Zoning from Mars

So there’s a community meeting tonight to solicit input on the downtown zoning update. (Ironically, the meeting isn’t downtown, but instead at the comparatively transit-unfriendly Lake Merritt Sailboat House in Adams Point.) Regular readers may remember that the last community meeting on the subject, which introduced proposed height limits for downtown, residents were provided with a handout illustrating what different building heights look like. The handout gave heights for each building that were between 100 and 170 feet shorter than the actual building heights.

So last Monday, planning staff released the draft zoning code (PDF!) for downtown, and I’ve pretty much been rereading over and over again the last week, thinking I must be misunderstanding something. Because it is, quite frankly, insane. One friend characterized it as “zoning from Mars.” While I don’t know if I’d go quite that far, I will say that it reads like it was written by someone who had never so much as walked around downtown Oakland, let alone read the LUTE. There is so much wrong with this that I don’t even know where to start! [Maps and photos after the jump]

So, I guess I’ll start at the beginning, which would be the General Plan itself, since it seems like as good a place as any.

The General Plan provides a strategy diagram illustrating where we should focus the City’s growth efforts. Most of Oakland is marked as “Maintain and Enhance.” These areas are not intended to face major changes in use and density. Major transportation corridors and a few other select areas are marked “Grow and Change.” Downtown is one of these areas:

This designation is used where growth will be focused to lead Oakland into the next century, enhance the transition of the city and it’s economy, and allow the city to meet challenges and changes ahead. Correlated with transportation or infrastructure improvements, growth and change areas will emphasize significant changes in density, activity, or use…Growth and change areas include areas with many parcels or, in some cases, larger sites, that cana ccommodate significant increases in intensity.

Right off the bat, the draft zoning chapter ignores this, explaining the intent of the new code is to “support and enhance existing downtown features.” This may sound like a minor problem, but it really isn’t. The entire conceptual framework guiding this draft zoning chapter is at odds with the General Plan’s instructions. That’s kind of a big deal.

The General Plan zones the downtown area “Central Business District.” This report breaks that down into four different zones:

  • CBD-R: Central Business District Residential
  • CBD-P: Central Business District Pedestrian Retail Commercial
  • CBD-C: Central Business District General Commercial
  • CBD-X: Central Business District Mix Commercial

Even in this crappy picture of the zoning map, you can see that the divisions are gerrymandered as all get-out:

And of course you can see a better version of the map here (PDF!). This is just…way too complicated. I can understand maybe wanting to protect existing primarily residential neighborhoods with their own zone category, but that justifies two downtown zones, not four. I really don’t think this level of complexity and regulation is what the LUTE had in mind when it says “Subsequent planning and design studies may distinguish among Downtown subdistricts to heighten their identities and meet goals for Downtown” and “In particular, zoning and other implementing activities should explore establishing boundaries for major office development that maintain a large supply of sites and clearly identify Downtown’s housing areas and provide for their maintenance and enhancement.”

Each zone has its own set of permitted, conditionally permitted, and prohibited uses. The permitted uses list matches up reasonably well with what is currently allowed under existing zoning. Problem is, the point of doing all this is that the existing zoning is antiquated and overly complicated. Here are some examples of what you shouldn’t expect to see around downtown if this plan is adopted.

I hope nobody wants to open an arcade or a sandwich spot in all that retail space in the new Market Square development, because neither is allowed in CBD-R, which that building is zoned. You need a conditional use permit to open them anywhere else. Car rentals are prohibited in most of downtown, so I guess it’s a good thing the Hertz at the Marriott is already there. If you have space issues, snatch up one of those new storage units at the Tribune Press Building now, because we’re not going to be making any more. Self-storage is completely prohibited throughout downtown. That hydroponic gardening store on Broadway had better hold onto to their lease, because they aren’t welcome under the new code. If you want to open a dry cleaner or tax prep business on say, 19th and Webster, look for a space that’s more than 30 feet from any street abutting property line, or else you’ll need a conditional use permit. Surface parking lots are banned flat-out, which is, good, I guess, but seems like overkill. Oh, and no more billboards. Anywhere.

