TCUPs return to Planning Commission

This Wednesday, January 19th, the Oakland Planning Commission will consider a proposal (PDF) to allow for the creation of “temporary” conditional use permits to allow “temporary” new surface parking lots downtown, which would otherwise be banned under the new downtown zoning.

The Planning Commission discussed this proposal at their October 20th meeting, and decided that it should come back for further discussion at a later date. For more background about the proposal, you can read this post and this post that I wrote in October. That later date is this Wednesday, and although I would love to be able to talk to you today about the specifics of whatever revised proposal came out of that discussion, I can’t, because even though the meeting is only 54 hours away, the staff reports are still not available on the City’s website.

So instead, I’m going to talk to you about a different surface parking lot, located at the corner of 14th and Harrison downtown.

1331 Harrison

The lot is entitled for a high rise building, which the developer doesn’t want to build right now because of the current market conditions. So while he is waiting for the market to rebound, he wanted the City to allow him to use the lot as a surface parking lot temporarily.

When the proposal for Temporary Condition Use Permits (TCUPs) first came before the Planning Commission’s Zoning Update Committee last February, this lot was used as an example of why the TCUPs were necessary. However, the applicant ultimately choose not to wait for the TCUPs to pass and instead just applied for a variance.

So this concept of having these new surface parking lots for only a few years is predicated on the idea that current market conditions do not allow developers to build the “highest and best use” of vacant property, so if we allow them to make some money for a little while through paid parking, that can hold them over until we’re ready to build skyscrapers in a few years.

I’m somewhat skeptical about that, especially considering that a large part of the reason surface parking lots are not allowed under the new downtown zoning is because permitting surface parking is pretty much universally understood to discourage development and encourage property owners to hold on to vacant land indefinitely. My thoughts on the matter are pretty well summed up in the comments Commission Doug Boxer made at the June 16th, 2010 Planning Commission meeting when this particular lot was considered.

But when this lot came to the Planning Commission, I did not object to the variance, even though I am obviously not a fan of new parking lots. In fact, I ceded my speaking time to someone who spoke in support of the application.

My logic went like this. First, this lot had already been a parking lot, so the curb cuts and all that were already there, even though it wasn’t being used for parking at the moment. I could never support an application that created new curb cuts for surface parking, but in this case, that damage had already been done.

Second, the applicant offered a lot of mitigations that I thought were good. They said were going to remove litter from the site daily, keep it free of graffiti, provide landscaping, devote a space to city car share or a similar service, include secure bicycle parking, and line the Harrison side of the lot with art panels. Here’s the parking operator telling the City Council about their plans.

So I thought, you know, as much as I would like to see as little surface parking as possible downtown, this did sound like a genuine improvement over the existing situation. The art panels would shield pedestrians from the parking on a least one side, landscaping would combat the visual blight from an empty space, we can definitely use more quality bike parking, and they seemed to have a genuine commitment to keeping the lot clean.

Additionally, I really agreed with what Daniel Schulman said when speaking on the item at Planning Commission, about how the project was better for having been forced to go through a public hearing process, and that we should encourage this kind of process for people who want temporary uses rather than just awarding them the TCUPs automatically.

The only thing that bothered me about the whole thing was when Commissioner Sandra Gálvez asked the applicant if he would be willing to add some lighting to the lot so people would feel safer at night, and he said no, because nobody would be parking there at night. With two nightclubs and a restaurant on the block, it seemed improbable to me that there was no potential nighttime use for parking, so I was a little irritated at their unwillingness to make that concession.

But I wanted to be reasonable, and I appreciated the fact that they went this route instead of the TCUP route, so I took their promises in good faith.

The Planning Commission was unable to make a decision for or against approving the lot, so it got forwarded to the City Council, who approved it unanimously in July. (You can watch the full video of that item here.

A big mess

So. I see this lot all the time, since I walk past it on my way to and from work. You can imagine my irritation when one day I walked past, and saw that the fence was gone and the space was now a parking lot, but there was none of the promised landscaping, art panels, or bicycle parking. There was, however, graffiti.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

But as much as I would prefer that the community receives their promised benefits as soon as the property owner starts to get his, I tried to put aside my annoyance and remind myself that it could take a while to arrange for and install art, so I should just be patient.

It was frustrating, though, to walk past every day and see the lot constantly filled with trash. I had thought, with someone taking responsibility for maintaining the space, it would be cleaner than it used to be and have less graffiti. It turned out to be the opposite. It’s dirtier than ever! The promised daily litter “removal,” in practice, turned out to be a regular pushing of all the trash into the back half of the lot. Day after day I would go by and see the exact same litter sitting there. Some larger items stayed for weeks.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

The place is, in short, a filthy mess.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

A few months after the lot opened, and a couple of days before the Planning Commission considered the T-CUP proposal, a bike rack finally appeared. Now, as far as I understand the rules, if your rack isn’t in the public right of way (which this one isn’t), then you can use whatever kind of bike rack you want. Still, when they talked about “secure” bike parking at the Planning Commission, I just assumed (apparently, in error), that they were talking about double point of contact racks that would comply with the City of Oakland’s Bicycle Parking guidelines (PDF).

