The buffer zone is stupid

So yesterday I wrote for Novometro about the zoning update plan going to the Community and Economic Development Committee (CED) on Tuesday. If you aren’t already familiar with the details, I encourage you to click through for an overview. Basically, this is part of the ongoing process to update our zoning to conform with the General Plan.

This afternoon, CED will be voting on a proposal (PDF!) to do just that for the parts of Oakland zoned General Industrial and Business Mix. Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you know all about General Industrial and Business Mix because one of the hot items on last week’s Council agenda was how we plan to deal with them.

If you missed it then, here’s the short version. The General Plan designates 19% of Oakland’s total acreage as either General Industrial or Business Mix, the two industrial designations in the General Plan (out of 15 total). But most of that land is controlled by the Port. Of the land the City has control over, only 5% falls into industrial designations. Right now, our messy zoning places that land into a whole mess of categories, ranging from R-50 (residential) to M-30 (industrial). The zoning update will fix all that, dividing them up into 4 different zoning categories. Everything designated General Industrial (for heavy industry) will be called General Industrial. The parts designated Business Mix will become either CIX-1 (Commercial Industrial Mix 1, light industry, mostly West Oakland), CIX-2 (Commercial Industrial Mix 2, light industry, mostly Central and East Oakland), or IO (Industrial Office – those fancy flex office parks that are so in demand, certain parts of Central and East Oakland).

So, for the most part, this is fine. Industrial zoning isn’t all that complicated. But, as always, there’s a catch, and that catch is work/live (and also recycling, but I’m not getting into that one). To vastly oversimplify the situation, industrial businesses owners don’t want work/live near them. They see work/live as simply a euphemism for residential, any nearby residents as a threat to their ability to make noise and smell bad and load trucks at all hours of the night. Because neighbors complain when you wake them up, right? So they think the new zoning should allow for no work/live whatsoever, and if the Council wants to allow it, they should have to amend the General Plan to indicate that.

Work/live residents, unsurprisingly, disagree. They consider their work a valid industrial use and would like to be permitted throughout all four industrial zoning categories. What both parties agree on is that they have a vested interest in keeping out “fake” live/work housing, or what people often call “lifestyle lofts,” which they believe drive up property costs and drive out industrial businesses. It’s a mess. In December, staff presented a draft version of the plan to the Planning Commission that did not contain any plan for work/live. Instead, they asked the Commissioners to direct them to do something about work/live, offering three options. The Commission’s answer was basically “figure it out yourself.”

So what the planning staff has done is draw up a compromise that pleases no one. Work/live is permitted in CIX-1 & 2, but only as a buffer and only within 300 feet of the border with a residential zone. Additionally, the staff has taken extraordinary measures to ensure that no “fake live/work” will slip through – both new developments and conversions of existing buildings to work/live (within the buffer zone) will require conditional use permits and crazy design review. Really – the design review guidelines are way too stringent. If you don’t believe me, look at two spaces that nobody, as far as I know, disputes are legitimate work/live projects – Peralta Studios and the Noodle Factory. Neither conform to the design review rules in the new code.

Some would argue that preventing dubious live/work housing from encroaching on industrial areas is so important that it’s necessary to adopt ridiculously stringent requirements in the interim before we can write better rules. I’m not entirely sold on that, and I think that these rules could be much less stringent and still preclude fake live/work, but hell, I don’t live there, so I’m willing to cede that point for now. Besides, planning staff promises to revisit this language next year after further study, although I’m dubious that will actually happen.

So fine. Keep the super strict work/live code. I’m okay with that. But, if you’re going to do that, then why on God’s green earth would you on top of that find its necessary to ban work/live in 80% of CIX? Why? I don’t get this part at all.

The proposal to restrict work/live to a buffer area completely misses the point of work/live. Suggesting this should be a buffering use presumes that users of work/live space do not have legitimate business in industrial areas. But this ignores the fact that we are, in large part, talking about industrial uses that present all the exact same problems for neighbors as they would if nobody was sleeping there – carpentry, stonework, and metalworking may be less annoying to neighbors than, say, a scrap metal recycler. But they smell and they make noise and make for generally unpleasant neighbors – certainly a lot more so than some permitted CIX uses, like, oh…I don’t know, say, a chocolate factory?

The Planning Commission just doesn’t seem to get this. Although half a dozen speakers asked the Planning Commission to allow work/live throughout CIX-1 & 2 at the January 16th meeting, they made no changes. Then, when a dozen artists and live/work residents came to the following meeting to complain about the live/work situation and asking them to make allowances for it in the industrial land use policy, the Commissioners, instead of listening to their concerns, condescended and basically told them they didn’t know what they were talking about. Anne Mudge patronizingly informed them that “We love our artists” and “we just expanded work/live,” failing, of course, to understand the plan she voted for at all. They didn’t expand it – they banned it from 93.5% of Oakland’s industrial areas!

