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New zoning, same as the old zoning (1)

At its next meeting, the Zoning Update Committee of the Planning Commission will have its third hearing on proposed zoning changes to the Temescal area (generally, Telegraph, Shattuck and Claremont Avenues from W. MacArthur to the Berkeley border). The staff report cites the following public-sector reasons behind the need to update the zoning code:

ABAG’s report mandates that the City of Oakland be zoned to allow 16,000 additional housing units in the next seven years and to focus the housing downtown and along major transit corridors. The Cities of San Francisco and San Jose have been issued similar mandates. Housing production along Telegraph Avenue is particularly consistent with the [mandate] because of its many major bus lines and the Macarthur BART Station at 40th and Telegraph Avenue.

BRT stations are planned for Telegraph Avenue in the Temescal district and AC Transit intends higher density development at these nodes. Development intensity along the Telegraph corridor would support BRT ridership and the BRT would minimize the traffic impact of new development.

The General Plan states that the City should direct urban density near transit or commercial corridors, transit stations, downtown, and waterfront locations. In addition to revitalizing the corridors and enhancing transit use, the General Plan states that satisfying development demand at these locations allows Oakland’s lower density residential neighborhoods to preserve their character.

There is an additional, pressing need for zoning updates not cited by this report. To fulfill the goals of the General Plan, it is absolutely imperative that the city bring its zoning in line with what private-sector developers want and need. Currently, every single project in the area requires a Conditional Use Permit to be feasible, primarily because developers need at least five stories to make money. A Conditional Use Permit requires at least one public hearing, and every such permit can appealed to the city council at a minimal cost to the appealing party. That creates huge uncertainties for developers, massively increasing delays and other “soft costs” that are then passed on to the condo-buyers. Additionally, never-ending North Oakland development appeals clog the City Council agenda and encourage individual councilmembers to meddle with project design, which is not their job.

The solution to this problem is to raise the allowed building heights at least up to what is already been approved, which is 57 feet. Ideally, the heights would be increased to 75 to 100 feet in at least some areas, which the market might build and would be appropriate for the 100-foot-wide streets throughout the area. The main fight, unfortunately, has been between two community groups: STAND, asking for absurd 35-foot height limits throughout the area, and ULTRA, which has asked for 75-foot heights and opposes “arbitrary height limits.” Of course, few have advocated for unrestricted heights, which would be appropriate given the transit access and street width of Temescal. Instead, staff makes a crude compromise in an attempt to mollify STAND, and recommends the following:

Staff chose to recommend that the 45-55 foot height limit because these are the minimum heights required to provide spatial definition to Telegraph and Claremont Avenues. Successful streets define and unify a space by focusing the eyes on the street area. Generally, the walls of buildings create the boundaries of this street space. When these boundaries are not sufficiently high, views outward are not contained enough to provide a sense of unifying space or place. In general, urban designers state that streets require at least a 1:2 height-to-street width ratio to achieve enough spatial confinement to define a space. The Telegraph and Claremont Avenue rights of way are 100 feet wide and, therefore, require building heights of at least 50 feet to properly enclose and define the street. Staff recommends an overall 55 foot instead of 50 foot height limit because the extra five feet allows developments to have a higher ground level. In general, each upper story of a building is about 10 feet high; therefore, a 55 foot height limit allows a ground level height of up to 15 feet with four stories above. This higher ground level provides a human scale, a more comfortable pedestrian experience, and more viable commercial spaces.
Staff also chose to recommend the 55 foot overall height limit because development proposals in the area have shown that this is the minimum height required for a building to contain a development density that fulfills the intent of General Plan, State, and regional policies promoting higher development density along major transit corridors.

Even the city staff characterizes their proposal as a “minimum.” It’s the minimum economically-feasible height (developers need five to six stories to turn a profit and provide parking), and it’s the minimum height needed to define the corridor. With our obligation to allow 16,000 new units constructed along major corridors, the potential of the Temescal shopping district, and Telegraph’s forthcoming BRT service, Oakland should be doing more than the minimum. Furthermore, the 55-foot height is allowed only with a Conditional Use Permit and a choice of arbitrary community benefits; since 45-feet is infeasible, the new heights do nothing to alleviate the costs and uncertainty associated with CUPs.

