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Nadel takes credit for downtown zoning proposal

At last night’s League of Women Voters’ debate, Nancy Nadel (who was generally bested by Sean Sullivan during the forty-five minute exchange) asserted that “what I’m proposing for zoning downtown” would harmonize economic and environmental development by concentrating high-rise development on Broadway adjacent to BART. I’m glad that she finally owned up to writing the downtown zoning proposal, which staff presented with a very frustrating lack of vision or analysis. I had suspected Ms. Nadel wrote the zoning, since a senior project planner told me that “political interference from certain city councilmembers” has been behind some of the staff’s dafter zoning proposals. Councilmember Nadel’s staff was responsible for transmitting the “public input” from the first two meetings to the strategic planners (raising objections from NIMBYs). By raising the DTO zoning proposal as evidence of her leadership on economic and environmental development, in this election season closer scrutiny of the proposal is warranted.*

First, let’s look at the main selling point of the zoning: that it would maximize density on Broadway while keeping skyscrapers away from the lake. The justification is that BART is on Broadway (and that it’s popular).

There are several problems with this. Foremost, people do not need to be within one block of BART to use it – the highest-height area clings very closely to Broadway. Also, as people who actually use transit often point out to our allegedly pro-transit leaders, more people ride the bus than take BART. Walking, bicycling, the bus and other transit opportunities like the ferry and train station in JLS are all options for downtown residents and workers. All of downtown is appropriate for highest-density development, from a transportation perspective, and if anything, we should prioritize bus commuters over BART commuters because they’re more likely to be Oaklanders.

Furthermore, the zoning’s tower-and-base form restrictions and the lot-size and setback minimums make development on Broadway more difficult because it’s largely built-up. Most available lots are small and wedged between other structures. And, as V-Smoothe pointed out, the office skyscrapers we just approved with great fanfare would not be allowed.

Finally, restricting high-rise development to Broadway goes against two immutable forces: the market and the earth. The residential market doesn’t like Broadway. The two condo projects having the most trouble are both right on Broadway. A high-rise has been entitled at 17th and Broadway for four years, and no residential construction firm will buy the rights (there is one drool-inducing condo on Broadway as well) And in terms of geology and construction, developers have been saying recently that building right on the BART tracks is difficult and expensive, and impossible directly on top of stations.

The second problem with the zoning is that it brings back the 1960s use restrictions. While concentrating retail on selected corridors and requiring appropriate height and depth minimums for storefronts is great, restricting the use of those storefronts is not. V-Smoothe has already written that the proposal would ban sandwich shops, large restaurants, and arcades (and nightclubs would have to get a CUP on top of the cabaret permitting process). Additionally, banning the “General Assembly” use category would rule out Oaksterdam University and cosmetology schools, the Rock Papers Scissors Collective and union halls. Internet cafes, convenience stores, and other downtown-serving businesses would be discouraged. This is not the way to promote downtown’s economy.

The third problem is that Nancy Nadel’s zoning proposal doesn’t actually respect areas where high-rises should be limited. She said at last night’s debate that any high-rise application already submitted would be grandfathered in, so her effort to rezone downtown won’t actually help the anti-skyscraper activists currently battling two proposals. The area around the lake above 19th would be allowed to build even taller than what’s there now. Old Oakland and historic parts of Chinatown wouldn’t be restricted. I don’t approve of height limits anywhere downtown outside the historic districts, but I don’t see the logic in these height limits at all.

Downtown residents should certainly evaluate the zoning proposal at it moves through the city’s process, with one last public input meeting (the first inside the downtown planning area) scheduled for Monday April 7 at 6p at Restaurant Peony in Chinatown, and the Zoning Update Committee meeting April 16 to make recommendations.

* I so totally have an economic interest in this zoning update. So does everybody else downtown.

Posted in citycouncil, elections, nadel, oakland, planningcommission.

13 Responses

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  1. JHorner says

    The general rule is 1/2 mile is the radius from which an interregional system like BART should expect to capture riders (and that’s just by walking). Including the often forgotten third downtown BART station–Lake Merritt–the whole of Oakland’s downtown is clearly “transit-oriented” in this way. Mixed use with substantial residential should be required in the downtown with MINIMUM densities and MAXIMUM parking requirements to revitalize downtown and maximize environmental benefit.