Instead, we got this. For those not acquainted with bicycle parking design principles, you’re really not supposed to use these kinds of racks anymore because the offer only a single point of contact and are therefore less secure.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

I never see any bicycles parked here, day or night, although I really couldn’t say whether that is due to the nature of the rack or simple lack of demand.

Graffiti has remained a problem. This lovely piece of work was up for over a month.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

Posts for the promised art panels went up a couple months ago, but we are still waiting for the art.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

So this bothers me. Like I said before, I think it’s reasonable to allow some period of time for the property owner to get it together. But they have been operating a parking lot here since August, and it is now January. How long is it reasonable to make the public wait for you to do something that was part of your conditions of approval? Is six months reasonable? Is it too long? I want to be understanding, but I lean towards the side of it being too long.

The promised landscaping has also not materialized, unless you count the weeds growing all up along the edge of the lot. Instead, it’s just the same thing day after day — trash.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

And graffiti.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

And more trash.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

And more graffiti.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

And broken glass.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

And more trash. Sometimes really disgusting trash, like in this photo that I took on November 17th.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

Or in this photo of the same spot in the lot that I took this morning.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

I could go on. I have literally hundreds of photos of the trash and graffiti all over this lot over the past six months, but I think you get the idea.

TCUPs at Planning Commission

I think the case of this specific lot should serve as a warning as we consider broadly allowing new surface parking lots downtown under the TCUP proposal. The argument for allowing them is that they reduce blight, but in this case, that clearly hasn’t happened. It has increased blight. Why should we expect anything different of any other new surface parking lot? Sure, we can put whatever conditions we want on them with public art and landscaping and litter and graffiti removal, but if the City lacks the resources to go around enforcing those conditions, they become meaningless.

For those who do not want to see more surface parking downtown, the Planning Commission meets this Wednesday, January 19th at 6 PM. I have a really hard time predicting how long things are going to take at Planning Commission — every time I try to predict, I get it wrong. So while I can tell you that TCUPs are item number 6 on the agenda, I really cannot say when they will probably be heard. I would recommend getting to the meeting shortly after it starts at 6 PM.

I’ll post again about this once the staff report is available. If you can’t attend the meeting in person, but feel strongly about the issue, you can e-mail your thoughts to the Commission — all the Commissioners e-mail addresses are listed on the Planning Commission roster.

Update: Art on the lot

So the day after I posted this, work apparently began on installing the promised art panels on the lot. As Carlos notes in his comment below, he sent me some pictures, so I’m updating the post to include them. Note the graffiti still present in the background.

Art at 1333 Harrison

Art at 1333 Harrison

Art at 1333 Harrison

16 thoughts on “TCUPs return to Planning Commission

  1. Daniel Schulman

    One thing that is interesting is that staff and Planning Commission do seem to be moving away from the idea that they can completely bypass public comments. In latest iterations (but as V points out new staff reports are not available) they seem to want to extend the idea of minor and major TCUP’s with the latter going before Planning Commission. Staff, though, are the ones that would have to decide which is which, and I think under a “temporary” framework they would put more into the minor slot.

    Maybe it is because I work in the Internet sector, but I have a hard time conceiving of things that are meant to last up to 4 years as “temporary.” Part of the discussion of why 4 years revolves on allowing property owners to recoup their capital costs. That type of argument underscores the whole notion of temporary – in my mind, intrinsic to the notion of a temporary use is the lack of need for any but the most minimal of capital improvements.

  2. Livegreen

    Is Code Enforcement the Dept. responsible for enforcing this? What’s the point of rules and regulations if the City doesn’t have the means or the will to enforce them?

  3. Max Allstadt

    I’m sorry, what? They’re operating the parking lot before meeting the conditions of approval? The city needs to shut this lot down now.

    The owners promised public art. It isn’t there. They promised proper maintenance, and there are piles of human shit on the property.

    I’m emailing the council and staff and demanding that the permit to operate this lot be revoked until all the conditions of approval are met.

    You know they also promised security improvements in the area? How the FUCK did somebody paint “ROAR” 20 feet high on that wall if there was any improvement to security? They must have had to drive a cherry picker in there, or maybe they rappelled down the wall? Either way, security my ass.

  4. CitizenX

    Does the “ROAR” grafitti on the side of the building have anything to do with the ROAR program dreamed up by the City Attorney and City Auditor? The program pretty much died in the starting gate. Maybe they’re trying to revive it?

  5. Carlos Plazola

    Dear ABO readers:

    First, let me apologize for the appearance and lack of progress on improvements to the lot. I represented the owners in obtaining the permit, and am equally, if not more, frustrated with the lack of progress. Let me give an update to the readers:

    On July 20th, the matter of the Temporary CUP for this parking lot came to the city council and was approved.

    By mid-August the lot was re-striped and the bollards for the art work was put up. The lot was cleaned and graffiti was abated. Operations at the site began.

    The lot was immediately tagged again.

    At that point, my focus shifted to helping facilitate the acquisition of the art work for the lot. We went back and forth with trying to schedule a meeting with the Oakland School for the Arts, and with Max Allstadt’s help, we were finally able to get a meeting in early October. For the next two months OSA and the parking lot operators discussed the process by which they would create and hang the art.

