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Open space versus housing, but not the way you’d think

UPDATE: The City Council compromised at 18 units.

This evening the City Council will hear an appeal of an entitlement granted by the Planning Commission. Unusually, this appeal is coming from a developer, not NIMBYs. In question: the conversion of a motel to condos in that dingy stretch of MacArthur at the 10000 block (the staff report (PDF) contains an unsavory description the adjacent buildings). The developer received permission to convert to apartments in 2003 but never finished building them out. Recently he asked for a condo map for the 19 units, but staff recommended and the Commission moved to approve only 17 units. Staff cited the zoning, since according to a strict reading of the General Plan a portion of the property extends past the strip of Urban Residential covering MacArthur. When asked for a variance to exceed the zoning formula concocted by the staff, planners pulled out an even more persnickety objection to fully converting the building to condos: that the motel did not meet open-space requirements. All six responses to the request for a density variance were answered by citing the open-space requirement (not parking). The commission recommended that one of the two surplus units be used as a “community/recreation area.”

Apartments, being for-rent, and for-sale condos are not as dissimilar as they would appear. Newly-built apartments usually secure condo-conversion permission, and “speculators” purchase condos to rent as apartments. The primary difference between the assets has to do with the federal tax code, because homeowners and REITs receive preferential tax treatment, and other landlords do not. The appeal before the Council brings up interesting questions about how planning policy should treat these kinds of housing. Since the difference is primarily financial, is it appropriate for the city to hold condos to more stringent requirements than apartments? In this case, though only 17 units were approved as apartments the extra two were to be used as a common area and as an on-site management dwelling, both required by state law for apartments but not condos. So under the prior approval, there was still an open-space deficit (18 inhabited units). Why is open-space more important for homeowners than renters? The staff report also makes a big deal of how they’re not requiring them to go through the condo conversion hoops even though the apartments for which the developer received permission in 2003 were never occupied. While I’m relieved the conversion isn’t being blocked by the ordinance, the idea that the ordinance applies to never-occupied apartments is chilling to potential apartment developers who may want the option of converting them in the future.

Because this is an adaptive reuse of a hotel, there is little leeway for the developers in terms of site use and provision of open space. The developer agreed to the city’s instructions on landscaping and arrangement of parking. As I explained above, the Planning Commission unanimously ruled that at least one of the units be used as a “community/recreation area” to meet the city’s requirement. But what is the value of indoor open-space? As I have written before, I find newly-built private open space of dubious value in a city replete with beautiful (or potentially beautiful) parks. But what possibly could be gained to the 17 other units to have two common units? The HOA fees will of course be higher to maintain these spaces. The idea that indoor open space consisting of two units is more valuable than two more families in the building is disturbing and certainly contradicts the city’s goals of responding to the housing crisis and becoming more transit-oriented and green (indoor open space is not green).

Open space requirements make no sense in this context, where the building already exists and was built as housing (albeit temporary housing). If a historic high-rise hotel downtown were converted to apartments or condos, would the city also require that some units remain vacant? Effectively, the decision by the planning commission sets a city policy that fewer housing units are more desirable than any amelioration of the city’s open-space requirements, although only for certain kinds of housing finance. The General Plan strongly encourages the conversion of seedy motels into permanent housing, and MacArthur Blvd is being studied for a Bus Rapid Transit line. Leaving empty units in this condo complex is simply bad public policy.

I want to thank V Smoothe and Chip Johnson for their contributions to Oakland’s blogosphere, which I am excited to rejoin. I promise to post at least once a week! This blog will focus narrowly on planning and zoning issues. I will endeavor to present these important city policies and practices in an easy-to-read fashion that is anchored in reality and the Oakland experience. For lighter fare, please check out my blog The DTO. I also read Dogtown Commoner, TransBay Blog, Oakland Goods, Living in the O, and the Grand Lake Guardian.


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

5 Responses

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  1. Becks says

    Thanks for the mention, and I’m glad to here you’ll be writing more in the near future. I think V put a fire under all of our asses with her post about the lack of dialogue about Oakland politics.

    I think it’s pretty ridiculous in general for the City to decide how much communal space complexes need. Many of the new condo complexes have ridiculous amounts of communal space (and I’m sure charge large monthly fees to maintain them). Why not just let residents decide what they value? Some of us value this communal space, and others value lower monthly fees. Seems pretty obvious to me.

  2. oaklandhappenings says

    Hello, dto/others of you:
    I am a resident of the Lakeside apt’s district, bordering downtown. I wondered if there are meetings that some of you attend to have discussions about Oakland developments/issues. Please contact me with the when’s and where’s if such is the case. It would be neat to talk about these kinds of things with people in person, as opposed to only online via comment forums.
    Thanks for any info that you can provide.

  3. BruttEvereoke says

    Outstanding post – Will definitely come back again..

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Open space versus housing, but not the way you’d think linked to this post on March 4, 2008

    [...] House Renovation Tips wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThe developer agreed to the city’s instructions on landscaping and arrangement of parking. As I explained above, the Planning Commission… [...]

  2. Welcome back, dto510 | A Better Oakland linked to this post on March 5, 2008

    [...] is back with a new post on FutureOakland about an appeal (PDF!) of a Planning Commission decision regarding the conversion of a former [...]