Now it’s the Council’s turn. Of course, nobody at this point is even really asking to eliminate this buffer zone. Work/live residents are reduced to begging for a grandfather clause that would allow them to keep their current homes. I guess we’ll find out this afternoon if the CED members have any more respect for artists than the Planning Commission.

And don’t even get me started on the poor people who live around 24th and Adeline who just got their existing mixed use community and single family homes zoned CIX with no hope of even live/work development. The Planning Commissioners couldn’t be bothered with their objections enough to even make a condescending comment about how they didn’t know anything. Sigh.

Related: dto510 points out just how unfair this sudden shift in policy is.

3 thoughts on “The buffer zone is stupid

  1. Californio

    Couple of things. First, wouldn’t most or all of the existing live/work spaces be grandfathered in if such zoning changes come to pass? If so, and I can’t imagine it otherwise, this takes some of the urgency out of the matter; at least the artists aren’t going to be booted out onto the sidewalk. On the other hand, this doesn’t lend any sense of security to the artist community, and it sure doesn’t make it sound like artists are particularly welcome here. Second, I’m wondering if there isn’t an underlying liability issue involved that no one is talking about. That is, if the city simply allows live/work spaces to be created and occupied without comment, and if one day there is some terrible accident, couldn’t the city be held accountable because it did nothing to prevent it? If people are carrying home groceries next to concrete plants, if their kids have asthma, and so forth, there’s bound to be a problem sooner or later. At least in the eyes of the attorneys. Legal issues may still very well be underlying the decisions that otherwise seem shortsighted and incomprehensible. Zoning that’s separatist and exclusive may help keep the city from being sued.

  2. Max

    Californio, I think the best way to answer your questions is to just show you my draft proposal.
    It addresses safety. Also, the reason I started fighting this thing in the first place was that there was no grandfathering for existing illegals. The path to legalization would have been erased. And there are a LOT of illegals. Here’s the proposal:

    Proposed Amendment to CIX-1 and CIX-2 zoning updates:

    To achieve the the goals of:

    • Encouraging the retention of Oakland’s vital community of artists and small entrepreneurs–a tremendous economic and cultural asset which is addressed in the General Plan;
    • Preventing displacement, wholesale evictions, or unnecessarily harsh code enforcement actions directed at this valuable and important constituency;
    • Formulating definitions of the different types of flex space–including but not limited to work/live–that can be regulated, encouraged and located as appropriate throughout the city, including within industrial districts;
    • Encouraging and facilitating the purchase by tenants from willing sellers of buildings that are presently legal or are undergoing legalization, with the goal of creating long-term affordable space for artists and small entrepreneurs in which to primarily work, and secondarily to live.

    The following text (as well as the goals above) shall be added to the adopted industrial zones:

    Both Zoning and Building Code enforcement policy towards existing illegal work/live and live/work occupants shall be one of accommodation, adjustment, and preservation, shall encourage feasible upgrades for physical safety, and shall provide a reasonable grace period for existing occupants of illegal residential conversions to bring their premises into compliance with enforcement policy. Relaxation of building codes shall be considered, but only for conversions that are designed so as to prevent reversion to residential-only status. All of these accommodations shall be incorporated into an orderly process.

    In the development of future flex-space regulations, the city’s zoning staff will seek out existing flex-space users, owners and tenants, as well as designers specializing in this building type. Analysis of currently non-legal flex space shall aim to determine the utility, safety, and impact of such space, as well as its economic and community contributions. Within preserved industrial land, flex-space possibilities with integral industrial and other high impact use shall be considered. When flex-space within preserved industrial areas includes an accessory residential component, such a component shall explicitly designed and regulated to avoid creating any influx of any pure residential use.

  3. V Smoothe Post author

    Californio –

    Currently legal work/live space would be grandfathered in, with their status changed to existing non-conforming. But there is a large number of illegal work/live spaces. Without an amendment grandfathering these spaces in, their occupants are placed in jeopardy, and have no path to legalization of their units. Hopefully the text of the proposed amendment posted by Max made things clearer.

    I can’t see any liability issues that would come from allowing work/live in industrial areas – the zoning code that was forwarded to CED still allows someone to live next to a concrete plant if the concrete plant is near the edge of a CIX zone. Certainly nobody at the city has raised that concern at any of the discussions on this going back to 2002.