On top of the zones and use restrictions, the code also lays out design standards for all new buildings throughout downtown. The design standards range from silly:

[Building] entrances shall be made prominent through some combination of projecting or recessing the door area, change in material, an awning above a door, additional detailing, stairs leading to the door, and/or other features

to innappropriate:

The mass of newly constructed principal buildings shall be broken up into smaller forms to reduce the scale and enhance the visual interest of the streetscape. The massing requirements contained in this note shall be applied on all visible facades and achieved through some coordinated combination of changes in plane, building articulation, varied materials, contrasting window patterns and treatments, varying roof heights, separating upper story floor area into two or more towers, contrasting colors, a distinct base, middle, and top, or other methods

to totally unneccessary:

An ample placement of windows above the ground floor is required at all street fronting facades.

to ridiculous:

The top of each newly constructed principal building shall include an element that provides a distinctive visual terminus…Examples include, but are not limited to, curvilinear or stepped forms that soften the truncated tops of buildings, cornices, and other architectural forms.

Then there’s the height and bulk requirements. This divides downtown into 6 (well, actually eight) areas, which do not correspond with the zoning districts. The height, bulk, and intensity rules, according to the Zoning Update FAQ:

aim to create a more varied skyline, a “human” scale of development at the street level, protection of Lake Merritt views, reduced shadow impacts from new high-rises, and development that fits the neighborhood context.

Each zone has a different maximum FAR, maximum building base height, maximum tower height, maximum floor plate height, maximum dimensions for the tower portions…you get the idea. It looks like this:

Yeah, I know. It makes my eyes bleed, too.

This base/tower division is designed to encourage construction of buildings where the tall portion, or tower, is smaller than the first few floors. The idea behind this is allegedly to provide a more pleasant pedestrian environment, or create “human scale” development, ensuring a friendlier streetscape.

Here’s the height map:

Or you can download a more readable version here (PDF!).

So…whoever wrote this has very different ideas of what makes for a pleasant pedestrian experience than I do. Put simply, the height/intensity regulations mean that we don’t want any more buildings that look like this:

Instead, we want buildings that look like this:

So how do existing downtown buildings fit in with the new rules? Um…most of them don’t.

555 12th St. is in height area 5. At 279 feet, it fits just fine under area 5′s 405 foot height limit, although, as you can see, provides no tower bulk reduction. In any case, the building’s 23,000 sf floorplates mean that it’s just too big to be allowed downtown. That new Shorenstein building that Dellums is so proud of? The one the Planning Commission approved in December? You guessed it. Same deal – too big.

On the other hand, 1000 Broadway, the biggest eyesore in downtown Oakland(and biggest drain on our office vacancy rate), complies with the height, bulk, and mass rules just fine.

The recently renovated (and gorgeous!) Easton Building is out, since, at 11 stories with no tower bulk reduction, it seriously exceeds the 85 foot base height limit.

Same goes for the Central Building and 1330 Broadway:

Even the Trib Tower, which conforms to the base/tower form model proposed by the plan, wouldn’t necessarily be allowed:

I don’t know the exact height of the Trib Tower’s base, but I count 6 pretty tall looking floors right there. If it doesn’t exceed the 85 foot area 6 base height limit, it’s coming in just under the line.

I don’t know what this building, another example of tower-style architecture, on 12th and Broadway, is called, but I do know that you couldn’t build it under the new height rules.

That base is definitely more than 85 feet high.

I just don’t get it. We theoretically want increased intensity and density along Broadway, but these rules are written to ensure that nobody will build anything. Unlike the giant blocks in City Center, the few developable spaces left on Broadway will require a building that uses the entire lot. What on earth is gained by providing no height limit, but demanding that the vast majority the floors of any new building be smaller than the lot size dictates?

I can’t make heads or tails of where these rules came from. They certainly do not, as the LUTE instructs, “respect the character, history, and pedestrian-orientation of the downtown.” Instead, what we get is the exact opposite – a strictly dictated form completely at odds with downtown’s historic high-rises. The decision to deliberately limit the amount of new office space constructed downtown through the tower bulk reduction requirements means we’re imposing a conscious limit to job growth, something I cannot conceive of any rational justification for, nor find any support for in the General Plan.