At least the staff didn’t take the RCPC’s request to downzone Claremont.

The Rockridge Community Planning Council (RCPC) has expressed concerns that allowed heights of 45 feet (55 feet with a conditional use permit, a top story stepback, and a community benefits package) is too great a scale for Claremont Avenue and will lead to taller buildings along the rest of Claremont Avenue. RCPC recommends the same 35 foot height limit (45 feet with a conditional use permit, a top story stepback, and a community benefits package) proposed for Temescal’s core commercial district in Height Area B.
Staff disagrees with RCPC. Buildings this scale are appropriate for Claremont Avenue because of its wide, 100 foot right of way and its function as an automotive service corridor that leads to freeway ramps, Telegraph Avenue, Rockridge, and the Oakland/Berkeley Hills. Further, there is not the concentration of historic buildings found in Temescal’s commercial core to warrant these height restrictions.

The staff report also dismisses the possiblity of daylighting Temescal Creek, one of STAND’s demands, noting that such a project would stall development indefinitely and would require “at least a 90 foot wide swatch of land through highly developed areas and private property.” It also notes that the culvert is an Alameda County flood control facility, meaning that the county would need to approve any change and that engineering would be complicated. Finally, “the actual path of the creek” is unknown.

Among the many Temescal-specific policy proposals, the staff recommends sweeping protections for so-called “historic” buildings (some would call them “outdated”). Even buildings merely rated “C” by the Cultural Heritage survey could receive protections (though the language seems to protect only commercial structures appropriate for retail). The staff acknowedges these restrictions, stating that “this proposed regulation represents some of the strictest criteria for the demolition of a building in Oakland and the City’s only requirement for a conditional use permit to demolish a building.“ Why should Temescal buildings receive special protections that others do not? The staff fails to justify this in light of the General Plan’s development goals and Temescal’s transit access.

Amazingly, the new guidelines actually downzone the MacArthur BART area from high-density to medium-density. From the report:

Staff proposes that the parcels bounded by Manila Avenue, Macarthur Boulevard, Telegraph Avenue, and 40th Street be rezoned from R-70, High Density Residential Zone, to the R-50 Medium Density Residential Zone (see Attachment G). This area currently contains a mix of single-family homes, duplexes and small apartment buildings consistent with the R-50 Zone. Further, this downzoning is consistent with General Plan policies encouraging development downtown and on the corridors and away from lower density residential neighborhoods.

No, it’s not – the busiest transfer station in the BART system is certainly an appropriate place for high-rise development if the goal is to concentrate housing near transit. Furthermore, the MacArthur BART transit village, while not high-rise, is very high-density – the neighborhood is already moving toward R-70. The presence of single-family homes near a BART station should not be a reason to block high-density development. Smart Growth is not conservative – it involves change. Oakland’s legacy of inferior housing stock and inappropriate land use needs to be overcome, not reinforced.

The staff report also recommends a few things to which Smart Growth advocates shouldn’t object. It creates a lower height limit in the two-block area below 51st, where Temescal’s historic commercial buildings define the neighborhood (Height Area B). That would be acceptable if it were matched by appropriate upzoning outside this district, of 75 to 100 feet. Additionally, new design codes would require at least 12-foot-high ground floors, with retail-friendly facades and a minimum shop depth of 20 feet. Considering how many stores in Oakland are limited by poor architecture (like successful Temescal boutique Afterglow, which occupies an unfriendly 1950s commercial structure), these guidelines are necessary. But if developers continue to face the nightmare of multiple public hearings and appeals to the City Council as a result of this continuation of outdated zoning, these new commercial spaces will never be built.

Though the staff proposal effectively downzones an area near the MacArthur BART station as well as Shattuck Ave, and does not even bring Telegraph up to the heights for which developers are already receiving conditional use permits, it acknowledges that transit-oriented development is good for the environment.

