Tonight (Wednesday, October 20th), the Oakland Planning Commission will consider a proposal that would allow the City to issue temporary conditional use permits for uses that would otherwise not be allowed under the zoning code, as I wrote about last week.
You can read the staff report on the subject by downloading the 149 MB agenda packet for tonight’s meeting (PDF) and then flipping to page 158. Or, you can just read the report for this item (PDF), which I have separated for your convenience.
Basically, the idea is that since the economy is bad, people don’t want to build on their land, and so we should allow them to apply to do something with it as a temporary use, like make a community garden or a park or a surface parking lot. Oh, except that nobody wants to put a community garden or a park on their vacant land because they know people will go completely apeshit if they ever try to take it away and build some big condo building on it instead, regardless of whether or not there’s some a sign somewhere on the property saying that the park will go away on some exact date several years in the future. So the only actual interest anyone has in the temporary conditional use permits (T-CUPs) is to make new surface parking lots.
The staff report (PDF) explains:
During this current economic downtown, Oakland land owners with vacant or underutilized parcels are interested in maintaining the economic viability of the land and yet are not able to finance permanent development of the highest and best use. In particular, Oakland hosts a large inventory of vacant or underutilized lots with no current entitlements as well as vacant lots that are entitled for permanent development yet are not able to secure financing for said development. In order to reduce the blight of vacant lots and promote economic development in this challenging economic climate, staff proposes consideration of regulations that would allow short-term uses of vacant and underutilized properties with relaxed standards to reduce blight and promote economic development in a realistic manner.
I spent a long time going over the many reasons we should not be allowing new surface parking lots downtown in my blog last week, so I’m not going to go through all that again. Daniel Schulman also made a very good point about process in a comment on that blog:
Finally, what has most recently become apparent to me that I did not realize at first, is that staff is just asking for a big transfer of power from the Planning Commission to themselves. As the report notes, most of the uses are already conditionally permitted, so what they are asking for is to change the process of applicants going in front of the Planning Commission seeking a variance to a closed-door one of applicants going to staff for approval. Without the Planning Commission involved, ordinary citizens won’t have the ability to know what’s going on and to comment on it.
His point is well stated, and I don’t have much more to add to it. He also makes another good point that “temporary” is a very strange way to describe something that lasts four years.
Anyway, I want to talk today about process, but from a different angle than Dan took.
When a decision is not actually a decision
So. Last night, in hopes that I could convince her to come speak against the T-CUP proposal, I called up a former co-worker who I had not spoken to in quite some time. Getting people to drag themselves out to a Planning Commission meeting in the middle of a heated election season is a difficult task, so I thought I might have better luck with someone who tends to be fairly apolitical and I knew wouldn’t have their nights full of phone banking dates and so on. The only thing City thing she had ever expressed any interest in was keeping that lot at 19th and Telegraph from turning into a surface parking lot. She had been (as I have) assaulted downtown by someone who had been hiding behind a car parked in one of downtown’s many surface lots, lying in wait for targets, and really, really hates them. She sent I think her first ever e-mail to the City Council about that 19th and Telegraph lot, and was even going to speak at the meeting, but of course things dragged on too long that night and she couldn’t stay until the item came up.
So anyway, knowing she is invested in the issue, I tell her about the TCUPs and how they would allow more surface parking lots downtown and how awful this is, and I think I’m getting somewhere until she interrupts me and is like “Um, I thought you said those already got banned.” I’m like “Well, yeah. They did. But now they want to change it.” And she’s like “But last year you said that they would not be allowed anymore once the new zoning passed. Did it not pass?” And I’m like “No, it did pass. This is different.” And she’s like “But I thought you said that the new zoning banned surface parking lots.” And I’m like “Well, yeah. It did. But now they want to change that. So we have to go speak about how surface parking lots are bad so they don’t allow them.” And she’s like “But I thought that already happened.” And I’m all…well, you get the picture.
We went around in circles like that for a while, until she was finally like “Look, you know I agree with you. But I don’t see the point in rearranging my evening to go down to City Hall. If they already decided to ban them like a year ago, and now the City wants to change it back already, what is the point of going to speak? Even if they decide against it this time, what’s to keep them from bringing it back again in another year?” And I’m like “Well, I guess nothing. But if it does, I promise I’ll make sure you know about it and you can come speak then, too.”