In my last post about the update, Transbay blog’s Eric characterized the 55 foot height limit in area 1 as “not just irrational, but irresponsible.” I agree wholeheartedly, and that goes for the entire draft zoning chapter. Even worse is that this plan was created with virtually no public input. Councilmembers Nancy Nadel and Pat Kernighan hosted two sparsely attended meetings last year about height limits around the Lake. The promised report based on those meetings was never produced, and now all of a sudden planning staff produces a proposal basically downzoning the whole of downtown based on the comments generated there. Staff appears uninterested in revising their plans based on potential community feedback from tonight’s meeting, as they are already scheduled to present the draft zoning chapter to the Planning Commission’s Zoning Update Committee on Wednesday (PDF!).

40 thoughts on “Zoning from Mars

  1. Dogtown Commoner

    We’ve heard of people acting as judge, jury and executioner. It sounds like the planning staff want to act as urban planner, developer, AND architect — with some nannying and social engineering thrown in for good measure. That’s a recipe for keeping much of downtown dead, dirty and dangerous.

  2. Max

    Daffy! Hey I have an Idea: you know all the highways that carved our city into pieces during the Robert Moses era? Lets draw our boundaries using these highways so we can reinforce the damage that they did and make it worse! Brilliant.

  3. dto510

    I am particularly annoyed that the meeting is in Adam’s Point. This whole anti-development zoning process started by Nancy Nadel has always been heavy with Adam’s Pointers who think they get to dictate downtown development because they look at it at a distance. Now the planning staff is encouraging them by having a meeting about downtown planning in Adam’s Point! It’s very insulting to the people who actually live downtown and will have to face the consequences of use restrictions in our commercial districts.

  4. V Smoothe Post author

    What frustrates me about the location is how inaccessible it is. If the meeting were later, I might be more understanding. But at 6:30 PM, many people are just coming back from work. If you’re not driving, the sailboat house isn’t that easy to get to. Why hold a meeting in a neighborhood other than the one you’re talking about, in a space proximate to two infrequent bus lines, instead of holding it downtown, where thousands of people live and work? City Hall is on top of BART and like a dozen major bus lines. Additionally, if the meeting were held in one of the hearing rooms, it could be recorded on video for the benefit of those who can’t attend. If one were looking for a location ideal for limiting public input, it would be hard to pick a better one anywhere near downtown.

  5. Steve R

    At least the sailboat house will have a nice sunset view:) But seriously, as an Adam’s Point resident who supports growth and development downtown and along Grand Ave. it’s extremely frustrating to see the planning department cave in to Nadel and anti-growth fanatics, many of whom literally want no change at all. The new proposed zoning is micro-managing in the extreme and will discourage the few entrepreneurs and developers brave enough to take a chance on Oakland.

  6. oaklandhappenings

    V, the building in the final picture above was the former B of A headquarters, if I recall, before relocating to SF. Also, the building was known as the FH-1 building (whatever THAT stands for),
    and now I think is just called the ‘Old Bank’ Building. I like it, and think that it fits in well with the rest of the historic district, despite its somewhat-unattractive color.

  7. ConcernedOakFF

    Why are they trying to regulate us into obscurity? How can this idiotic proposal be stopped, or at least postponed?

    The only way to encourage building is to lift restrictions, not impose more and more.

    If the builders do not think that the area can support high rises, they won’t build them, just due to simple economics. We don’t need a planning commission to further shackle them.

  8. Eric of Berkeley

    I actually agree with many of the building detail requirements, e.g. base-middle-top differentiation, entrance articulation, varied materials, etc. However, I can see how the massing requirements would present problems for many lots and would preclude many buildings that would be most in keeping with Downtown Oakland’s best architecture.

    That all said, I can think of one possible explanation for the ridiculous height limits and the Planning Commission’s seemingly unilateral push: Proposition 98. If this doozy passes in June, new, more restrictive zoning will be made next to impossible. Cities would likely lose a great deal of control if tight restrictions aren’t already in place. Berkeley is facing the same issue; and though I strongly favor increased heights and density, I can understand why cities want to implement tight–pray temporary–controls as soon as possible.

  9. dto510

    I don’t see why cities should overreact to state propositions. Just to get something admittedly overly restrictive on the books just because it may be our last chance is a bad argument. The same one is being made for Inclusionary Zoning and strengthened rent control. But it is overly restrictive land-use rules and the unfairness of sticking landlords and developers with vast social obligations that create public sympathy for propositions like 98.