Staff does believe that the current proposal would reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. Pollution created by transportation is the largest single contributor to global warming. By facilitating infill development along a major urbanized transportation corridor and near the Bay Area’s employment center, the proposal reduces automobile use and increases the use of transit. Coordination of transportation and land use is considered to be an effective method to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, barely permitting development along major transit corridors is not the action needed to reduce global warming. Aggressive upzoning of Telegraph, to a 100-foot building height to match the 100-foot-wide street (much wider than major downtown streets like 19th), would allow us to meet our ABAG mandates and contribute to the increased transit use needed to combat global warming. However, this proposal, far from “facilitating infill development,” does nothing but cement the status quo, ensuring continued neighborhood battles over the six-story buildings that are already beginning to define the street, and missing a huge opportunity to take our regional and global obligations seriously.

Posted in california, citycouncil, housing, oakland, planningcommission.


13 Responses

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  1. pallewog says

    Right on!

    Where can I join a smart growth PAC?

  2. dto510 says

    When I start one, I’ll let you know!

  3. Becks says

    I really enjoyed this post, and it got me thinking. Last night, as I walked down Telegraph from the bus, I realized just how odd the 1-2 story buildings looked. The disproportionality of the building heights to the size of the street is astounding. It amazes me that groups like STAND are fighting against taller buildings, when it’s so clear to me that Temescal needs denser housing and more mixed use buildings.

  4. Ken O says

    MacArthur BART transit village must NOT become another low-rise failure like Fruitvale TV. It should be unrestricted in height, up to 150 feet.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Telegraph is Ready to Grow « Living in the O linked to this post on August 22, 2007

    [...] Telegraph is Ready to Grow August 21st, 2007 Yesterday, I read a great post by dto510 about zoning on Telegraph in North Oakland. The planning commission will soon be considering updating zoning in Temescal, including raising [...]

  2. New Shorenstein City Center building should be taller | A Better Oakland linked to this post on September 27, 2007

    [...] use permits to build projects consistent with the General Plan. If you haven’t read dto510’s excellent post about zoning update, you should do it now. _uacct = “UA-1922269-1″; [...]

  3. How is Oakland planned? « Oakland’s Future linked to this post on October 4, 2007

    [...] the 10K Plan (albeit without formal zoning changes). Now that the Zoning Update is coming to established neighborhoods, people are fighting the General Plan’s vision of high-density transit districts while taking the [...]

  4. Zoning the past « FutureOakland linked to this post on October 11, 2007

    [...] concentrating development and creating mixed-use districts (even if its map is a bit unambitious). Wide streets like Telegraph need new, taller buildings to enclose the street and to provide modern, … But does it matter what’s going on in those buildings? If Oakland were to allow dense development [...]

  5. New zoning, same as the old zoning (2) « FutureOakland linked to this post on October 18, 2007

    [...] As the Conley Report diplomatically noted, while there is great support for housing and retail development throughout Oakland, any individual project is likely to face strong opposition. Downtown, NIMBYs recently scuttled a large condo development (on the parking lot where Chauncey Bailey was assassinated), and on Telegraph, STAND has been very successful in holding buildings to five stories (which is still two stories higher than they want), even at key intersections like 51st and 40th. They are aided and abetted by Planning Staff, who have largely embraced their suggestions in the Temescal Zoning Update proposal. [...]

  6. Creekside EIR Scoping Session Tonight | A Better Oakland linked to this post on January 9, 2008

    [...] the way, if you weren’t already convinced that the zoning in this city (and particularly in Temescal) is a complete mess and needs to be totally thrown out, check this out. The site falls into two [...]

  7. What’s wrong with Oakland political coverage? | A Better Oakland linked to this post on February 27, 2008

    [...] learned that tiny Frisco, CO has the same height limits through the entire town as planning staff proposed for Telegraph Avenue this [...]

  8. Nadel takes credit for downtown zoning proposal « FutureOakland linked to this post on April 4, 2008

    [...] interference from certain city councilmembers” has been behind some of the staff’s dafter zoning proposals. Councilmember Nadel’s staff was responsible for transmitting the “public input” [...]