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West Oakland Zoning Change Plan Causes Uproar

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday March 23, 2007

In the wake of a sudden, sharp increase in public interest sparked by a local media report that the City of Oakland was considering zoning map changes that might further shrink its already depleted cache of industrial properties, the Planning Commission staff has pulled a report recommending changes to West Oakland industrial lands, and a commission subcommittee has postponed considering the rezoning until a larger group of city residents and officials can enter the discussion. 

During a Wednesday afternoon meeting in which the Oakland Planning Commission’s three member Zoning Update Committee had been scheduled to consider and vote on the staff rezoning plan, committee chair Michael Lighty announced the postponement, saying that “the mayor’s office has asked us to pause and reconsider this issue.” 

At issue is the potential increase in residential development in parts of West Oakland that are zoned for industrial use. The proposed changes affect an area mostly bounded by West Grand, Wood Street, 18th Street, and Poplar. Some at the meeting said they feared that the plan could lead to pressure to relax zoning in adjacent areas of West Oakland, which contains much of the city’s industrial lands. 

Committee member Doug Boxer said he was “glad the report was withdrawn because I would probably have voted against it.” 

Without a staff recommendation to consider, the committee took public comment on the issue of changes to West Oakland industrial zoning anyway, with a long series of speakers divided over whether the rezoning would revitalize West Oakland or would sink it further into an economic wasteland.  

Rusty Snow, co-chair of the West Oakland Business Land Group, said that his organization recently took a survey of property owners in the affected area and reported that “90 percent of the property owners want [mixed industrial-commercial-residential] zoning in West Oakland. It’s way overwhelming that these owners do not want to keep it industrial only. Would the city want to implement a zoning that does not have the property owners’ support?” 

And Kathy Kuhner of Dogtown Development, a West Oakland residential development company, said, “If we only allow industrial zoning in this area, no new businesses will be built. If we change that zoning, we will double, triple, even quadruple the number of businesses coming into West Oakland.” 

And Sean O’Conner, a West Oakland resident, said he supported a change from industrial to mixed-use zoning “because it’s not working the other way. Making this change will allow West Oakland to develop a soul.” 

But Bob Tuck of the West Oakland Commerce Association said that trying to mix commercial and residential in other parts of Oakland has not been successful: “See how many mixed-use developments you have with empty windows on the ground floor where the commercial components were supposed to be, and filled residential spaces rising above that.”  

Calling those developments “first floor ghost towns,” Tuck said that “we need to look at the greater needs of Oakland, and not just the wishes of a few property owners.” 

And Bill Chorneau of ACORN, a West Oakland resident, charged that “we are only here today because we have a real estate developer who thinks he can make a lot of money by putting residential development on some of this property.” Saying that “in West Oakland, we need jobs that we can walk to,” Chorneau said much of the support for the rezoning proposal comes from “short-term West Oakland residents who already have good jobs. They can afford to buy $500,000 condominiums, and they don’t need a job in West Oakland. They don’t mind driving across the bridge to San Francisco to get to work.”  

Chorneau said he supported Councilmember Nadel’s “industrial preservation ideas.” 

After the announcement of the staff recommendation postponement, Mayor Ron Dellums’ Deputy Chief of Staff, Victor Ochoa, told committee members “we are glad staff is going to take a second look at this issue. This is a major issue of great importance to the city. We’ve only just gotten into office, and we need more time to weigh in on this.” 

An aide to Councilmember Nancy Nadel said that the Councilmember also welcomed the postponement. Nadel, who represents West Oakland, has been a vocal advocate for retaining industrial zoned land in her district. 

No date or timetable was given for a Planning Commission renewal of the discussion. 

The bulk of the area in question, West Oakland Industrial Sub-Area 16, is located in an area bounded by West Grand, Wood Street, 18th Street, and Poplar, but some portions of it run as far south as 12th Street. 

But Lighty said that after a Wednesday morning article entitled “Homes vs. Jobs: Debating Oakland’s Future” appeared on the front page of the Oakland Tribune Metro section, interest suddenly spiked in an issue that has been simmering under the table for many months, causing the call from the mayor’s office and the request for postponement. 

Oakland’s General Plan, which sets overall land use policy for every portion of the city, was adopted in 1998. Changes to the zoning code to conform it to the General Plan were supposed to follow immediately afterwards, but former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown set that as a low priority and the zoning code update went undone during his eight year administration, with conflicts between the General Plan and the zoning code causing considerable confusion in Oakland development. Momentum to update Oakland’s zoning code picked back up with the election of Ron Dellums to the mayor’s office last summer. 

Brown’s failure to follow through on zoning updates for eight years was alluded to in a backhanded comment by Zoning Commissioner Doug Boxer, who told Dellums’ Deputy Chief Achoa “the former mayor’s absence [from these zoning update meetings] in the past has been noted by me. I’m glad you’re here now.”