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New zoning, same as the old zoning (2)

While the press focused on contentious votes over leash laws and outdoor smoking, probably the most important City Council decision Tuesday night had nothing to do with a “nanny state.” The Council overturned the Planning Commission’s “Best Fit” zoning recommendation for Telegraph, and upheld inappropriate and abstract set-back rules at the cost of several badly-needed homes. The Council’s decision, and 256 pages of documents compromising a staff report, reveals how the General Plan is being violated not only in its main intent (to create high-density mixed-use neighborhoods on major transit corridors), but also by the bewildering, outdated zoning ordinance that the plan calls to be scrapped in its entirety.
First, some background. I urge the reader to download the General Plan’s Land Use and Transportation Element (LUTE) and read the whole thing (it’s written for a lay audience, as should all important documents). The General Plan, created in a series of community meetings in the mid-nineties, is the end result of a long, nationwide debate over planning policy beginning with Jane Jacob’s denunciation of modernist planning principles (ie, use-segregated zoning) and continuing with the growing recognition that sprawl has an impact on the environment. Overall, the plan calls for concentrating high-density, mixed-use development downtown and along key corridors. Some of those corridors, like Telegraph, are meant to “Grow and Change.” By authorizing increased construction intensity and calling for “vertical integration of uses,” the General Plan represents a new planning model for Oakland, one that is unconcerned with the rigid categories and abstract concepts in the 1960s Zoning Ordinance I discussed last week.

Telegraph Avenue is only transit corridor outside downtown where developers are willing to invest in densities as high as the General Plan allows. The same factors that make the area desirable for developers also lead existing residents to object to wholesale changes in the street character. Neighborhood group STAND has fielded dozens of angry NIMBYs at community and City Council meetings for a year, objecting to buildings they consider “out of scale” with the area, and appealing every single proposal in North Oakland. Since a recent election of the Rockridge Community Planning Council, they have a new ally in their anti-development mission. As NIMBYs become more sophisticated, anti-growth activists from across the city are partnering to defeat the General Plan (check out this lecture delivered to STAND, reprinted on the website of the Oakland Heritage Alliance). So far, they seem to be winning.

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.

As always, the City Council heard a development appeal Tuesday night. This regarded a five-story, 33-unit cohousing building at the intersection of Claremont and Telegraph. While both STAND and the RCPC strongly objected to the 55-foot height of the structure (though there’s a 50-foot apartment building across the street), the key issue for the Council was the setback. Under the “updated” zoning proposed by staff, the so-called “best fit zone” is C-30, not C-45 as requested by the developer. The main difference between the zones is that C-45 allows taller buildings with fewer setbacks (both are commercial zones that allow residential, although all Temescal proposals are primarily residential; there is no existing zoning category that would permit these types of projects). The Planning Commission unanimously overruled staff and granted C-45 as the “best fit zone,” just as they have been objecting to the entire Temescal zoning “update” as too restrictive.

The main difference between C-30 and C-45 is that C-30 has a height limit, and of course there’s a density difference. C-45 would allow 39 units on the lot, and C-30 only 26 (the project has 33 units). The General Plan permits 38 units on the site, according to staff calculations. That certainly indicates that the C-45 zoning is more appropriate. However, the City Council overruled the “best-fit zone,” effectively downzoning the lot below what the General Plan specifies. Additionally, they forced the developer to have the full ten-foot rear yard setback, even though the project fronts two main streets and therefore doesn’t have a rear yard, only a side yard. The architect told me he thinks they’ll lose “a few units” in order to create more empty space along major streets, as the Council directed.

Not only is the City Council aiding the staff’s attempt to downzone Telegraph below what the General Plan clearly calls for, and upholding arbitrary setback rules that don’t make sense on urban lots, but the entire process shows how convoluted it is to shoehorn the General Plan into the 1960s zoning. First, instead of creating a Community Commercial zone as called for by the General Plan, the city is searching for zones that are kind of like what’s envisioned, without updating the zoning criteria. Second, the arbitrary, abstract and technical elements of the 1960s zoning are being enforced, including not only inappropriate setbacks but also the vast list of use types, allowing a great deal of discretionary control over the exact activities occurring within the building, and potentially disallowing uses like restaurants (which are strictly limited by the old zoning) or internet cafes (since they do not fit comfortably in the old use categories).

The General Plan is violated by these actions. Not only is the City Council meddling in every single project (while the plan wants “to reduce the number of projects requiring discretionary review”), but the zoning update is not updating the zoning – it’s simply reassigning lots to existing zoning categories. I’ve already discussed how messed up the zoning is; here’s what the General Plan says:

New zoning designations will be established to reflect changes in land use classifications… Since the existing Zoning Regulations are regarded as cumbersome and difficult to use, a simpler, more user-friendly code will be developed. Ultimately the Zoning Regulations should be accessible through the Internet and formatted for easy use.

Without a fundamental rethinking of zoning regulations, the General Plan cannot be implemented. Without updated (or eliminated) use categories and reduced requirements, many lots will be unbuildable, urban form will be secondary to abstract rules, and the City Council will continue acting as the Planning Commission. While this might keep architects and planners in business, ultimately the public loses by being unable to understand or predict the city’s built environment.

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

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