Oakland’s flawed zoning update process lurches ahead, but it’s now clear the Planning Commission and City Council will have the final say. Citizen participation has been misused or unwelcome.
That the unfolding process has been so problematic and opaque says a lot about the lingering damage inflicted—some deliberate, some perhaps inadvertent—by two celebrity mayors in a row upon the planning process in Oakland. The disregard by planning staff so far of community input and buy-in is so blatant that one sometimes forgets small “d” democracy, while not Camelot, actually happened in Oakland.
The zoning process began with the creation of technical advisory groups (TAGs) for commercial and residential areas. It’s something of a mystery how participants were initially selected, but after several meetings, attendance is way down. Since well-known developers and land-use attorneys are no longer attending the public meetings, a growing suspicion has these—and other—prominent players sitting down at the table with those drafting the new zoning, away from the rabble.
Another suspicion: the revisions are being revealed in stages so as to not raise alarm. New classifications for commercial and residential categories have been divulged, but the existing permitted uses haven’t changed much. Simplification and updating are the justification provided for the changes; but, combined with the continuance of overlays, conditional use permits, variances, permitted nonconforming uses and so on, the new classifications only make zoning more confusing and open-ended—yet one more hurdle for unpaid community organizers and citizens to master.
The confusion does, however, have its uses: it’s difficult and unlikely for even the City Council to get a handle on it. It took years and an overheated development climate for citizens to learn the hard way what Oakland’s general plan update allowed for density on transit corridors.
Far more contentious pending decisions relate to height limits, solar access, open space requirements—do rooftops and balconies really qualify? Existing uses—residential and/or low- rise commercial buildings on transit corridors—could become “grandfathered in” and vestigial if ground floor commercial or three-story minimums for new construction are mandated. Three-story residences may be allowed in R-40 low-density neighborhoods.
This isn’t scary upzoning, “just” upscaling.
The recent emergence of transfers of development rights (TDRs) is baffling. This concept has been lifted from San Francisco’s downtown use, where “scarcity” makes TDRs a useful tool for developers paying owners of low-rise or historic buildings money to allow them to build higher. But, in Oakland, with ample development opportunities and compliant planners, “harvesting” unused heights for taller buildings elsewhere, in someone else’s backyard, seems fraught with controversy—neighbors pitted against preservationists, too-tall buildings shoehorned in, etc. How did this concept, seemingly vague even to Oakland planners, get introduced at the 11th hour anyway? The concept went over like a lead balloon at a recent meeting of the Oakland Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board.
In addition to the sporadic TAG meetings, six public meetings have been held. The Saturday, Nov. 7, meeting at Peralta Elementary School was an eye-opener to the crowd of about 70—along with the small army of planners—who attended. Colorful zoning maps decked the room, Deputy Planning Director Eric Angstadt and others made opening remarks; participants were told to study the maps and submit written comments. Angstadt, who earlier said the zoning would be finished next year, indicated some future meeting would allow public questions and comments. This did not go over so well with the crowd, used to Councilmember Brunner’s Q and A format at her community meetings, but Angstadt was unmoved by the complaints. Later, after many participants, including this writer, had left, some questions were allowed to be asked of the planners.
Despite complaints to council staff and their interventions, planning staff stubbornly adhered to the same format, with similar reactions, at another meeting in the Fruitvale later the next week, on Nov. 12.
These meetings were akin to an earlier frustrating meeting in West Oakland, where all the groups met in the same room, and the din, a format of rotation from group to group, and lack of time made any meaningful participation impossible.
But Angstadt’s, and others’, sullen authoritarianism are symptomatic. Jerry Brown fired a pro-development but nuanced planning director, Leslie Gould, and hand-picked a planning commission that marched in lockstep, approving every project that came their way. Turning Oakland into Perugia meant not having much use for what was already here.
In the not so distant past, many commissioners were appointed by Mayor Harris and even Mayor Wilson, who came out of the community. Beginning with Brown, only mid-level planners and city attorneys attend planning commission meetings, but rarely participate in the discussions. Community input has been marginalized, seen almost as an annoyance, and appeal fees approaching $1,200 are purposely beyond the reach of most groups. The new normal.
Dellums is yet another mayor with a national reputation and little experience with the grass roots. He started out boldly with citizen task forces but, with the selection of administrators like Angstadt and planning commissioners, forgot about inclusion and consensus-building. The rezoning process is par for the course. And planning staff certainly remembers the contentious Temescal rezoning process initiated by Brunner. To her credit, she apparently wanted to hear from the community. Planning staff, bless their hearts, have apparently decided they know what’s best for us.
The planning commissioners and city councilmembers must already be dreading the zoning battles that will land on their doorstep, once this flawed process thuds to the inevitable disappointing and unresolved conclusion.
Robert Brokl is a long-time North Oakland resident, artist, and community activist.