Public Comment

Oakland’s General Plan and the Zoning Update Process—How They Work Together

By John Gatewood
Thursday December 17, 2009 - 08:47:00 AM

The General Plan is the law. In California, when a city’s General Plan designation for a site conflicts with the city’s zoning for the site, the General Plan supersedes the zoning. Not only is this the law, it has also been tested in court and the court ruled that this is the correct application of the law, further establishing a legal precedent for this interpretation of the law. A few years ago in Temescal there was a lawsuit filed against an approved project over this very issue and the lawsuit failed. 

Some may not like what the General Plan lays out as the future direction development should take in Oakland, but it was arrived at after four years of public meetings and was adopted by the City Council in a public vote in 1998. Simply because some chose not to participate in that public process does not invalidate the General Plan’s adoption, or its goals. The agenda of the zoning update process is to update the existing zoning statues so that they are congruent with the goals laid out in the General Plan. It is true that the zoning update should have commenced as soon as the General Plan was adopted. It was a decision by the Brown Administration to not proceed with the zoning update. That decision has led to a great deal of discord in Oakland as projects that met the General Plan guidelines but exceeded zoning came up for review. The Brown administration did a disservice to the residents of Oakland by postponing the zoning update for so long. 

I asked zoning update staff how groups were selected to serve on the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) committees. Staff said they contacted as many neighborhood groups, organizations, business improvement districts, neighborhood chambers of commerce, etc., that they could. Basically, if at some point in the past a group had weighed in on land use or development issues, they were contacted. Not all groups responded to this invitation. Not all who responded sent a representative to the meetings. Nor did all expected representatives actually show up at the meetings. So in one sense there was a certain level of self-selection involved. But the zoning staff DID reach out to as many groups as possible. It is important to remember that the majority of these groups are volunteer organizations of various sizes and various levels of organization, which does help explain their varying levels of participation. 

Attendance at the TAG meetings has been declining. However, there have been no secret meetings with city staff. ALL sides of the development debate have been absent from the TAG meetings at one time or another. In my opinion these absences have more to do with how we live today. Nowadays in the majority of relationships both partners work full-time outside the home, leaving much less time available for volunteer activities. People care about their city, but their care and volunteer efforts are more narrowly focused on their block, their neighborhood, and their children’s schools. Because people have less time available to volunteer, unfortunately citywide issues, like the zoning update, are not of primary importance. 

We DO need more community involvement in the zoning update. To their credit, in the February and November rounds of citywide community meetings, the zoning update staff changed the format to elicit more feedback from residents. 

In the February round they had a great many more pictures of various buildings—different heights, different styles, different densities, etc.—as well as many other visual aids to help people actually see the potential zoning changes. After a brief introduction by city staff, people spent time viewing and leaving written comments about the various displays. Afterwards there were small breakout sessions, each moderated by a city staffer, which gave people many more opportunities to ask follow-up questions of staff and to explain their views in greater detail. This was so much better than past meetings, where staff gave long presentations—after which the most intransigent person in the room would immediately jump up and bombard staff with questions meant just to criticize the presentation. This had the same effect each time—shutting down the community conversation before it ever began. 

In an ideal world, Oakland would hold many more meetings like the previous two rounds of citywide meetings—at least one in each neighborhood to gather as much feedback as possible. We have a Bay Area example as to how this could work—Albany’s series of meetings to determine what direction development should take at the site of Golden Gate Fields. 

Albany is a small city but has held just over 40 neighborhood meetings to discuss the future of Golden Gate Fields. Almost every other block has had a meeting. Each meeting had low-tech but effective tools to help people visualize what could be built there. Large- scale drawings of the site and to-scale blocks of the various possibilities—housing, retail, office, mixed-use, open space, parkland, etc. But each block also listed how much revenue the city would realize if that sized structure were built. Each breakout group played with blocks and built the waterfront of their dreams. It was a brilliant exercise and very effective at gaining meaningful feedback from the community. A resident only had to attend one meeting to give feedback to the city, and the entire city was polled. 

I have repeatedly asked Oakland zoning update staff to look at what Albany is doing and see if they could do the same here. They are familiar with what Albany is doing, but they answer that our city is already looking at another budget deficit and no money is available to implement such a program here. Oakland is doing what it can with what it has and there are still plenty of opportunities to comment on the zoning update.  


John Gatewood is a Temescal resident and co-founder of ULTRA (Urbanists for a Livable Temescal Rockridge Area)