Tower and base

So the new CBD Zoning (PDF) is going to the Zoning Update Committee again today, and the recommendations continue to be completely bizarre, overly complicated, and completely unconcerned with the historic character of downtown (in fact, on Monday’s downtown walking tour, at one point someone asked strategic planner Neil Gray, who was explaining the code to the group, which of the 8 or so buildings we were looking at right then would be permitted under the new code, and he was forced to admit that not a single one of them conformed).

I’ve said all this before. What I want to talk about today is tower and base. The form being dictated by the proposed code is terrible. I’m sorry, it’s just awful. I simply cannot understand why anyone would think it’s a good idea in the first place, and I absolutely cannot understand why, after seeing this silly design model month after month after month, the Committee members have not asked staff to eliminate it.

So in case you haven’t been following the discussion, this is what the form-based aspect of the proposed new zoning code does: buildings have a maximum allowable base height and also a maximum allowable tower height. The idea here is that all new buildings will have a wide base on the street, but that the tall portion of the building will have a narrower tower. In the maximum height area, buildings are described as having “unlimited” heights. What is unlimited is the height of the tower – the base of the building has a maximum height of 120 feet.

On Monday’s walking tour, Gray pointed out the new Madison Lofts building as a “model” of what the new zoning is trying to achieve.

So you see how the bottom of the building goes all the way out to the sidewalk, and then the bulk of the building is smaller, so the upper floors are not flush with the sidewalk? Under the proposed code, all new buildings are supposed to look like that. And what I still cannot understand is why? Do people really think that this building is better because the tower is set back from the sidewalk? Unlike practically every other building in the neighborhood, the bulk of the building mass is not flush with the street – in what way does this improve the pedestrian experience? Who benefits from this? Is there really anyone who finds this shape aesthetic pleasing? I really, really, really just don’t understand why we would even consider dictating this very specific and very ugly form for every new building downtown. Who is benefitting? Who? And where in the LUTE is there any justification for doing this, because I sure as hell can’t find it.

The key to creating a pleasant streetscape and pleasant pedestrian experience is demanding quality ground floor treatments and design. I think, when you’re walking past the windows on the 14th Street side of this building, that it’s pretty pleasant. And I certainly don’t see how it would be less pleasant is the rest of the building was the same size as the ground floor portion. It seems to me that the only thing the tower/base regulations really achieve is a reduction of potential density, and I really don’t think it should be our goal to limit density in the Central Business District, home of 3 BART stations and most of the major bus lines in town, and Oakland’s best hope creating future employment opportunities and tax base growth. That’s like, exactly the opposite of what the General Plan says to do.

For a building roughly this size, the tower/base form is pointless, but relatively inoffensive. I mean, I think it sucks that the Madison Lofts are smaller than they need to be, but life goes on. But for larger buildings – well, frankly, it just looks stupid. For example, we started the tour at that huge surface parking lot at 14th and Jackson in front of the post office – the one where Chauncey Bailey was murdered. Gray explained that the proposed code for that lot would allow a base of 85 feet (the maximum base height for Height Area 4 has now been reduced from 100 feet to 85 feet for reasons beyond my comprehension), topped with a narrow tower of as much as 400 feet.

Again – why would anyone want to do this? Has anyone thought about what this is going to make downtown look like?

Think of the Trib Tower. Now imagine that the shorter part of the base was the same and the tower portion was like, twice as tall. That’s what we’re talking about. An exagerated version of what we’re talking about (nobody would build a tower so skinny now), but still, that’s the idea. Do people really think that would look good? I mean, I like the Trib Tower as much as the next girl – it’s fine to have a handful of buildings like that, they add some visual interest, I suppose. But do we really want every new building downtown to look like that? Do we really think that’s going “enhance” our skyline? Do we honestly think that this will make downtown a more pleasant place to be? Sigh. I just don’t get it.

Oh, and for those of you keeping score at home, the staff report (PDF) is once again wrong about the heights of existing buildings. On page 3 of the report, the description of Issue Area 1 claims that the buildings in the lakeside area south of 14th Street, like the County Courthouse and the Library, are between 40 at 87 feet in height. I swear, they tried to pull this with the Courthouse last meeting, too. Hi, folks – it’s a twelve story building. It isn’t 80 feet tall. In fact, according to CEDA’s own map (PDF), the Courthouse is 220 feet tall.

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19 thoughts on “Tower and base

  1. Jason

    Your questions are good ones. I don’t really understand the principles behind those regulations either. Maybe they think that if there’s more space between the towers of tall buildings, fewer views will be obstructed. Or something.

