Understanding Specific Planning

If you read this or any other Oakland blog regularly, or subscribe to any Oakland related e-mail lists, you’ve probably grown accustomed to seeing frequent notices about public meetings related to the various Specific Plans underway in Oakland (there are two more this week). You may also recall the numerous posts about them on this and other blogs. It’s a subject I home to be writing more about in the future, and before I do that, I figured that it would be probably be helpful to make sure everyone understands what exactly a specific plan is.

Under California law, every city and county is required to have something called a General Plan. This is a document, created through an extensive public input process, that delineates long term goals in a variety of areas (land use, open space, housing, noise, etc.), and should, once adopted, be used to guide decisions related to planning and development.

On its own, a General Plan does not explicitly regulate land use. However, the General Plan is often referred to as a city’s “constitution” regarding physical development, and it is expected that land use laws will adhere to the blueprint it provides. Specific land use regulations are provided by a city’s zoning code, which is supposed to reflect the direction of its General Plan (Oakland’s currently does not, although efforts are underway to remedy that through the citywide zoning update process).

Of course, a General Plan is, by definition, very broad. Sometimes a city will have a particular area or neighborhood that it would like to give more specialized attention. Happily, we have a handy tool for doing just that, called a Specific Plan. A Specific Plan basically gives a city the opportunity to refine the General Plan’s treatment of a particular area. I provide a general outline of how the process is working in Oakland below, but if you’d like to know more, you can read an incredibly thorough treatment of Specific Plans and the laws that govern them here.

Once you identify an area you think would benefit from a Specific Plan, you generally want to have some idea of what you’re hoping to get out of the process. The degree of detail in your objective can vary widely. In the case of the Broadyway/Valdez Retail Corridor Specific Plan, the City is starting with the very explicit goal of transforming the strip into a destination retail corridor. For the Lake Merritt BART Station Area Specific Plan, we want to encourage transit oriented development. In the case of the Central Estuary Specific Plan, we aren’t totally sure where we’re going to end up – we just know that this land is ripe for something and we want to figure out what to do with it. Community visioning workshops help you refine your objectives.

Since you can’t plan for how an area is going to grow in the future without a sense of what you’ve got to work with, the next step in the process is an examination of the existing conditions. This entails a thorough study of a wide variety of factors in the plan area. You look at obvious things like land use (existing building inventory and use patterns, zoning and other regulations) and transportation (circulation, traffic levels, access, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, parking, public transit availability and use), as well as less immediately obvious, but no less important factors like utilities (condition and capacity for storm drains, sewers, water, electric, gas, and telecommunications facilities) and environmental factors (air quality, water quality, soil, hazardous materials, topography). This inventory provides an important context for whatever plan is going to ultimately come out of the process – it highlights where opportunity exists and also helps you understand what kind of barriers and limitations you have on future development.

Once you’ve completed your existing conditions analysis, you prepare a selection of alternatives – different scenarios of ways you might proceed with planning the area. You then analyze each alternative in terms of market feasibility and impacts on whatever aspects of the area you’re concerned with. How would this concept impact parking and traffic? What kind of infrastructure demands would that scenario create? Would the fiscal impact to the City be better under alternative x or alternative y? Then you pick one and you’re all finished!

Well, not quite. Once you’ve selected which alternative you want to move forward with, you have to actually write the Specific Plan. Specific Plans can vary greatly in their level of detail, but basically they lay out the City’s goals and objectives for an area, and then explain how those objectives are going to be achieved. And they have lots of maps. Often, they’ll rely include special zoning and design guidelines for the area as an implementation tool.

California law mandates that a Specific Plan include the following:

  • Text and diagrams showing the distribution, location and extend of all land uses, including open space
  • Proposed distribution, location, extent and intensity of major components of public and private transportation, sewage, water, drainage, solid waste disposal, energy and other essential facilities needed to support the land uses
  • Standards and guidelines for development, and standards for the conservation, development and utilization of natural resources, where applicable
  • Program of implementation measures including regulations, programs, public words projects and financing measures
  • Statement of the Specific Plan’s relationship to the General Plan

To get a better sense of what a Specific Plan looks like, check out these examples from Santa Monica and Pasadena.

As you’re developing the Specific Plan, you will concurrently be preparing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to accompany it. EIRs are extremely time consuming to prepare, and require a significant amount of data and analysis. Fortunately, the required information is very similar to what is required for a Specific Plan, so it’s convenient to complete them at the same time.

And of course, every step of this process will involve significant public participation. That’s why it seems like there’s some kind of Specific Plan meeting like every other week.

So if this sounds like an awful lot of work, well, that’s cause it is. Specific Plans take a long time to complete and they cost a lot of money. But they have some big upsides too.

First, it allows you to create a set of development regulations tailored specifically to the unique needs of a particular area, which, once adopted, will theoretically help the area transition from what it is to what you want it to be. This is particularly handy when you have, say, a large area with a lot of development potential, and an idea of what you want to happen there, but not enough money to buy up all the land and then find one developer who will build what you want.

Second, it streamlines the entitlement process for development in the Specific Plan area. Projects within the area that conform to the Specific Plan’s rules are already covered by the Specific Plan’s EIR and don’t need to go through that whole process all over again. That can save a developer like a year or even two and a significant amount of money.

Finally, and this is perhaps the best part, it can provide a mechanism for funding some of those needed infrastructure improvements that you want or need but otherwise couldn’t afford. Since developers in the Specific Plan area are benefiting from that EIR you’re providing, you can charge them fees in exchange. You then take the money from those fees and funnel them back into improvements to the area. And since you’ve already identified exactly what types of improvements you’d like to do, and now have a way to finance those improvements through development fees, the area will, in turn, become more attractive to developers. Everyone wins.

If this post got you all excited about Specific Planning, then I have great news. The City of Oakland is currently working on Specific Plans in three separate areas – the Central Estuary, Broadway Auto Row, and the Lake Merritt BART Station, which means you have tons of opportunities to get involved in the process. In fact, you have not one, but two opportunities to participate this week.

This Thursday (July 9), you’ll have your second chance to give input on the Broadway/Valdez Retail Corridor Specific Plan at the First Presbyterian Church, 2619 Broadway from 6 – 8 PM. The last meeting focused on goals and visioning, and this one will present the existing conditions and market demand analysis. This neighborhood is fascinating both for its opportunities and its challenges, and if you’re among the many people who have big dreams for Oakland and always wonder what’s holding us back, I strongly recommend attending. (I’ll write more about the existing conditions report for the neighborhood later this week, probably on Thursday, so be sure to check back before then.)

Then on Saturday (July 11), the Central Estuary Specific Plan will be having its fourth public meeting, a community workshop designed to help develop plan alternatives. Attendees will break into small groups for a hands-on mapping exercise. The meeting runs from 9 AM to noon, and will take place at Beacon Day School, 2101 Livingston Street. If you’d like to attend, but haven’t made it to any of the previous workshops, I strongly recommend reviewing the presentation materials from earlier meetings (available on the project website) and taking a drive around the neighborhood first (or bicylce ride, I guess. The area isn’t particularly walkable.).

One thought on “Understanding Specific Planning

  1. Chris Kidd

    Beat me to the punch, V!
    I should have one up for the CESP either tonight or tomorrow.