  10. CK

    First of all, thanks for taking the time to share all of this information. It really is quite sad that you’re pretty much the only outlet for this type of stuff. If the local press or the planning office made a better effort towards a public dialogue, I (a 25 year old who reads city planning theory books in his free time) wouldn’t have to defend them.

    I think the characterizations of the new zoning plan are a little harsh. To be sure, splitting downtown up into all those areas and requiring so many different height and spatial requirements does seem downright silly at first glance. But what I think the city is trying to do is achieve a two-fold goal(along a Jane Jacobs-ian line of thinking):

    **create a pedestrian friendly downtown core**
    Instead of focusing on new limits, I’d rather look at new buildings within the context of their setting. You don’t want every building downtown to become a high rise. Buildings that share similar characteristics (be they height, age, or design) discourage foot traffic and general human interest in being on the street. With the large number of new residents set to move into the downtown area, you want a city center that is interesting to walk through. You can achieve that through differing building heights, differing styles, and occasional building features like setbacks or overhangs that break up the line of sight along the street itself to avoid a tunnel-like view. This, it seems to me, is one of the reasons they want new buildings to have interesting roof features and large windows(the other great thing about windows is people like to look through them if the street it views is interesting. watching people = lower crime).
    I don’t think the planners office is saying high rises are bad, they’re just saying that there are enough of them already. To compare the new zoning to some of the pre-existing older high rises is unfair; no new developer will build a beautiful flat iron or another Trib Tower. The older buildings will be legal non-conforming, and the new buildings coming in wil hopefully combine with the pre-existing to help create a district that is interesting to look at, to walk through and to watch. This leads me to my other goal I’d guess they’re working at…

    **inhibit development from destroying itself with its own success**
    By requiring the construction of new and different types of buildings, which due to their differing sizes and shapes compared to existing buildings, will naturally lend themselves to different types of businesses and therefore contribute to the diversity of uses and strengthen foot traffic at all hours of the day.
    The worst thing that could happen to downtown oakland would be for all development regulation to be taken off the books like ConcernedOakFT just recommended. Developers, for the most part, like to build certain types of buildings because they’re usually the cheapest to build and they offer the highest leverage of profits per square foot. That’s bad because you’ll end up having all the buildings look the same (creating an un-interesting looking district) and you’ll have the same types of businesses filling up these building, destroying the economic and business-use diversity of the city. That’ll edge out other types of business that attract different types of people at different types of the day, lowering foot traffic, safety and the viability of the area as a city center.

    Sorry for the huge rant. I just thought I should stick up a little bit for the planning staff. I certainly don’t agree with everything in the proposal, and some things (like the height debacle) are inexcusable, and I can’t even say whether the motives I guessed at are what’s driving the re-zone or even if those theories would translate well for downtown. But I will say that some of the zoning requirements aren’t nearly as inappropriate, uneccesary, or ridiculuos as they are made out to be. Over-regulation can kill downtown, but so can poorly planned development.

  11. dto510

    Max – no, it’s also an overreaction. And I support eminent domain for purposes other than freeways.

    CK – I agree with the pedestrian retail zoning. The staff did pick the right places (unlike the rest of the lines) and the transparency and street-level requirements are appropriate. But bringing back the old 1960s use restrictions is a big step backward for attracting retail and encouraging entrepreneurship.

    Regarding building form, the sort of housing that is cheapest for developers to build are the medium-to-high-density midrises you see in Old Oakland and JLS. Those are not towers, and are the easiest to build under the proposed zoning. So I don’t see how staff is trying to nudge the market to more diversity in building. There are a limited number of lots suitable for skyscraper development, and since the General Plan limits highrises to downtown, limiting them is likely to result in no highrises built at all.

    In terms of business diversity, bringing back outdated use restrictions is definitely not in keeping with that vision. We have to acknowledge the market – Class A high-rises are what the employers want, and denying them large, uniform floorplates will make Oakland’s market uncompetitive, limiting job growth.

    Overall, the vision you lay out is much more ambitious than planning can accomplish, and conflicts with the General Plan. Downtown is mostly built up, so abstract and strict form guidelines can’t change the whole look of the area, but can make things difficult with small infill lots.

  12. CK


    Are these proposed zoning changes and use restricitons a return to 1960′s planning theory? I had no idea.

