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DTO at ZUC: Where’s the whimsy?

When confronting the pages, planners and paperwork intended to shape downtown Oakland for the next generation, the technical nature of the regulations and the tediousness of the process make it easy to lose sight of the values and desires we all share for urban areas. Fun is not something usually associated with the planning process, but certainly structures and neighborhoods are meant to be usable and beautiful. With a deep breath and some careful analysis, downtown zoning can be seen as a tool to encourage beauty and whimsy through architecture and urban design.

The clearest architectural guidelines from the current zoning proposal are the tower-and-base form code (cleverly adapted by the Encinal Tower) and an admonition to break up building form. They share one aim: to make big buildings look smaller. What we should ask is, what can make big buildings look cooler? Perhaps a distinctive structural shape or a brash color scheme could exempt a project from the tower-and-base requirement. Perhaps condos in historic residential districts should indulge in false historicism like in downtown Berkeley. Perhaps there should be a public art requirement. These aesthetic encouragements are par for the course in other cities, but are strangely absent from Oakland’s discussion.

The General Plan introduces further regulation as a means to reflect “existing and desired district character.” There are different downtown districts, and it’s not too late to enhance their distinctiveness. A clear example is the profusion of neon signs in Uptown. Downtown zoning could encourage this by requiring or at least outright permitting lighted exterior signs on buildings on Broadway and Telegraph above 16th. The Old Oakland commercial district on Broadway and Washington, on the other hand, should have no exterior lighted signs, but non-lighted signage (like ads painted on walls) could be permitted. I say this so confidently because people are doing this already – using regulations to enhance these attributes isn’t stifling and helps create cohesion.

After all, it’s the outside of a building that matters to people. Unfortunately, the current proposal places to much emphasis on the inside of buildings, by limiting FAR beyond the General Plan and even limiting floorplates! Worse, in my opinion, is maintaining the residential open-space requirements that guide all mid-rise residential construction, creating courtyards unseen by the public. Instead of providing a large courtyard for building residents, newly constructed buildings could pay a fee that supports downtown parks, helping to improve open space for everyone and encouraging community interaction.

Without private open-space requirements, condos don’t have to be built as a big box surrounding a courtyard. Instead, more compact stuctures with narrow spaces around them could provide code-required light and ventilation around windows, creating alleys or street-facing courtyards that would more enliven the street (they could still be gated). SPUR’s July newsletter turned me on to the possiblities of alleys. In Mexico City, one is called the Callejon de los besos (alley of kisses), so narrow that lovers can lean across from apartment windows to kiss.

Street presence and livelihood is mentioned over and over in the downtown portion of the General Plan. These days many talk about “eyes on the street” to assure pedestrian safety. But “eyes on the street” is a grim phrase, implying that your neighbors are staring down on you like so many Kerry Hamill posters. I much prefer Mexico City’s besos on the street: kissing is more active than watching, and more fun (unless you’re a voyeur, I suppose).

How can Oakland design for more besos on the street? Encouraging alleys, arcades, window-box planters or street-facing courtyards over internal courtyards would be a step. Following the retail survey’s design suggestions is a great step, and the Commission should solicit an opinion from Conley Consultants. But there is more in the LUTE than shopping and condos. Nightclubs are currently struggling in Oakland, partially because of structural constraints: let’s get some input from the city’s nightclub regulator on the DTO’s zoning. AC Transit and BART should share their long-term plans for downtown, as well. If the Zoning Update is going to continue far beyond the deadline set by the City Council, decision-makers should seek more information and advice to fulfill the many goals of the General Plan.

But of course, the overarching goal of the the General Plan’s vision for downtown is creating a thriving regional center that is globally competitive and a “premier destination” for shopping, entertainment, and “urban residential living.” It envisions a lot of growth. Even though downtown is big, large developable lots appropriate for skyscraper construction are dwindling. When walking back downtown from the crowded Art Murmur last Friday, I noticed that the area immediately north of downtown (above Grand) has a lot of big parking lots, is adjacent to downtown’s tallest buildings, and is already developing similarly to downtown. Expanding the boundaries of downtown above Grand to 25th or even 27th would ensure a supply of sites for continuing growth without encroaching on low-rise neighborhoods.

Posted in california, downtown, oakland, planningcommission, zoning.


4 Responses

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  1. V Smoothe says

    Do we really want more besos on the street? Some people think PDA is kind of gross.

  2. dto510 says

    I’m thinking of blowing kisses from windows or greeting friends with a smooch. I run into friends all the time downtown, but not as much as I could because local parks are underused, there aren’t large continuous pedestrian districts, and the insular nature of most residential design. Old Oakland is one block, 17th is one block, and establishments are scattered across Uptown. But with more residents these districts could expand, and with better-designed private and public spaces, people could see each other more. Thus, more besos.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Thoughts while waiting for the bus « Living in the O linked to this post on September 12, 2008

    [...] waiting here and staring at two gas stations and a bunch of parking lots. Maybe we should apply dto510’s suggestions for development here. I’m all for more interesting buildings, encouragement of public space, and more continuity [...]

  2. DTO zoning delay deleterious for downtown « FutureOakland linked to this post on December 16, 2008

    [...] For the last year, the Zoning Update Committee of the Oakland Planning Commission has grappled with downtown zoning as part of the citywide zoning update. Though originally intended to be completed by June for City [...]