This coming Wednesday, October 20th, the Oakland Planning Commission is scheduled to consider (PDF), among other things, a proposal that would allow the City to issue temporary conditional use permits (PDF) for land uses that would not otherwise be allowed under the existing zoning. The staff report (PDF) explains:
The proposal would provide standards and procedures for temporary uses and responds to an economic climate that has hindered permanent and highest-use development sites in Oakland.
The original report (PDF) and agenda description on this time for the Zoning Update Committee back in February made it out like this was all about creating parks and community gardens on otherwise vacant space. Sounds cool, right? Ha! During the actual hearing, it became clear that the primary anticipated use for the TCUPs would be “temporary” surface parking lots downtown. I mean, they didn’t even pretend. The current staff report (PDF) acknowledges this more clearly:
One example of this would be allowing surface auto-fee parking lots in the Central Business District for a three-year period; the existing CBD Planning Code regulations allow auto-fee parking, but limitations require the parking to be enclosed and above the ground floor. Under the proposed amendment, the CBD limitations could be relaxed and surface parking would be allowed only on a short-term temporary basis. This would allow an economically viable, though not necessarily the highest and best, use of a site that might otherwise be undeveloped in this economy. The short timeframe would not hinder development of a permanent and better use for the site should the economy improve in the near future.
So basically, right now, according to the new downtown zoning code that went through like a year and a half of public hearings before being adopted in the summer of 2009, you can build parking structures downtown, but you can’t build new surface parking lots. This is because the goal of the new downtown zoning, as was stated over and over and over again during the process, is to create a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly downtown and surface parking lots are pretty much universally understood to disrupt the pedestrian experience rather than enhance it. I can’t recall a single person during the entire year and a half long process (which, BTW, involved more public comment that anyone really wants to listen to on a single subject) ever saying one critical thing about the fact that new surface parking lots would be banned under the new zoning. In fact, this aspect of the new zoning was commended on multiple occasions. Anyway.
The proposed permits would last for three years, and allow a one-year extension.
Options presented for Planning Commission consideration on Wednesday include allowing TCUPs on a citywide basis for a trial period with an established sunset date, allowing TCUPs for a trial period only within the downtown area, and allowing TCUPs citywide but not for surface parking lots. The staff report (PDF) notes that the last of these “would not address actual demand for temporary permits, all of which are for surface parking.”
How much demand is there for this? Doesn’t seem like a ton. Again, the staff report (PDF) explains:
At this time, actual interest in temporary permits for surface parking includes four permit applications for a total of over 200 spaces, including sites in West Oakland, the Central Business District, and near the Oakland International Airport. In addition, one potential applicant has contacted staff regarding the possibility of temporary surface parking in the Fruitvale District of Oakland.
On a somewhat related note — does anyone else find the new way they’re doing the Planning Commission agendas and reports really irritating? I mean, yes, the old system wasn’t perfect and the links to the reports didn’t work off the agenda like half the time. But now the way they do it, where all the reports and all the attachments for the meeting are there in the same giant PDF file as the agenda? It’s a pain in the ass.
I mean, first of all, if I just want to like, check on the order of agenda items or something, it means I have to download a freaking 50MB file, which, yeah, isn’t like the end of the world or anything, but it is also something that I can’t just like, do on my phone. And then having to page through like 300+ pages of random crap hunting for the report on the item I’m interested in? It’s a pain. And a waste of time. And just so aggressively unfriendly to the public. I mean, I’m willing to put up with it, but I can imagine a lot of people who had more of a passing interest in one item or another taking one look at that big mess and just saying the hell with it. Ugh, anyway. I have veered too far off topic.
Implementation problems with the TCUP concept
I was able to attend the first of the hearings about the temporary conditional use permits (TCUP) before the zoning update committee, but I was out of town for the second, so I don’t know what went on there.
At the meeting I did go to, there was this whole long discussion that made absolutely no sense to me about how the City doesn’t actually have the ability to track these permits so that they would know when they expire.
Now, don’t get me wrong. That does sound like the City of Oakland. But it also sounds nonsensical. I mean, as Commission Michael Colbruno pointed out at the meeting, you can just set up a reminder three years into the future on a freaking Outlook calendar. Staff had some complicated explanation about turnover or something and how there’s no way to know who would be responsible for making sure they stop using the parking lots when the permits expire and that’s why the Outlook solution is impractical.
Now I can think of about ten different ways around that, but I’m sure that the City could manage to find elaborate reasons for why none of them would work either. In any case, if worst came to worst and nobody could figure out any way to use a computer to track this, it seems like you could just slap some butcher paper on a spare wall, draw a calendar on it, and make marks about when different permits expire if you really wanted to.
But hell. I’m against the TCUPs, so if they’re gonna say they can’t track them, well, I’ll take them at their word because that’s just one more argument in favor of my side. Right? I mean, if you can’t track when they expire, then how the hell are they going to be temporary? Honor system?
19th and Telegraph
Now of course, a big part of this whole thing in the first place (and this was acknowledged by staff at the Zoning Update Committee meeting, so it really is not just me being paranoid) is that the Redevelopment Agency was still determined to turn that vacant lot on 19th and Telegraph into a parking lot, even though the Council had said that it should be used for art and of course surface parking lots are against the law downtown due to the new zoning. So if they want it, they have to change the zoning. Voila! TCUPs!
Of course, this is all no longer even relevant because, as you probably read already on Living in the O, the City has recently received an NEA grant to turn the lot into an outdoor cultural space and sculpture garden.
