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DTO zoning delay deleterious for downtown

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 Council passage in July, the Zoning Update Committee has not yet forwarded recommendations to the full Planning Commission, let alone the City Council. While zoning may seem impossibly abstract and certainly future-oriented, this delay in downtown zoning is causing a deleterious effect on the form and function of today’s DTO.

The downtown zoning as currently proposed has two parts: a height and form map, and a use map. The two parts aren’t completely separated: the use map contains FAR maximums that interact somewhat confusingly with the different height areas allowed by the form map. Remaining topics of public controversy have to do with the height map: should tall buildings be further restricted from the lakefront, and should the height map be more specific to “protect” pockets of historic structures? Otherwise, there is broad agreement over the use map.

The use map does not strictly separate uses such as residential and commercial, and rightly accepts that uses downtown can and will be varied and intensive. The most restrictive element is the CBD-P (Pedestrian Retail) zone. It forces new construction on designated streets to meet design requirements for ground-floor space, and limits ground-floor uses to pedestrian-serving retail and restaurants. There is broad agreement among all parties in the zoning process that CBD-P zone is good to go (some say it should extend a bit deeper toward the Lake along and above 19th, and I think all signage should be permitted outright). Staff did an excellent job identifying the active and potential retail corridors, and the design requirements come straight from the Conley Report and the city’s new Broadway Retail Interim Zoning. Yet the use map is being held up along with the rest of zoning. Unfortunately, this is allowing undesirable uses to come into downtown.

While the downtown pedestrian zoning is strict in design and use, it only applies to specific streets. Currently, ground-floor commercial is required everywhere downtown, resulting in poorly-designed and isolated ground floors spaces that are unsuitable for retail and restaurants (Jack London Square and Old Oakland contain excellent examples of this). Focusing retail in specific areas, such as 14th St to the Lake or the core of Old Oakland, creates a destination that allows for transportation and marketing synergies. Yet without the zoning in effect, some developers are ignoring retail in potentially disastrous ways. A proposed senior housing project on the corner of 17th and Harrison contains no retail space. 17th Street, while fairly successful, is limited to the block between Franklin and Webster because of the surface parking lot at Harrison, to be replaced by this project, killing the pedestrian experience (also, that horrible American Cancer Society building at Webster). Building nice retail along 17th in the next block, combined with street trees, would allow the SOBO shopping district to expand by one block, increasing its potential by double or more. But because the developers’ application has already been submitted, the 17th St proposal is not required to contain retail spaces, just a “community space” with no design standards.

Construction is one part of retail zoning: use is another. In the CBD-P zone, not only would ground-floor spaces have to design for retail (high ceilings, high-quality materials, storefront windows, prominent entrances), but they would have to contain retail as well. Old Oakland’s main barrier to success is that most of the beautiful Victorian storefronts on 9th St are occupied by offices. The neighborhood is hoping, and the CBD-P zone is intending, to transition the street from office to retail. But in the absence of new zoning, a real estate office has moved into a Washington St space formerly occupied by a store that sold, among other things, discount designer sunglasses. Not only is the lack of updated zoning preventing the transition to retail, it has allowed a step backwards.

The entire proposed DTO use map, following the General Plan’s designation of downtown as a uniquely transit and pedestrian-oriented district, explicitly bans surface parking lots and auto-oriented uses from all of downtown (except gas stations, which are conditionally permitted). However, since it’s not yet in effect, someone just built a new surface parking lot on Franklin between 11th and 12th! Surface parking is exactly what we don’t want downtown, not only because it’s a terrible use of land but also because it creates pedestrian dangers by cars crossing the sidewalk, by killing the continuity of street frontage, and by creating dead zones that criminals can  hide in (Chauncey Bailey was assassinated in a downtown surface parking lot, where a friend of mine was mugged the year before). Because of the zoning update’s delay, we’ll have one more dangerous and deleterious downtown lot. Every day the zoning isn’t passed is one more day undesirable uses can come to the DTO: the retail-free 17th St project, the delay in bringing retail to Old Oakland, and the new surface parking lot may not be the last developments to undermine Downtown’s goals.

Posted in california, citycouncil, development, downtown, housing, oakland, planningcommission, transportation, zoning.

12 Responses

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  1. Max Allstadt says

    Is there any way to sunset existing surface parking lots, or to slowly up their tax rate until they’re forced out of existence? In absence of a zoning update, could an ordinance ban them from here on out? What about billboards on unoccupied property or unused property? Are there charter issues or state laws that prevent us from creating laws and taxes that target revenue-generating blight like this?

  2. dto510 says

    The zoning update is the ordinance that would ban surface parking lots. Taxes, even on parking, have to be approved by voters (they do not have to be 2/3s votes if the money is not earmarked for anything in particular). It’s not state law, but the US Constitution, that prevents the city from “taking” private property without compensation. The city cannot force surface parking lots out of business, but can ban them from being constructed. The city could also incentivize building on surface parking lots, as the General Plan calls for. Billboards in Oakland are strictly regulated, and slowly neighborhood billboards are coming down in exchange for new freeway billboards.

