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New Century, New Zoning

This week, V Smoothe and I have been providing policy proposals with the stated goal of increasing housing affordability. Floating a housing bond, or dedicating funds to low-income housing programs, are ways to increase affordable-housing funds without discouraging market-rate construction. Master EIRs are one way to ease development of both market-rate and affordable housing construction. Market-rate construction provides funds for affordable housing, and both affordable and market-rate developers have to jump through the same hoops to get projects approved. To make the broken planning process easier and more predictable, it is vital that Oakland radically reform its zoning. I suggest the city take three steps toward implementing new zoning for the new millennium: repeal the ancient zoning ordinance, use the General Plan (instead of the old zoning ordinance) as the basis of a new ordinance, and adopt form-based (as opposed to use-based) regulatory principles.

Repeal the zoning ordinance

An important first step for the city to take is to completely eliminate the zoning ordinance. City staff is wasting enormous amounts of time and resources on the so-called “Zoning Update,” and the process is regarded as a complete failure by folks on both sides of the development divide. Now the staff is putting the process on hold (again), waiting two years for traffic studies in Temescal. But the issue isn’t traffic, the issue is the complexity of translating outdated 1960s zoning into something that makes sense today.

The zoning cannot be updated. Oakland is simply not big enough to justify fifty-plus zoning types. Conditional use permits for General Plan-authorized density, discretionary review over businesses like restaurants, and bizarre legacy regulations like mining and quarrying in medium-density housing, need to be stripped entirely from city law. Arbitrary distinctions between commercial and residential zoning are confusing to a lay audience, the names of the zones don’t jibe with today’s construction types, and too-specific zoning categories yield obscurantist maps and waste staff time. Since we’re supposed to bring zoning into compliance with the General Plan, the General Plan should be the basis of the new law, not the old ordinance it explicitly aims to replace.

Use the General Plan

Some local politicians call the General Plan “broad” (meaning vague). It is not. Though easy to comprehend (which planners regard suspiciously), the Land Use and Transportation Element (LUTE) actually creates a new regulatory framework for land-use regulation. By designating certain areas to “Grow and Change,” establishing broad density limits based on units/acre, and creating ten distinct “classifications,” the General Plan provides a clear, actionable framework for guiding land-use decisions. Rather than attempting to squeeze the plan’s designations into existing C- and R-based zoning designations, the city should move from throwing away the old zoning to creating an entirely new system based on the plan.

The plan creates ten “classifications,” based on three categories: neighborhood, corridor mixed-use, and commercial/industrial/institutional. (There are also three “special mixed-use” districts, including downtown.) Residential has three zones: Mixed Housing Type (think most flatlands neighborhoods, with a mix of single-family homes, duplexes, and small apartments), Detached-unit Residential (single-family homes), and Hillside Residential (large-lot single-family homes). The vast majority of the city is mapped one of those three areas. Major streets are marked one of three mixed-use types: Urban Residential, Neighborhood Center, and Community Commercial. All of these categories allow ground-floor retail, and the latter two are unconcerned with use. Adopting these three mixed-use categories as zoning rules (eg, UR, NCX, CCX, along the lines of HBX) eliminates the necessity of having multiple overlay zones to accommodate mixed-use development.

The General Plan maps the city to these zones, and defines residential units/acre or commercial FAR for each one (LUTE, pp 143-159). Those are the rules needed to constitute a zoning ordinance. New categories along the lines of the General Plan would be a dozen zoning types that can accommodate the entire city, eliminating the fifty-plus zoning regulations that choke Oakland’s planning today. It is also an opportunity to reduce or eliminate legacy rules that are often called “exclusionary zoning,” as I wrote two weeks ago – setbacks, open-space, and parking requirements all drive up the cost of housing by reducing the number of units that can fit on a lot, or making lots unbuildable. Creating a new zoning ordinance based on the General Plan can take advantage of a recent revolution in zoning, and allow Oakland to adopt the best practices of 21st-century urban planning.

Form-Based Zoning

As opposed to use-based zoning, form-based zoning is a set of regulations based not on abstract ideas like use and FAR, but instead on the height of construction and its relationship to the street. Form-based zoning generally emphasizes minimum and maximum heights, street frontage and lot width minimums, and frenestration minimums. Without (arbitrary) setbacks, open-space requirements, or abstract FAR guidelines, form-based zoning creates a predictable urban form. Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Hercules all have form-based codes. Wikipedia’s entry on Form-Based Zoning is an excellent introduction to this new regulatory concept, invented by the Plater-Zyberk/Duany team behind New Urbanism.

By focusing on the end result rather than the process, form-based zoning allows people to better understand what is planned for their neighborhood. Because it is straightforward, small or inexperienced developers are better able to meet its mandates. Regulating what people can actually see and experience (ie, the street curtain) makes it easier to bring community input into zoning regulations, since their input does not have to be retranslated into plannerese. This simple, modern approach to zoning could potentially reduce the need for project planners as well, helping slim Oakland’s bloated bureaucracy and concentrate planning resources on things other than quotidian developments.

The 1960s use-based zoning ordinance now in effect cannot meet the needs of the twenty-first century. It is needlessly complex, lowering public confidence in the planning process and discouraging small-time developers. Its focus on abstract guidelines has no relationship with urban form, leading to unpredictable buildings or allowing too much architectural discretion over the public sphere (is a ten-story building on half a lot the same as a five-story building on an entire lot? Absolutely not!). Finally, the outdated zoning code requires too much reliance on discretionary design review to make up for its failure to adequately regulate form, and the General Plan calls for radically reducing discretionary review. Form-based zoning is the best tool to achieve that mandate, and to move away from regulating uses to allowing the mixed-use approach of the General Plan.