Let’s just pause there for a second and take a moment to appreciate the persistence of the City’s public art staff for making this happen! Hooray for City workers who can see there is more to creating vibrant, walkable neighborhoods than filling them with a sea of cars!
Downtown is no place for surface parking
Look, I think the TCUPs are just straight-up bad policy. You either zone for something because you think it belongs in a place or you don’t. That seems very straightforward to me. But my primary concern is downtown. If someone wants to make a new surface parking lot out next to the airport, well, I don’t really give a hoot. But surface parking does not belong in Oakland’s Central Business District. We already have too much of it. It is already a problem for downtown, and we absolutely do not need any more.
Surface parking lots damage the urban fabric and disrupt the pedestrian experience with their many curb cuts and constant flow of cars in and out. Additionally, excessive surface parking reduces the demand for structured parking, which is a much more efficient use of space. They are a blighting influence on neighborhoods and magnets for crime. In short, they have no place in an urban context.
It is, of course, totally natural to be sympathetic to any individual property owner looking to find a way to generate some revenue off of unproductive land. But you have to think about the whole picture. Sure, an investor who just wants to build a skyscraper will benefit somewhat by being able to make a little money off his land while he sits on it. But other investors benefit from downtown Oakland being a walkable, vibrant, pedestrian-friendly place. Suburban land uses are bad for their investment. And ultimately, that hurts Mr. Skyscraper too, because those condos, when and if they ever get built, will be worth more if they are in an exciting urban neighborhood rather than some wasteland full of cars.
And that’s what seems to have been completely forgotten in this whole discussion. Enhancing downtown’s vibrancy is about much more than constructing a bunch of new skyscrapers. While we may may have to wait a while for the economy to recover before we see new high-rise construction, the revitalization of the downtown area has not only been continuing, it has been stretching out to parts of downtown that had previously not enjoyed much activity after 5 PM.
For the past few years, new DTO nightlife had largely been limited to a few relatively small areas, mostly in the Uptown neighborhood immediately surrounding the Fox Theater and in Old Oakland. More recently, we’ve seen new activity on the other side of Broadway, with the phenomenally successful Layover on Franklin Street, the absolutely adorable newly opened Bar 355 on 19th and Webster, and Geisha on 14th and Harrison. Additionally, we’ve got the exciting new restaurant Disco Volante opening soon at 14th and Webster.
These are the sorts of exciting things we want downtown. And they’re happening! To suggest that we throw out the downtown zoning simply because we can’t have new high-rises for a while suggests that the entire point of the year and a half long exercise in creating these regulations was to accommodate more tall buildings. While that may have been the goal for some participants, and certainly was a goal for me, I came away from the process with the understanding that we were trying to encourage a diversity of investment and activity in the downtown area, and create a thriving, pedestrian-oriented urban district.
This is not to suggest that none of these businesses require parking, only that parking needs should be thoughtfully considered. For example, when a proposal for a new parking lot on 14th and Harrison came before the Planning Commission in June, Commissioner Sandra Galvez asked if there were any accommodations planned to improve nighttime safety at the lot, such as lighting, and the parking lot operator responded that they did not anticipate having any business at night.
Now, of course, the parking lot is there and there are no lights and people who park there at night all get their windows smashed! Ugh, anyway. More on that damn lot another time.
Remember the General Plan
Finally, let’s consider the context in which we are supposed to be making zoning decisions — Oakland’s General Plan. Despite the staff report’s (PDF) assertion that “This amendment would not conflict with any goals of objectives of the General Plan,” it kind of obviously does. Nobody in the world thinks that surface parking lots are good for pedestrians. And the downtown section of the Land Use and Transportation Element (PDF) of the General Plan is all about pedestrian activity. Let’s take a look at some of these policies:
Policy D3.1 Promoting Pedestrians
Pedestrian-friendly commercial areas should be promoted.
Policy D3.2 Incorporating Parking Facilities
New parking facilities for cars and bicycles should be incorporated into the design of any project in a manner that encourages and promotes safe pedestrian activity.
Policy D5.1 Encouraging Twenty-Four Hour Activity
Activities and amenities that encourage pedestrian traffic during the work week, as well as evenings and weekends should be promoted.
Policy D6.1 Developing Vacant Lots
Construction on vacant land or to replace surface parking lots should be encouraged throughout the downtown, where possible.
Policy D13.2 Providing Parking
An adequate quantity of car, bicycle, and truck parking, which has been designed to enhance the pedestrian environment, should be provided to encourage housing development and the economic vitality of commercial, office, entertainment, and mixed use areas.
These goal of all these policies is to make downtown Oakland a more successful urban space and to make it welcoming to pedestrians. Surface parking lots are in direct opposition to those goals. They create an inhospitable pedestrian environment, which, in turn, reduces the appeal of the active ground floor uses like retail and entertainment that we are trying to attract.
Can you lend a hand to keep surface parking lots out of downtown
Look, I know that people are busy and that coming down to City Hall on a weeknight is like, the last thing in the world that anyone wants to do. And I know that the elections are fast approaching and there is phone banking to do. But this is important. The TCUPs would be just so awful for downtown. The meeting starts at 6 this Wednesday, October 20th (PDF), although the TCUPs probably will not be heard until sometime after 7. I’ll be there!
If you can’t come, you can help by sending an e-mail to the Planning Commissioners about the subject. The e-mail contact info for all of them is available on the Planning Commission roster (PDF).