    Issues of liability, anti-graffiti-coating, and scheduling were dealt with, and finally all agreements were reached in early January. The art work was then scheduled to begin going up this week. Today, the art panels started going up. I’ve sent the photos to VSmoothe and asked her to post them. I’m hopeful she will.

    My focus over the last two months has been on getting the art panels up. Admittedly, I have not focused my attention on ensuring that maintenance on the lot was occurring. I assumed the operator would act responsibly and take good care of the lot. Clearly, my assumption was wrong. (I am no longer a consultant on this project–any follow-up I do from here is because I feel responsibility for what occurs at the lot).

    Once the art is up (hopefully by end of the week) I will focus my attention on graffiti-abatement and general lot cleanliness. The owners are developing a graffiti-abatement program, though they’re trying to bring in the adjacent neighbor that owns the building. Their challenge is that without this owner’s cooperation, they are somewhat at-risk from painting someone else’s building. Nevertheless, they have painted over the graffiti on multiple occasions. The challenge is that they need to be more proactive about cleaning the graffiti on a daily basis. They have committed to this. I will remain vigilant in ensuring they do this.

    Regarding the cleanliness of the lot, there simply is no excuse for this. Two months ago, I informed the owners that if they didn’t get the art panels up soon, I would personally file for a revocation.

    I can assure everyone that if they can’t fix the issues of lot maintenance and graffiti-abatement, I will lead the charge to ask that their permit be revoked.

  6. Douglas Boxer

    Carlos:

    While I appreciate your willingness to be engaged to ensure promises made are promises kept. Let’s remind everyone that these obligations not “optional”, nor should we all be grateful that the applicant agreed to do all these things.

    These are legally-binding conditions of approval for operation of this lot which was approved on JULY 20, 2010.

    You and your client along w/ the operator went to great lengths to assure the Planning Commission, the City Council, citizens of Oakland and, most importantly the neighbors, that you were (a) good people, (b) honest business people, (c) care about this city, and (d) that you wanted Oakland to demonstrate some compassion for those developers that got caught in the downturn.

    And, guess what, this is how we all get repaid.

    Respectfully,

    Doug

  7. Carlos Plazola

    Doug, please don’t make this about me versus you or the planning commissioners.

    We’re all just trying to do our best here. The world is full of people trying to do their best. Few, if any, are absolutely righteous.

    I have articulated my commitment and I will uphold it.

    Carlos

  8. Max Allstadt

    Oh SNAP! Boxer with a crushing left hook!

    Hey Carlos,

    You also promised a bunch of people that if they supported your very specific and specialized application for a surface lot, that you would not support the TCUPS. We supported your application because there were very specific conditions, and also because you said those conditions were appropriate to all surface lots and that because of that you wouldn’t support TCUPs.

    But now you are supporting the TCUPS.

    While you’re upholding commitments, why don’t you uphold your commitment to NOT support the TCUPs?

  9. Douglas Boxer

    Carlos:

    I appreciate your willingness to see this through. My post was not intended to be an attack on you Carlos and apologize it it was viewed as that.

    At this point, I’m trying to be a responsible Commissioner, and you are trying to do the right thing, not righteous.

    db

  10. Carlos Plazola

    What compels people to personalize stuff on this blog, especially when they have my cell phone number? I don’t get it. Max, if you have a beef, call me. Otherwise, to me, you come across as a self-righteous chicken-shit. A crushing left-hook? Really, Max. Is that something you learned in the school yard?

    For the record, I have never taken a position on TCUPs, and don’t plan to.

    I’m just a dude trying to find solutions to some complicated issues and trying to make people comply to their commitments. I am holding them accountable, and have been. Rest assured. If you’d like to man-up and call me, I’ll share the details with you.

    Carlos

  11. Naomi Schiff

    Over all, what I get from all this is that enforcement of conditions is not consistent and reliable, and depends upon the general citizenry. The need to facilitate parking lot development does not at present seem very great, since the parking lots are just encouraging parkers to play musical chairs and move around, driving the prices down. Unless the net car-commuting workforce goes up, we don’t need more capacity.

    Okay, I stipulate that all of us are responsible people. Seems to me one way to do this is that if conditions are set, owner or operator should have to comply and have the planner sign off on the project before commencing to do business. That way there would be some incentive to get it done.

  12. Max Allstadt

    Carlos,

    The left hook remark was a pun on Doug’s name.

    Glad to hear that I’m mistaken about your support of the TCUPs. I look forward to seeing you at the planning commission to speak against them!

  13. V Smoothe Post author

    Carlos –

    I don’t know about any agreements you may or may not have made with anyone about who would support what, but it is simply not true that you “have never taken a position on TCUPs.”

    I personally watched you give public testimony saying that the TCUPs were necessary on two occasions. Once in February of 2010 at the Zoning Update Committee and a second time on October 20th, 2010, at the Planning Commission.

  14. Downtown_Celeb

    Carlos, you need thicker skin. As Mr. Boxer said – a deal is a deal. It’s business, not personal.