    We’re agreed as far as use restrictions go. There should be more uses allowed, not less. The only thing I’d want to put a cap on would be uses that could be considered harmful to pedestrian development (I’d support restrictions on new stand-alone parking lots).

    I think I might have gotten a little farther afield than I had planned. I didn’t mean to say I wanted to redevelop the entire downtown, as you seemed to suggest in your last paragraph. That’s plain impossible, though man, that’d be fun. I just was speculating that these new guidlelines might actually help to diversify the architecture and uses in downtown in those limited infill lots you were referencing, though I concede your point that the new requirements may make it too dificult to develop them.

    I agree that the rezoning doesn’t take into account enough of the economic realities that developers face. There’s only so many hoops you can make them jump through before they pick up their toys and go home.
    I suppose what really set me off earlier was the suggestion that all development guidelines and restrictions should be removed downtown. I’ll reiterate what I said before: I don’t like a lot of this proposal. But some of the things in it are quite reasonable. More windows = good. Articulated entrances = good. Defining architectural characteristics = good. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  13. Barry


    Frankly, it’s refreshing to see pro-uber-development advocates howling like stuck pigs re the “the process” of community meetings

    And the whining about the temerity of Adams Point residents objecting to tower-like structures! Oh the horror!

    Please tell me you weren’t so naive to be surprised that those folks stand up, speak their minds and expect to be listened to? It’s a neighborhood that can rally a mob of intelligent, diverse, well-spoken people who are savvy about working with the political system. They also can smell stinky tomfoolery a mile away.

    Remember: they live in an historic district where many of the buildings are actually beautiful and are cherished. They are the folks who eventually stalled the Meritage/Mondo Condo project long enough that Meritage defaulted on their loan, packed their bags and slithered out of town.

    Collectively they are concerned about the costs– to them — of over- building. Those community meetings were filled with condo owners worried about THEIR bottom line, now that the thousands of EMPTY condos along the Broadway corridor have flooded the market.

    So stop your whining. Build in the suburbs. Thanks to BART — the delta area beyond Walnut Creek is covered with with single family homes that are being emptied out due to the mortage crisis. Theyhave little commerce outside of the big box stores. So if Walnut Creek planners keep saying they wants\ a ‘walkable downtown”…I say go over there and make them one!

    The California General Plan was already outmoded when City council voted it in with the intent to chuck local zoning in favor of the developers. ABAG failed to stop urban/suburban sprawl.

    Embrace reality. Build in communities where the sewers aren’t crumbling and that actually have fully staffed police departments.


  14. ConcernedOakFF

    The problem is, we can not get the city together…including a “working sewer” and a “fully staffed police department” without more building, development, community involvement, tax base, commerce etc…

    So what is the solution?

    I would like to see a full build-out of Oakland, using available space, updating beautiful historic buildings, keeping the flavor of the city, while increasing the stable, non-transient population.

    I work for this city in an emergency capacity, I see the worst of it, but I also live here, and see the potential…the future lies in building residential and commercial occupancies, as many and as rapidly as possible….

  15. Nancy Rieser

    Dear Concerned OakFF:

    With all due respect, the concept that development is going to cure our ills — from an grossly understaffed police departement to our crumbling sewers — is, in practice, no more than a myth. Developers want to completely “buiild out” Oakland because its easy to land sweetheart deals at City Hall — one makes more money here than in other cities as the requirements for affordable housing are optional.

    Developers also seldom use local contractors and Oakland union workers so even the paychecks of the construction workers don’t stay in town.

    We have thousands of condos built — sitting empty. Where is our new infrastructure that development money promised us? What happend to fully staffing our police department?

    And when you say “fully built out” — what does that mean? Every new building is the highest it can be? No set backs from the street or space between buildings?

    Would it include the wide/liberal use of emminent domain as an earlier poster suggested?

    I am growing weary of these never-ending Davey and Goliath struggles. Why should people who live in and love Oakland be chased out by developers who, at the end of the day, couldn’t be PAID enough to actually live here?

    Nancy Rieser

  16. Max Allstadt

    WOW! This is getting snitty. Is there anyone out there with a constructive solution oriented comment? Frankly there are developers out there who are motivated by little more than two fisted greed. And there are Adam’s Pointers who are also acting entirely selfishly, saying “screw growth, I want my view of the lake to stay the same, so I’m going to show up at meetings and whine about it until I get placated.” Is there no in between? What the hell?

