Oakland gives locals a look at citywide rezoning plan
on November 8, 2009
Standing in a multi-purpose room at Peralta Elementary School, North Oakland resident Rachel Kahn-Hut peered intently at a diagram showing renderings of a house, a person’s silhouette, and a commercial building. She squinted, then stood back, then looked at the diagram up-close again. One drawing showed the the commercial building at 30 feet high, then at 45, then 60 feet high.
She thoughtfully considered different possible height limits for the large commercial building, and how they might affect her neighborhood on 66th Street, just off Telegraph Avenue. Several dozen other Oaklanders milled about the room, as well, taking in similar diagrams and outlines of possible changes to the city’s residential and commercial/corridor zoning codes.
“When they set a height limit on Telegraph, they’re not considering the one and two-story homes adjacent to Telegraph on the cross streets,” Kahn-Hut said, examining a diagram that indicated possibly raising building height limitations in commercial/corridor areas like Telegraph to sixty feet, or about six stories. “It would be unpleasant to have a row of really tall buildings on the end of our block.” She is fine with the several four-story buildings currently on Telegraph near her home, Kahn-Hut said–but anything taller “would be a problem.”
The Saturday morning community meeting at Peralta was a chance for Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA) to unveil to local residents the first proposals for rezoning some key city residential districts and commercial/corridor areas like Telegraph, College Avenue, and MacArthur and International boulevards. Zoning codes determine things like how high a neighbor can build their house, whether a neighbor can build multiple units, how tall commercial buildings abutting residential neighborhoods can be, and how many auto repair shops, dry cleaners, or other specific businesses a neighborhood can have.
“This is the opening of the public conversation,” said CEDA’s Deputy Director Eric Angstadt, starting the meeting, the latest in a series of “community workshops” regarding the changes. “Basically, what we’re saying is, ‘what should be done to get zoning guidelines more in line with Oakland’s General Plan?’”
A city’s General Plan provides overall growth and development guidelines, but doesn’t specify details or parcel-by-parcel rules. Zoning codes take care of those. Oakland’s General Plan was updated in 1998, but its zoning code dates back to 1965. This decades-long break between the conceptualization of two sets of guidelines that are supposed to complement one another has created some confusion for more than a decade, multiple city staffers said, explaining that an interim document has been used to bridge the gap. Open space, industrial, and downtown zoning codes have all been updated over the past couple years. Now residential and commercial/corridor areas are due for their makeover.
“Oakland’s got a lot of potential for additional growth to occur in appropriate areas that can support additional housing and jobs, as opposed to places like Livermore and Antioch,” city zoning manager Scott Miller said recently. “In a general regional planning sense, you want to have that growth occur in cities, where mass transit and other urban infrastructure is already in place.”
At Saturday’s meeting, CEDA planners Neil Gray and Alisa Shen presented some general information about possible new regulations. According to Shen, new zoning will bring bigger changes to commercial/corridor areas than residential areas. Gray ran down some of the changes people living near those commerce areas can expect: more restrictions on auto repair shops, for example, and a ban on ground-floor residential units in many new construction projects. The meeting then took what CEDA officials called an “open house” format, with different posters and diagrams outlining possible changes stationed around the room, and staffers on hand to informally answer specific, individual questions at each station.
The announcement of this setup frustrated many attendees, who wanted more group dialogue and public input through a formal question-and-answer period to address questions and concerns about the process and possible changes. As Shen explained the open house structure, objections chorused from the seated crowd.
“This is not a public process!” shouted someone from the back.
“It’s not democratic – with a small ‘d,’” called a man who was standing in the aisle.
“Are you trying to educate us, or turn us off?” a woman asked loudly, prompting a brief moment of silence, then an “ohhhhhhh” from the crowd, which turned to look at Shen.
Eventually Shen and Angstadt were able to restore order and get people to follow the open house format. As attendees circulated the room studying the different exhibits, there was primarily a mixture of curiosity, confusion, and consternation as people tried to decipher what new guidelines could mean for them.
Not far from where Kahn-Hut pondered the specter of taller building at the end of her block, a father sat on a metal folding chair, bouncing a baby on his knee. “We just came because we have a vacant lot next to our house, and we want to see what could possibly happen with it,” he said. “This is all really new to us. It’s a lot to take in, and it just seems really general and kind of confusing right now.”
Eventually specifics will begin to crystallize further, as more public meetings take place, and the zoning code updates go through drafts and changes after more public input and behind-the-scenes tweaking, city officials said at the meeting.
“Outreach is important to make sure there’s understanding and awareness that this is happening, and to provide input before city staff formulates the actual written text,” Miller, the CEDA project manager, said recently. “Ultimately, those code amendments will be brought to the planning commission, then the city council for ordinance adoption. That’s still several months off, but things are well underway.”
For people who missed the Peralta gathering but want to participate in the process or get more specific information, an identical community meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. this Thursday, November 12, at the Fruitvale-San Antonio Senior Center, located at 3301 E. 12th Street. Also, for more information on how possible zoning changes may effect a resident’s specific situation, Angstadt said details of the preliminary new zoning code drafts should be available here within the next few days.
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