice to Abate>>> 04/02/2003 08:20:07 FIELD#RA – 4/2/03 Owner, came into office. Has given tenants 30 days to vacate, promise to obtain permit to restore to original use and restore altered plumbing and electric systems as necessary (based upon field-check instructions). Agreed due date for vacate and permit application as 5/1/03.>>> 04/02/2003 08:23:47 FIELD#RA; 4/30/03 Office visit by owner : stated that dwelling has been vacated (upper legal unit, and downstairs undoc. unit); permit application for restoration of lower level usage and remodel (garage to storage?,etc.) to be made with field-check to determine scope and valuation. Code case suspended and monitor of blight at yards to be done with monitoring of permit progress.>>> 04/30/2003 09:46:56 FIELD#RA ;10/1/03 spoke with owner via phone, promises to have all permits finaled not later than 10/3/03. >>> 10/01/2003 11:37:49 FIELD#RA
    And a little Brunner input…
    1002638 – APPROXIMATELY TWO WEEKS AGO PROPERTY OWNER CUT A BUNCH OF TREES AROUNDA CREEK, BECAUSE THEY WERE AFRAID OF TREES FALLING. SLOPE STABILITY MAY BE COMPROMISED. (AOC notes – Jane Brunner does not appear to be a licensed geotechnical engineer or soils expert.)
    A little Reid…

  3. Daniel Schulman

    Interestingly, without coordination I sent Doug Boxer an email this morning echoing almost exactly the sentiments written by V Smoothe. One line I wrote,

    [quote]your courtesy to staff, public speakers, and your fellow commissioners has been unparalleled. [/quote]

    Maybe we should get a carpool up to an EBRPD Board Meeting. If they’re talking invasive plants or mountain bikers, I’d be interested.

  4. V Smoothe Post author

    Jim –

    It is correct that the Planning Commission spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to recommend against the TCUPs without it moving on to the City Council. They did so because they believed that if the City Council were to hear it, they would simply overturn the Planning Commission’s recommendation without thought.

    This has happened to the Planning Commission many times in the past on important issues that the Commission has spent a great deal of time trying to get right. I imagine it must be an incredibly frustration position to be in as a Commissioner – you are expected to do all this work, and then you feel as though it has no value.

    So they tried to craft a way that would avoid the possibility of the TCUPs being heard by the City Council. It was Doug Boxer’s assessment that the Council would pass it even though it is clearly bad policy, specifically because they would want to support the property owners who are asking for this. I do not know if the rest of the Commission would agree with that characterization of the motivations.

    I believe it is true that the interests of a handful of people are the reason TCUPs are being proposed. However, I disagree that it is obvious the Council would vote in favor of them. I believe that with enough advocacy by the community, we would win this issue at Council, just as we won on the 19th and Telegraph lot. Livability is an important issue in Oakland. However, I much prefer having it die permanently and not having to go through the stress of more hearings.

  5. ken0

    Thanks guys!!! I wrote an email too. Thanks for putting in the effort.

    V, Max, Jim and all: is there a forum where you guys discuss what you DO want oakland to look like? Aside from fighting all the crap we don’t want.

    And can anyone confirm September 2011 launch date for “public art installation” (funded by NEA grant) at 19th/Telegraph empty uptown lot?


  6. V Smoothe Post author

    There was a presentation at City Hall on Wednesday night regarding the 19th & Telegraph art. I did not attend because I was in the other room keeping tabs on the Planning Commission meeting. However, several other people who came out for TCUPs did go to the presentation. I think Becks said she was planning on writing a blog about it. My understanding had been that it would open in December, but I could be totally wrong about that.

  7. Naomi Schiff

    I went to the presentation, along with several others; a small but lively crowd including public arts staff and Tomas from the Black Rock Arts Foundation. In order to take advantage of a 200,000 grant from the NEA, which would (we hope) be matched by city public arts funds, the project has to be up and running by end of the year. So they would hope to be under construction in spring and be able to be placing art next fall. It’s an exciting outcome. Current plan (I hope Becks will have a chance to write in greater depth) is for an el-shaped art, gathering, open space along Telegraph and 19th edges of the block. The city showed a terra incognita in the large inner area, due to budget constraints, but conversation quickly went to how to do something with the rest of the site. Whatever it is has to be temporary, and of course no one knows how long temporary will last. One can email Steven Huss (public art coordinator) to be informed of meetings and calls for artwork submissions, if you are interested!

  8. Michael Colbruno

    I’ve been in politics on both sides of the Bay since 1985 and Doug Boxer is exactly what I said, “The best of the best.” He has such integrity and is the fairest person who I’ve ever served with. Even when we’ve been on polar opposites of an issue, he has heard me out and considered my point of view. Because he has done this with everyone on the Commission, we often reach more reasoned and thoughtful decisions. He is the epitome of a consensus builder. I’m so glad that the public has recognized him as well.

  9. We Fight Blight

    Lest we forget, Commissioner Boxer was one of two Planning Commissioner’s who fabricated and advanced the highly imaginative, yet legally wanting, “historical relevance” rationale to approve the Nic Nak Liquor Store. We are still unsure how he came to the conclusion that historical relevance justifies a variance for more liquor stores in Oakland…particularly since he is an attorney and should have known better. Perhaps the Nic Nak was not one of his more reasoned and thoughtful decisions…we are glad the City Council was willing to overturn his decision.

  10. Livegreen

    Good point We Fight Blight. The Planning Commission seems to be willing to liberally grant permanent variances, while discounting the reasons for the zoning or enforcement of conditional use. As the Planning Commission has stated, it’s up to the citizens to deal with enforcement.

    Whether the City is willing or has the resources to implement enforcement has been a secondary consideration in their deliberation.

  11. V Smoothe Post author

    I’ve never gotten that impression from the Planning Commission at all, livegreen. In my experience, when variance and CUP applications come to the Planning Commission, they’re very careful about the decisions and appropriate findings. Did you attend the Planning Commission hearings about Nik Nak? I thought the Commission made an extremely persuasive case for their decision. The way the City treated that poor guy was really horrible.

  12. len raphael

    V, “really horrible”. I would guess you’ve never appplied for a building permit or a zoning ruling before . No one forced the owner to suspend non conforming but grandfathered liquor sales there until his grandfathering terminated.

    At least he didn’t get the informal screw job where he relies on what one CEDA employee tells him and then later another employee overrules the first one or the first employee flat out denies saying such.

    You might think he was scrooged in an equitable sense, but it was by the published known rules.