    Development is a business. Business will try to get away with anything it can, but smart business isn’t short sighted. Wise developers know that smart urbanism will ultimately make their projects more valuable. Neighborhood groups are important too, but they aren’t “David”. They vote, that’s their Goliath sword. They can and do kill development, sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes for the wrong ones.

    So what to do? Well we have community meetings. The look like the Junior High prom, only instead of girls in one corner and boys in the other, it’s Developers and NIMBYs. How about we try to do a little dancing together. Have conversations. Typically development is dismissive and neighborhood groups are shrill. Engage eachother as humans, and maybe we’ll get somewhere.

  17. Buddy Cushman

    I believe the problem, as it almost always is, is a lack of vision and enthusiasm and will from leadership. Where have all the leaders gone? The comment above from Max moves in the right direction — and I remember those seventh grade dances fondly — but inevitably people need, and want, to be inspired. I think we want to rise above the daily throgging we take from the news and the traffic jams and the same old same old, and we can and will. When I moved to Oakland a couple of years ago, not with the slightest inclination to be involved with politics, I picked up a sign at Aimee Allison’s campaign office and stood on a streetcorner for a couple of weekends, because she inspired me. Inspiration is the only thing that keeps me from wanting to holler, and throw up both my hands….I live on the end of Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, now, but much of my heart remains around Alice Street and the Lake and Park Street and the 19th Street BART and all over Oakland…Hope it was okay to send this along.

  18. Max Allstadt

    Aimee might have been inspiring to some, but her resume was too short, and her big talking point about Iraq was absolutely silly to bring into municipal politics.

  19. len raphael

    Volunteering as treasurer for Pat Mccullough’s campaign in DistrictVOne against Jane Bruner has been an eye opener into the realities of Oakland municipal politics. there are several factors that are behind the failure of leadership here. perhaps the biggest one is the powerful self preservation motivation for playing it safe in a one party town and waiting for a slot to come up in political office food chain. that is the name of the game here for most existing and hopeful office holders here (unlike Patrick and maybe two or three other council candidates). almost anything you propose that would change the status quo would piss off the main sources of free election labor and money: unions and real estate developers. even if you were the annointed candidate of the ruling subfaction of the single political party. sure there are some far sighted unions and some long term perspective developers, but that’s not common and hard to be when your members feel underpaid and your investors and bankers are getting nervous. then there are a bunch of non-profit organizations some of whom seem more like special interest groups with their own agendas. Offsetting those groups are the large numbers of of voters here who are too discouraged with local politics to even learn the issues. Try something different. Pick a candidate for council, even if you don’t agree with them 120% and volunteer in their campaign.

    -len raphael temescal

  20. Barry


    Denigrating the comments that come from the non-development community — that apparently holds a different view point that yours — as “snitty” belies a level of contempt that probably trips you up more than you realize. The smart developer is not afraid to see through someone else’s eyes.

    Good luck,


  21. CK

    I find it high comedy that people are making assumptions that Max is somehow “in league with developers”. Those here who also know him are probably sharing a silent chuckle with me.

    I believe Max was just trying to make a point that all of this isn’t black and white, and those seeking to turn it into that are doing more harm than good. I certainly agree with him. Not all people who are against downzoning the CBD are heartless pro-development capitalist pigs. Not all people seeing merit in parts of the CBD downzone are hypocritical rich NIMBYs from Adam’s Point and Trestle Glenn who are only concerned about the view off their back deck. Let’s try to bring a little more depth perception to this discussion. I think the level of discourse could be raised if we were to instead focus on the individual aspects of the plan rather than pidgeon hole each other as heartless (pro-developer!! oooo!!!) or brainless (NIMBY!! oooo!!!).

    Or we could all just turn on me and call me a pro-development NIMBY bobo CBD downzoner. It’s okay, I can take it.

    And for the record, I’m not knocking residents of Adam’s Point/Trestle Glenn. I’m just mocking the stereotypes being thrown around.

  22. V Smoothe Post author

    Barry -

    I find it ironic that you would lecture other commenters, who have attempted to contribute productively to the discussion, about contempt for others after leaving a comment that began “Frankly, it’s refreshing to see pro-uber-development advocates howling like stuck pigs.” Why does it seem that those most eager to encourage civility in others are those most unwilling to practice it themselves?