  2. John says

    There is a very large constituency in Oakland which supports retaining parkland and open space at or near Lake Merritt. With regard to buildable parcels there, this constituency will always voice strong opposition to tall or large projects that are too close to the Lake or that replace parkland.

    Those who support development along the lakefront should expect such opposition if that constituency believes a project encroaches the natural environment there or otherwise degrades the area. The “rule of thumb” in this regard is approximately 300′ within the shoreline; less if, for instance, the project abuts a park.

    You may call them NIMBYs but the fact is that many of them don’t live near the lake or projects at all. They are, rather, people committed to preserving the open space, historic and natural environs surrounding Lake Merritt, which is a city-wide asset.

  3. Becks says

    John – I think many of us are interested in maintaining some amount of open space near the lake. However, during the short time that I’ve been following development around the lake, it seems that many of these advocates go much further than this. Many of them have opposed development that is several blocks from the lake.

    I think there are some people that are afraid of change. Whether you call them NIMBYs or not, they don’t want to see any significant changes in their neighborhood, especially not to their skylines or car lanes.

    The problem is that Oakland cannot grow without these changes and cannot become a more environmentally friendly city without them. If we truly are concerned about the environment, we should be encouraging dense, transit friendly zoning throughout downtown (and in other parts of the city, like Temescal).

  4. MoonSinger says

    Happy birthday. Please post more.

  5. Kemi says

    Hi, I am an Oakland resident, blogger and blog designer. I converted my photoblog of Oakland to a blog and directory all about Oakland called “OH, My Oakland” (ohmyoakland dot com). After creating this blog/website I started to learn all kings of wonderful and surprising things about Oakland. I was also happy to discover that there are quite a few Oakland blogs out there already. With this said, I am building an Oakland blog network and would like your blog to be a part of the network.

    Sorry to post this here in your comment section, but I found no other way to contact you. Please send me an email for more information. I would really love for Future Oakland to be a part of the Oakland blog network!


  6. Buddy Cushman says

    Happy 2nd birthday!!!!!

  7. Becks says

    Happy late birthday! I hope to see some more postings from you soon here and at the DTO.

  8. Jax says

    I’ve just noticed that one of those yellow project notice signs has been posted for an enormous high-rise at the 17th and Broadway location mentioned in the blog. I’m new here, but was wondering what, if anything, people know about this plan. Is there really a building planned, or is it, like the blogger said, just an entitlement meant to attract developers? I have to admit I’m kind of a NIMBY on this one since my office is directly across the street and the envisioned building will make it feel more like I’m in downtown Manhattan (do we have a sky?) than downtown Oakland. Ugh.

  9. dto510 says

    The 1640 Broadway project was approved during the dot-com era as an office building, and then later as a residential project. Its entitlement is expiring, and the signs and hearings are for an extension of the entitlement. Downtown developers have pointed to this entitled high-rise residential project, which has failed to find a buyer (for construction and sale) for almost a decade now, as evidence that the market will not support much residential construction on Broadway.

    Of course, right across the street is a really cool mixed-use project with six full-floor condos.

  10. Manuela says

    Nancy takes credit for a lot of things she had nothing to do with. Thats because she hasn’t done much herself in 12 years.

    she takes credit for the landscaping on Mandela Parkway. Everybody knows she had nothing to do with that. Stephanie Parott, Bruce Beasley and Ellen Wyric Parkinson were the ones responsible for the parkway.

    It’s time for a new person on the council. I like Sean Sullivan. What do other people think?


  11. Grge says

    I agree that Sean Sullivan seems like an interesting candidate. He strikes me as a progressive who has learned to get things done.

    Nancy never could accomplish anyting.


Continuing the Discussion

  1. Worth reading this weekend | A Better Oakland linked to this post on April 6, 2008

    [...] highlights some of the major problems with the downtown zoning proposal on FutureOakland: Finally, restricting high-rise development to Broadway goes against two immutable [...]

  2. Elections, endorsements, and ideology - oh my! « FutureOakland linked to this post on May 12, 2008

    [...] just regarding Nadel were the Sierra Club’s endorsements bizarre. Nadel is attempting to limit transit-oriented development in the DTO, held up the City Council’s endorsement of the more environmentally-friendly Altamont Pass [...]