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.
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.
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.
The place is, in short, a filthy mess.
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.
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.
Posts for the promised art panels went up a couple months ago, but we are still waiting for the art.
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.
And more trash.
And more graffiti.
And broken glass.
And more trash. Sometimes really disgusting trash, like in this photo that I took on November 17th.
Or in this photo of the same spot in the lot that I took this morning.
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.