    To all who have raised substantive issues in response to the post – I appreciate your contributions and think there’s enough to say in response to merit a whole new post about this. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to contribute more actively to the discussion here or write much this week – time has been in short supply.

  23. ConcernedOakFF

    To those that are questioning why our infrastructure (i.e. money not going to the police department, no Fireboat, lack of Fire Department staffing for the population) the issue lies not with the developers, but with the city…which needs to stick in their sweetheart deal a requirement for money for the PD, new Fire Houses, a Fireboat…etc…

    Totally different subject, but we are the only city in the USA with population larger than 250,000 that has a working port and NO FIREBOAT…..

    Developers could solve these issues….so could the city….

    They both do not.

  24. Max Allstadt

    What the hell is a bobo?

    And we need a fireboat. NYC has a bunch of fireboats. They also have a privately owned fireboat with an all gay crew and a huge stereo system that plays dance music. I’m not making this up. Oakland needs a big gay fireboat AND a working official one.

  25. Kevin Cook

    Bobo is a neologism concocted by the ever meretricious David Brooks in his book “Bobos in Paradise.” It’s a portmanteau word that combines bohemian and bourgeois.

  26. HarriOak Editor

    Thanks for your consistently informative blog and for providing a platform for people to weigh in on issues like land use! I’m working on organizing a district 3 candidates forum and am reaching out to bloggers who cover our neighborhoods. Please email me at harrioak at yahoo dot com if you are interested in this.

  27. Barry


    Apologies for any offense taken by the squealing pigs analogy.

    Concerned Oakland FF: Man, is your point about the fire boats well taken. After the planes flew into the World Trade Center and the buildings collapsed, the fire fighting hydrants and pipes that fed them were under rubble and some pipelines were just destroyed. I was amazed to read that the source of the water used to put out the Lower Manhattan fires was river water sucked up from the river by fireboats…run through hoses connected to hoses.

    We had a fireboat house at the Port but it was closed. We need to open it again, sooner rather than later. Concerned Oakland FF: what was the story about the closure? When did it happen and on whose watch at City Hall?

    More importantly, how can we get it back?

  28. RALPH

    I can appreciate varied heights to achieve a varied skyline, but I do wonder about the zones. It seems like more than anything else it is designed to ensure prime office space maintains great views to the hills and the bay.

    I might also add that I find it ridiculous that one would find the following ridiculous, “The top of each newly constructed principal building shall include an element that provides a distinctive visual terminus…Examples include, but are not limited to, curvilinear or stepped forms that soften the truncated tops of buildings, cornices, and other architectural forms.” Call me crazy but when a see a skyline, I do not want to see a crewcut. Look at most any city skyline and you will see a varied skyline.

    In another note, I see absolutely nothing wrong with prohibiting car rental, storage, arcades and some low rent sandwich shop. Quite honestly this items actually detract from the neighborhood experience and if I don’t see a bunch of car rental companies in a “walkable city” then I am happy. With progressive there will be some change, people need to get on board because the train is moving.

  29. Max Allstadt

    Ralph, the reason it’s ridiculous is that it’s legislating design, and a very specific kind of design.
    You don’t want to see crewcut skylines? This language will help. It’ll make the skyline a montage of silly edifices on top of boxes.

    The thing is, it won’t be followed to the T. The planning commission doesn’t use the letter of the law all the time, because the letter of the law is often stupid. They’ll let other stuff slip through.

    Still, what’s so dumb about this particular rule is that it bans monolithic boxes. Some monlithic boxes are beautiful. The WTC towers in NY were pretty much pure boxes, but the anchored the skyline perfectly because they were placed and arranged by a zen master. Some of Louis Sullivan’s works were monolithic boxes. They were decorated boxes, but boxes. When you see a 14 story box, with elaborate stonework at the base and at the top, that’s Sullivan’s influence. His basic philosophy was to turn the box that developers wanted into a giant greek column. People love his buildings.

    So yeah. boxes can be good.

  30. RALPH

    Max, with all due respect, I disagree. legislating design would fall along the lines of all bldgs must have a square base, at its terminus it must have a pyramid that covers 2/3s of the roof, with a height b/w 7 and 15 ft and with one side having solar panel. Anything else is a mere SUGGESTION.

