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
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.
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!).