  3. Max Allstadt says

    What’s the difference between a neighborhood billboard and a freeway billboard? If it’s in my neighborhood but pointed at a freeway, does that make it freeway? Are they just taller?

    Frankly, in a cash strapped city, I’d think that a tax billboards and surface parking lots could get 66.7%. We’re broke, they’re undesirable… if we bleed them, we win on two fronts.

  4. dto510 says

    The billboards they take down in exchange for freeway-facing billboards are usually on the sides of buildings at intersections, and small. I remember there used to be a lot more of them than there are now, the policy was successful.

    Well, the point of my blog is that we already have good policies that represent a consensus, but they’re being delayed because of other issues. The PC perhaps could pass the use chart before making a decision on the height map, though frankly everything is almost hopelessly late. I warned the Council when they accepted staff’s zoning plan that it was too ambitious! Of course, the current schedule bears no resemblance to what the Council approved.

  5. V Smoothe says

    dto510, you suggest that there is broad agreement on the use map, but where is your evidence for that? My understanding is that the use aspect of the zoning has never even been discussed at any of the Zoning Update meetings. The few I was able to attend were focused entirely on heights. Before moving the CBD Zoning forward, whether the whole thing or just the use map, the ZUC should have a meeting, or perhaps a separate item at a meeting, where the only subject of discussion and public comment is use. It’s important to get this right, and not simply pass it along with no conversation because the issue has been overshadowed by debates over height.

  6. dto510 says

    V, I agree that the use chart deserves an independent discussion at the Planning Commission, much like transportation aspects of major projects. However, the uses were discussed extensively at the Old Oakland meeting and staff has talked to stakeholders about the uses. Also, many of the anti-tall-building activists support the pedestrian retail zoning. The fact the use map is uncontroversial is an indication that at least nobody’s upset about it.

    Whether it’s popular or not, it’s really good, and its goals are further undermined every day that it’s not passed.

  7. John says

    As someone who has regularly attended the CBD rezoning meetings at the ZUC and the Landmarks Board, I think the remaining “sticking points” are not about use. The remaining issues are in regard to building heights: near the Lake and throughout the CBD at or near historic building, properties, and districts.

  8. V Smoothe says

    My point is simply that the use code is an important aspect of zoning, and it deserves an independent discussion at a public hearing, which it has never had. It’s been completely ignored in the midst of controversies about heights.

  9. Joanna says

    V – I like the idea of having a seperate discussion about use from heights, etc. But how do you enforce such a thing?

    For example, the Allegro was only allowed to be built if there was neighborhood serving retail on the ground floor. But when it was purchased from the original developers during construction, the new owners weren’t interested in retail. In fact, it took getting the City involved to get them to allow my store. They were fine with a cafe, but it wasn’t built to house a cafe which took more construction and exceptions to code, etc. Why not just build it right in the beginning? We’ve asked all of the developments since, but no one wanted to build out for a restaurant.

    And most at the City will agree that the spaces weren’t really built for retail. Four electrical outlets, poor doorway/window use, small layouts, low ceilings in some of the units, etc. I’m told that they now look at that more, and if the newly built Ellington project is anything to go by from the outside, it looks like that is happening.

    Then you have the Site D in Jack London Square which had a building approved as being touted a future “art house theatre”, with an alternative for that site being office space. Indeed it will ultimately be office space. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, although I love the idea of having an Embarcadero – SF – like movie theater in my neighborhood.

    In some ways it makes sense that whoever has the money to go there, gets the space. But we have all this ground floor space that is sitting empty in our area. I see Old Oakland is fairing much better with their ground floor space.

    I must admit that I’m a huge fan of tall, dense buildings built next to public transit such as BART, but not such a big fan when they are built further away from public transit where other infrastructure issues (such as grocery stores) have not been addressed.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. April 13-19 Oakland Political & Community Events « Living in the O linked to this post on April 12, 2009

    [...] for the Central Business District has been going on forever, and dto510 arued a few months ago that the continuing delays have been deletirious for downtown. If you’re interested in speaking on this issue, you should take a look at the staff report [...]

  2. CBD Zoning, no longer at ZUC | A Better Oakland linked to this post on April 14, 2009

    [...] Oakland Builder’s Alliance wants more intensity. dto510 wants them to just stop talking and pass the damn thing already. At one point, someone decided the best way to deal with the issue was for the City to host a [...]

  3. Rezoning downtown, for better and for worse | A Better Oakland linked to this post on April 15, 2009

    [...] exciting news, it outright bans surface parking lots. If the Zoning Update Committee hadn’t dithered pointlessly about this for 10 months, we would not now have to be fighting with the City to stop them from [...]