    At least it’s done being built, the lights are on, and people appear to actually be living there (unlike a certain building at 14th and Jackson).

  2. V Smoothe Post author

    But what views are being obstructed? Gray used “views” as justification for the narrow towers on the tour, but when I asked him to explain whose views were being impeded by a specific building that he had just identified as view-blocking, he couldn’t answer. Seriously.

    Staff is proposing some very radical changes to downtown Oakland and providing absolutely no justification for them, and the Committee is letting them get away with it, and the whole thing is just really depressing.

  3. dto510

    The lack of justification for these proposals is very disturbing. The LUTE (General Plan) doesn’t talk about protecting views, instead it’s mostly about encouraging development. It explicitly says that height and bulk controls should be district-based, not applied to all of downtown based on arbitrary lines.

    Given how small lots are in most of downtown virtually all highrises built in the future will be narrow. Further reducing buildable space will only discourage development – something like the Trib Tower literally cannot be built today because the elevator costs are too high. What’s worse is that, in their urge to create form-based requirements, staff is abandoning the main premise of form-based zoning: that arbitrary text-based requirements should be eliminated. But apparently staff is proposing the worst of both worlds: strict form requirements that continue to require arbitrary setbacks, private open-space, and other space-consuming regulations.

    Awhile ago the zoning staff produced incredibly inaccurate reports on the height of existing downtown buildings to justify their height limits. Since those figures were off by over a hundred feet in some cases, did staff ever revise their limits upward?

  4. TheBoss

    Personally I think they do this because they want to hedge against the streets being overrun by homeless people, criminals, etc. I’ve noticed that a lot of the new residential buildings have bottom-floor parking which is protected with all kinds of security measures.

    In some ways it makes sense. Oakland has a wonderful location vis-a-vis SF, so for a commuter living here is a dream, with the caveat that they need to be protected from being murdered and/or raped. Solution is simple: Build a bunker.

  5. Rebecca Kaplan

    Oy Vey! Thanks V’., for keeping us updated. I do not agree with the current proposal, and, in a more general sense, I oppose the downzoning of the downtown area.

    Part of Oakland’s economic revitalization will include “transit oriented development.” In addition, if we want to reduce global warming, oil wars, and related ills, we will need to have future jobs and housing more closely connected to transit and ped- and bike- able, which means that a place like downtown Oakland, which is a major transportation hub, should be an ideal location.

    I have no problem with some specific protections for specific areas when there is some specific reason, and/or historic preservation. But this general reduction of allowed building widths in downtown does not seem to serve any identified goal.

    I spent several years living in Toronto, Canada. And that experience has informed my perspective — and is part of why I believe that a vibrant, thriving, progressive, multicultural community, and “transit oriented development” can go together well.

  6. Aaron Priven

    In general, the rationale for stepped-back buildings is so that more sunlight will reach the street. By making the uppermost part of the buildings set back from the street, you create space for light to come through, either directly or reflected off of other buildings. And while good ground-floor treatments are most important for the pedestrian experience, sunlight is also an important amenity.

    Normally this is done by establishing floor-area ratios rather than by specifying form directly. Setting a FAR allows shorter, squatter buildings or taller, thinner buildings, but either way you get a certain level of light.

    I don’t know whether the proposed regulation is the right one or not, but these things do have rationales.

  7. dan

    Aaron Priven makes some good points. I think also it should be pointed out that the step-back form of the Ellington allows for a pretty large building not to seem like it over powers its much smaller neighbors.

    I do think V is right that the regulations for every building in the downtown zone are silly. They could, though, make sense on a more case-by-case basis.

    BTW I think the problem with the Madison Lofts is that it looks like a freaky multi-hued jailhouse.

  8. Robert

    If the concern is that we need to maintain sunlight, or views, or some such, then the code should say that, not dictate how it is done. Writing such a code is difficult, and takes a lot of time to get it right, but it can be done. V is correct, we do not want every building to look the same, and changing the colors and ornamentation of buildings that all have the same form will end up looking silly.

    Having worked in the drug industry, the FDA takes an approach that works pretty well. They have a set of requirements – for example, your product has to be sterile. These rules go through an elaborate rule making process, and then get put in the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations). Then they have a set of guidelines about a way you can meet the rules. But these are only guides, and if you want to do it a different way, you need to talk to them and convince them that you can meet the regulations your way. If you can convince them you can meet the requirements your way, then they will let you do it differently from the guideline.

    So, a zoning code based on functional requirements, and then a guideline on a way to meet it (e.g. the base and tower approach.) The unimaganitive will go with the base and tower because they will get fewer arguments from the city. But somebody with a vision can do something more interesting, as long as it meets the functional requirements.

