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Planning Commission should lecture the BRC

Last night, I attended a controversial Design Review Committee hearing of the Oakland Planning Commission. The agenda was three large condo projects of increasing size, two on Telegraph and one on Alice near 14th. I appreciated the lectures the three commissioners gave to activists and architects alike. I wish one of them could give the Blue Ribbon Commission a lecture on how market-rate housing is a good thing!

The ugly faux-historic Courthouse Athletic Club had a relatively brief hearing, but the 100-unit Creekside condominimum was the main event. The legions of Rockridge and Temescal neighborhood activists, who far outnumbered the few locals speaking in favor of the project, were met with a cool reception from the three commissioners, who disagreed with their approach to pedestrian safety (somehow condos are more dangerous to pedestrians than a store surrounded by a surface parking lot) and to density. The aggressively named STAND (I forget what it stands for), and now the RCPC, agitate for Brunner’s new height limits (four stories) and against the 5 – 7 story buildings now built and under construction in Temescal.

Commissioner and California Nurses Association Political Director Michael Lighty, with whom I strongly disagree about so-called “industrial preservation,” did a very good job explaining to STAND that five and six stories are appropriate for Telegraph. He pointed to preserving industrial lands and their (nonexistant) jobs as a more immediate impact of neighborhood density, as opposed to the greenbelt or farmland preservation urbanists commonly cite.

STAND has the idea that they’re not anti-development since they’re down with 45-foot height limits on a key regional artery. Considering the high cost of the risk associated with public hearings, fickle councilmembers and zoning variances, the fact that no developer is trying to build variance-free four story buildings anywhere shows how uneconomical that height is. Lighty also noted that the portion of Telegraph in question is 100 feet wide. A planning rule of thumb is that buildings should be the same height as the width of the road, though he didn’t seem inclined to highrises.

STAND’s opposing group, led by architect, preservationist, and anti-O29 activist Joyce Roy, calls itself ULTRA: Urbanists for a Livable Temescal Rockridge Area. She, along with another neighbor or two (I’ve seen them bring merchants at other meetings), supported the project, and noted that she, along with EBHO, is negotiating for a 10% affordable set-aside. Commisioner Madeleine Zayas-Mart said that was an appropriate way for the community to look for benefits, rather than complaining about height or musing about a fourteen-foot-deep culverted “creek.”

It’s interesting that, with the exception of controversial areas like Temescal, housing activists pretty much ignore projects under 500 units. Downtown, only Forest City had to provide affordable set-asides; I don’t think anyone even asked 475-unit Broadway Grand for any extra contribution (beyond its huge redevelopment tax set-aside for housing). In Temescal, EBHO is working to get a 10% set-aside at the invitation of ULTRA. But in front of the Blue Ribbon Commission, they say that they want to stop working project-by-project, and then ask for 25% set-asides for any project over 5 units! Why do they think that a citywide policy has to be far above what they actually bargain for? So greedy!

Posted in breakingnews, housing, iz, oakland, planningcommission.