    I did not mean to suggest that flattops are bad; I am annoyed that people find this regulation something more than a guideline.

  31. V Smoothe Post author

    Ralph –

    I’m not sure I follow you. Zoning isn’t a suggestion. It’s the law. The design requirement that buildings must have a distinct visual terminus is just that, a requirement. Under the draft zoning chapter, you cannot construct a new building with a flat roof without a variance.

    The proposed code very much legislates design. In fact, the height and bulk requirements delineated in the chapter really aren’t actually very different from the example you provide.

  32. RALPH

    V Smoothe, agreed, zoning is not a suggestion, but i don’t recall reading that a bldg can’t have a flat top which would be a REQUIREMENT. if you can show me a can’t or must include i will agree that there is some design legislation. until then i would say we have suggestions.

  33. V Smoothe Post author

    The chapter reads:

    Design Standards Applying to All Zones. The following regulations apply to all of the zones:

    Building Terminus. The top of each newly constructed principal building shall include an element that provides a distinctive visual terminus…

  34. RALPH

    i think the phrase is subject to interpretation. that being said, let’s agree to disagree on what this means. I can certainly think of a number of buildings with flat tops with distinctive visual terminus

  35. RALPH

    i might also add that I think in generally people are interpreting “visual terminus” too literally. I think when used in the context of design it is to give the eye an end point – not necessarily the bldg. I think the authors would do well to define the term as I think for the lay person it is a difficult concept to comprehend.

  36. flattop hata

    Are you a planner, RALPH? Cause I am, and I’m sorry to tell you, Smoothie’s got this one right. There is no room for interpretation. The purpose of that section of the code is to prevent WTC-like (or, closer to home, World Savings Tower-like) buildings. That’s why it clearly refers to ELEMENTS on the BULDING TOPS that will provide the terminus.

    I disagree with V that this section of the code is superfluous. Oakland has enough straight up and down flat topped buildings – this requirement will add interest to the skyline.

  37. RALPH

    ok, so i got a little annoyed; i searched for visual terminus and saw it applied in a number of context but never saw one talk about the top of the bldg. thus, when i came back to the blog i went with what i just read. you night notice a certain inconsistency in my remarks b/c of it. still cant u have visual terminus that is flat?

  38. dto510

    RALPH, there could be a visual terminus that’s flat. For example, a “butterfly” roof with projecting eaves would be flat but a clear terminus. One could argue that a superficial treatment, like a Beaux Arts building’s cast-concrete top floor facade, is a visual terminus, but that would probably be a tough sell.

    Do we really need to ban simple modernist towers, flattop hata? They’re not in vogue anyway. Cesar Pelli-style glass blocks with vibrant massing (like 1100 Broadway) are visually exciting but don’t follow the form guidelines, and I find the tower-and-base idea is stifling and uneconomical. Besides, how many downtown lots are available for high-rise development? Making strict guidelines for a dozen or so buildings seems like overkill.

    RALPH is totally right that the zoning lines strongly favor commercial over residential high-rises. I think that’s unfair and ignores downtown’s character and the LUTE’s direction, which specifically characterizes the future downtown as “urban (high-rise) residential” (their parentheses). Moreover, from a strict planning perspective, residential is a less-intensive use than commercial, so it should be encouraged as easier on the infrastructure. From a budget perspective, the city gets nothing from the business tax but most of its budget from property and transfer taxes, which residential projects generate more of than commercial buildings.

    The bottom line is that the DTO zoning proposal is making major decisions that may be wrong and are certainly taking up a lot of time for a minimal amount of use (again, there cannot be many more than a dozen new skyscrapers in the DTO). The planning staff shouldn’t leave it to bloggers to tease out the real consequences of their proposals, but instead they should be explicit about their value and aesthetic judgements.

    PS: I hear there will be a zoning update public meeting that’s actually inside the lines, in Chinatown. I have not received an announcement about the date.

  39. ConcernedOakFF


    The fireboat was taken out of commission under the Brown administration, but has continued to languish under the current one.

    The best chance we have of getting it back (along with our only method of getting water after a strong earthquake) is by convincing the city council that it MUST be returned to full duty.

    Mr. De La Fuente is most likely our best bet….