October 11, 2008

Zoning Meetings This Month to Help Shape Oakland’s Future

By Cecily Burt

Zoning. The word alone can make people zone out. But the subject is anything but ho-hum for Oakland city planners who are in the midst of an ambitious and important update of the zoning codes that regulate the type, size, density and height of new developments citywide.

And it can get downright contentious when the land area in question involves competing interests.

Should skyscrapers rule over Oakland's downtown skyline? Should historic neighborhoods near Lake Merritt be protected from new developments that are out of scale with four- and five-story apartment buildings?

Those are just some of the answers planners seek as they hold a series of public hearings to update the city's zoning code, at this time concentrating on the Central Business District.

The district, which is bounded by the western shoreline of Lake Merritt from Fifth Street in the south, 23rd Street in the north, and Interstate 980 in the west, includes some of downtown's most historic districts and buildings, including City Hall, the Rotunda, and the Tribune Tower, numerous Victorian homes, 19th century storefronts and apartment houses.

City planning staff has split the district into six sub areas and assigned proposed height, bulk and intensity definitions for each one. So far, the proposed building heights along the lakefront and preservation of historical districts have been the major issues, said Neil Gray, the city planner in charge of the zoning effort.

Staff would limit to 55 feet development in the historic Lakeside Apartment District, an area west of Lake Merritt characterized by many small apartments and low-rise commercial buildings, as well as Preservation Park and Old Oakland.

Unlimited heights would be allowed in the downtown corridors along Broadway, Franklin and Webster streets.

Most other sub areas fall somewhere in between by defining a building's base height to fit in with surrounding structures at the street level, but allowing a taller, more slender tower atop the base. Buildings along commercial corridors downtown, for example, could have a 120-foot-tall base topped off by a stepped back tower of unlimited height.

In the area south of the Lakeside Apartment District, new structures would be limited to an 85-foot tall base rising from the street level, but that base could be topped off with a 400-foot tower. The development-viable blocks that stretch along the western shore of Lake Merritt from 12th Street to Snow Park could see buildings as high as 170 or 275 feet tall over a shorter, wider base, if the staff's draft proposal is adopted.

Those shoreline limits are not sitting well with the Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt, or CALM, a community advocacy group of Lake Merritt residents, who prefer nothing taller than 55 feet.

"It's not just about height, it's about preserving views," CALM founder John Klein said at a joint meeting last week between the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board and the Oakland Planning Commission zoning update committee. "I can see City Hall and the Tribune Tower from the 18th Street Pier."

City lobbyist Carlos Plazola, whose client includes the developer of the proposed 42-story Emerald Views condominiums overlooking Lake Merritt, said he doesn't believe tall buildings and preservation are a conflict and it should be left up to the city's Design Review committee to decide what's appropriate.

Jonathan Bair, a real estate and marketing consultant, said the current proposed height limits are a conflict with the General Plan's direction for downtown,

"It's a grow and change (area), not preserve and enhance," he said. "Height limits are not necessary for historic preservation."

But the limits don't go far enough for the Oakland Heritage Alliance. The group has proposed another layer of protection for historic and significant buildings, called a fine grain strategy to surround and protect "areas of primary importance," which are often small clusters with few buildings within a larger sub area. The group is suggesting that 35 feet might be appropriate for some areas.

Alliance member Naomi Schiff said while regulating skyscapers is important, she does not want to neglect the discussion of smaller scale developments that are much more likely to get built.

"We need to include zoning that covers those high buildings but it's a much larger issue," she said. "There should be some thought in how the city can encourage development that is feasible and thoughtful and respectful of the historic."

There will be an Old Oakland (neighborhood) rezoning presentation from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at La Borinquena, 582 Seventh St.

The next city-sponsored meeting for the Central Business District zoning is 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29 in Hearing Room 3 at 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza.

For more information about the zoning update process or to get added to a mailing list, visit www.oaklandnet.com/zoningupdate.

Reach Cecily Burt at 510 208-6441 or [email protected] Read her blog about West Oakland at www.ibabuzz.com/westside.

Originally published by Cecily Burt, Oakland Tribune.

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