Repealing the zoning ordinance, translating the General Plan into a real regulatory document using its simplified framework, and adopting form-based zoning principles, would move Oakland’s planning into the twenty-first century. Both the planning process and opportunities for community input would be greatly streamlined. The General Plan calls for “user-friendly” zoning, and that cannot be accomplished within the outdated strictures of overly complicated use-based zoning. Building on the General Plan’s ten basic zoning categories, using form-based zoning would radically simplify the development process. That will lead to more housing construction and a more predictable urban form, decreasing the cost and increasing the quality of new construction, whether market-rate or affordable.

Posted in california, oakland, zoning.


7 Responses

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  1. Ryan says

    I have trouble with your second paragraph under “Use the General Plan.”

    In this paragraph, you say there are ten “classifications,” but in the prior paragraph you said it was nine “classifications,” which is it?

    Also, the next two sentences are also confusing.

    The mixed use district parenthetical seems like a non sequitir, but that’s not too important to me.

    The sentence after says “Residential has three zones.” Is “Residential” supposed to be one of the three “categories” (a synonym for the “Neighborhood” category, perhaps) or one of the ten “classifications?” Are the “zones” part of the 9 or 10 “classifications?”

    Likewise, later in the same paragraph you refer to “Major streets” and their “three mixed-use types.” Is “Major streets” supposed to be the “category” “corridor mixed-use?” Are these “three mixed-use types” analogous to the “zones” in “Residential?”

    Then in the next paragraph you talk about “a dozen zoning types” but how does this relate to the categories and classifications?

    I like that you try to explain some of the complexities of the General Plan here instead of just throwing out your predigested opinion, it sheds some light, and kudos. Just make it a bit clearer!

  2. dto510 says

    There are ten classifications, plus three special districts (downtown, the waterfront, and the airport/seaport which are for some reason combined). Saying nine was a typo. So was the extra parentheses. This is what’s great about blogging and comments! I fixed the typos.

    Altogether, there are a baker’s dozen of classifications, which would then imply that many zones if it were a regulatory document. Those thirteen classications are split into four categories (I did not discuss the purely commercial categories at all). The main categories for the city are the two I discuss: neighborhood (with three classifications), and corridor mixed-use (with another three).

    Ryan, you have actually read the LUTE, apparently, which is great. I was writing this for people who have not read the LUTE, so I was describing it without being wedded to its vocabulary or assuming the reader has any idea of what it says. It’s a complicated subject but in the end it’s quite straight-forward: instead of fifty-plus zones, we should have thirteen. Ideally, those new zones should be based on form, not function, or at least incorporate simplified language to eliminate the unintended consequences of overly-abstract rules, often called exclusionary zoning.

  3. Ryan says

    OK thanks, that’s clearer.

    I see why you don’t want to ape stilted language but in those particular paragraphs I think a tad more consistency would help for sale of clarity. But now that you have a comment explaining it that’s almost as good.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Oakland City Council agenda exemplifies disfunctional city government | A Better Oakland linked to this post on November 6, 2007

    [...] Extension of interim zoning controls. I wrote about this yesterday for Novometro. I’ll probably write more about it later in the week. Here’s the short version. It’s been almost ten years since we adopted the Land Use and Transportation Element (LUTE) (PDF!) of the General Plan and we still have not updated our zoning to correspond with it. The LUTE calls for throwing out the old zoning completely and creating new, simpler codes. Lately, instead of scrapping the old code and creating something new and readable, the Zoning Update has been trying to apply overlay after overlay on existing zoning, creating an even more massive mess. The interim zoning controls that allowed us to follow the General Plan’s guidelines instead of the outdated code expired in June, so tonight the Council is going to renew them for another two years. At this rate, the General Plan will expire (2015) before we update our zoning to conform with it. Everyone I talk to about this blames somebody different – it’s Jerry Brown’s fault, it’s Dellums’s fault, it’s the Council’s fault, it’s the Planning Commission’s fault, it’s staff’s fault, and so on. Honestly, I have no idea whose fault it is. It seems to me that all the aforementioned parties are culpable to some degree. Also, I don’t care. The zoning is a mess, and the Council should direct staff to come up with brand new codes as directed by the General Plan, not extend the interim controls indefinitely while they pile on endless overlays. See dto510’s series of blogs on zoning. [...]

  2. Zoning direction tonight? « FutureOakland linked to this post on November 6, 2007

    [...] Shaping a city « New Century, New Zoning Zoning direction tonight? November 6th, 2007 Despite what the Trib says, the most [...]

  3. Ron Dellums State of the City address | A Better Oakland linked to this post on January 16, 2008

    [...] or less true. dto510 has written a bunch of good blogs about Oakland’s zoning issues if you’re [...]

  4. General Plan 101 | A Better Oakland linked to this post on March 13, 2008

    [...] Our General Plan was adopted in 1998 and expires in 2015. Now, the State gets that things change, and that sometimes you will have different ideas about what you want to do with a space 10 years later. In fact, they recommend we should thoroughly review and revise our General Plan every five years. Ha! Ours is closer to expiration than adoption at this point, and we’re just now getting around to making the zoning conform to it. (dto has written some excellent posts about Oakland’s zoning. [...]