  9. Max Allstadt

    I’ve said my piece on this before, and Robert, my opinion mirrors what you just said:

    Zone to mitigate impact. Ban certain impacts on light and air quality. Don’t legislate design. Let the architects figure out how to live up to impact requirements.

    Today, anything bigger than a two family home is designed in CAD, and can be modeled in 3d to demonstrate light impact at any time of day, at any time of the year. It places no undue burden of architects or staff to make all the requirements about impact, and not about design.

    I also really want to know what lobby is driving this. I’m terribly curious as to how the council and planning commission will react to it.

    And while I’m being critical of this, I want to warn against forming polar judgments of city staff. Neil Gray is a good guy and he’s doing good work on the live/work issue.

  10. Donald

    Is there any evidence that standards like these produce more livable urban environments? I would love to see specifics. Oakland is a world away from Montreal.

    I think the proposed standards are nothing more than a theory that has not been fully peer reviewed and tested in real life. Zoning ordinances always specify development guidelines in the abstract and a lot of energy and contention is spent reconciling them with real world circumstances.

    I respect Planning for their efforts to make Oakland a more livable city. But do I think they really know what they are doing here? No, there is no basis for concluding that these measures will make Oakland a more livable city.

    I hate to say it, but the proposed regulations ignore the mantra of an earlier fashion, Context. What is to say the standards for the north side (which gets ambient light but less direct sun) should be the same as the south side which gets more direct sun?

    Furthermore, once you head down that road, (Ok, I think context is a crutch) you open up a Pandora’s box of contentious property rights claims.

    Let the city be what it will be. At the end of the day it will not be less perfect, and it will be more real and lifelike. Oh, and it will be more economical to govern.

  11. John

    I think the tower and base concept is being driven by two separate and opposing lobbies. One wants unlimited or really tall buildings in most of the downtown and the other wants tall buildings limited to a more narrow and specific range of locations. The tower and base approach seems to be somewhat of an attempt to reconcile these opposites in that it allows taller building heights, but reduces the bulk and mass looming high up over the streetscape, casting shadows, and obstructing views/view corridors; the setback created by the tower reduces the effect of overpowering or crowding adjacent buildings. There a several such buildings in the downtown: City Hall and the northern tower of federal building, to name a couple.

    I believe staff would most like to see the tower and base concept work at the edge of Lake Merritt along Lakeside Drive, which is one of the most contentious areas being rezoned. The hope seems to be that the tower and base model will allow development of tall buildings at the edge of the lake (satisfying the development lobby) while preserving views, reducing bulk and mass, and avoiding the creation of a “wall of buildings” between the Lake, the Gold Coast neighborhood, and the central downtown area (satisfying the other lobby). In the end, though, I believe context will dictate where the tower and base configuration will work best, not where we hope they will work.

  12. TheBoss

    V Smoothe -

    I was reacting to the picture you showed (which looks like a bunker at the bottom and then a tower set way back and apart from it at the top). Also, in the picture it looks like the bottom is parking.

    If you go around West Oakland, you’ll see a lot of new buildings with this format, and I do think it relates to safety.

    Now, if you put retail on the bottom, that’s a different matter. But when it’s parking in a bunker on the bottom and then a thinner tower on top, I think crime is a factor.

  13. Californio

    It might be informative to have the other side’s view on this. How about inviting Neil Gray on here as a guest?

  14. Max Allstadt

    I doubt that will happen. I asked somebody from CEDA to chime in on this board once. He said he couldn’t do that because it’s inappropriate for public employee. I think they’re probably wise not to.

    You’ll notice that for the most part, Kerry Hammil, Nancy Nadel, Rebecca Kaplan, and most of the other politicians who comment on this blog do very little back and forth, if any. It’s mainly statements. It’s also usually rather mild. Risky business, and much higher stakes for them than for us.

    They have public meetings where you can ask questions and get feedback. I actually believe they should have public comment boards on planning issues, but unfortunately we’re not there yet. That would make for some complicated in-house rules for which city employees could comment, what they could say, and when. Tricky, but worth exploring.

    So you probably won’t be sing many comments here from planning or any other city department. But they do read it, right V?

  15. V Smoothe Post author

    Well, the way to get the other side’s view is to read the staff report, which is linked to in the post. If people want more information than contained in the report, then you would go to one of the meetings.

  16. V Smoothe Post author

    Boss –

    That’s the back of the building you’re talking about. The street-fronting part of the building has retail space on the bottom. It’s actually pretty nice retail space too.