That was (while true) clearly the wrong thing to say. She was just like “Look, if I thought it would make a difference, I’d come help you. But if they already voted to ban surface parking lots, and now it’s coming back, I don’t see why even if it gets voted down again, it wouldn’t come back again, and so I really just don’t see the point.
Why bother zoning at all?
And really, what was I supposed to say to that? She was right, of course. Why should anyone care about decisions the City makes when those decisions have no permanence? What is the point of having zoning at all if we’re just going to ignore what it says? Why did we bother going through the year and a half long process of updating the downtown zoning if staff was just going to come back seven months later and say they want to change it?
And by the way, this thing about how nobody could have anticipated the bad economy and that’s why we have to change the zoning now is total bullshit. The downtown zoning was adopted in July of 2009, a year after the real estate market fell apart. Nobody objected to the surface parking lot prohibition then, and nobody thought then that we were about to break ground on any new skyscrapers anytime soon.
And then, what about the rest of the City? One of the T-CUP options is to allow them only for surface parking lots downtown, but other options would allow T-CUPs citywide. Remember — the T-CUPs would let property owners get a “temporary” permit to use a space for 4 years (technically, 3 years with a one year extension) for a use that would not otherwise be allowed by the zoning.
Meanwhile, we are right in the middle of adopting new zoning for the entire city. This process, which has involved I can’t even imagine how many community meetings and then meetings of two different advisory groups made up of community members and which started in October of 2008, isn’t even finished.
And then you read the staff report (PDF) on the T-CUPs, and it’s like this whole other world where this isn’t even going on.
Is the use acceptable near the West Oakland BART station but in the Central Business District? The Planning Commission could consider taking a position on surface parking in Oakland. Any temporary use regulation proposal would be informed by such direction.
Isn’t adopting a zoning code that says whether you can have surface parking somewhere or not taking a position on the issue? Am I missing something here? If you think surface parking is appropriate for the West Oakland BART station, zone for it there. Yeah, it’s not the highest and best use. But, you know what? A 35 foot building is not the highest and best use at 51st and Telegraph, and that’s allowed in the most recent draft of the new zoning.
Discouraging public engagement
Anyway, so I was thinking about this last night, and it made me think of something Commissioner Michael Colbruno said when the Central Estuary Specific Plan came to the Planning Commission last winter. There was this long line of public speakers going on and on about how happy they were with this long process they had gone through and blah blah blah, and then like half the Commissioners had all their own ideas about the plan and basically said they didn’t like what the community process had produced, and then when it’s his turn to talk — well, I wish I could show you the video, because it was really good. I tore my apartment apart last night trying to locate the DVD, but it was just nowhere to be found.
Anyway, he basically said (in much more eloquent terms, of course) “Look, this is ridiculous. We sit here all the time and talk constantly about public process and involving the public and how important that is, and then the one time when we have all these different sides coming together to tell us how happy they are with this long process they went through and the consensus they came to, and now we’re going to sit here and tell them we don’t like it so we’re just going to ignore them all and change it? What the fuck?”
And that’s a lot how I feel about this. You know, when it comes to the City, I don’t mind banging my head against a wall with no end in sight. But a lot of people do. I try so hard to get people to be engaged in Oakland government, and let me tell you — getting people to care about this stuff is one hell of an uphill battle.
And I want to be upfront about things, so I always tell people you can’t always expect to get your way, and you can’t expect the Council or whoever to do what you want just because you showed up, you have to be persuasive and make good arguments, and don’t get too discouraged if you lose, because there will be other important things coming up later and maybe you’ll win then. But then having to go an extra step and also tell them that it doesn’t even matter if you get your way, because the whole thing is going to be back a few months after it was supposed to be over? I’m sorry, that’s just one caveat too many. Why should people put any effort into being involved with the zoning update process if we’re creating a way to go around the rules before they’re even adopted?
The economy will go up and the economy will go down, and that’s just how the world works. But when you do zoning, you have to keep in mind the future as well as the present. You can’t just change your mind every time the market changes.