Oakland City Council meets to debate issues of planning, transit
on March 2, 2011
With key city planning issues up for public comment, Tuesday’s city council meeting offered heated debate over public transportation, zoning, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
The first item to raise contention among both the council and constituents was the Transit Oriented Development plan for a six-mile segment of International Boulevard. The plan, described by the city administrator’s report as “a development pattern designed to maximize access to and use of public transportation” sets goals for increasing pedestrian, bicycle and bus access in the region.
According to the report, the plan encourages “compact, walkable, mixed-use developments that are centered on and within an easy walk of transit stations.” But several people affiliated with the Allen Temple Baptist Church, which is on part of the six-mile segment of International that would be affected by the development plan, spoke out against the plan. Many speakers said it would pave the way for Bus Rapid Transportation, an AC Transit plan meant to link San Leandro to Berkeley using high speed bus lines with fewer stops.
Many speakers voiced fear that both plans would lead to high-speed bus traffic on International Boulevard, with parking decreased and bus stops spread out too far. “That will almost be a highway,” said Roosevelt Mosby, a long time activist who is currently affiliated with the Allen Temple Research Institute. Roosevelt spoke at the meeting against the transit plan and described the plan to the council as “dangerous, dangerous, dangerous, dangerous.”
Joanne McClinden, a member of Allen Temple Baptist Church expressed concern over potentially decreased amenities for seniors, a group she said would be less able to walk to rapid bus stops if they were too far away, and that relies on accessible parking spaces to reach community services. “A reduction in spaces for seniors impairs their ability to move about,” McClinden told the council.
The rapid bus plan has taken heat in Berkeley and San Leandro, and as a result is “an evolving proposal,” said at-large councilmember Rebecca Kaplan’s communications director, Jason Overman, in a separate interview. Kaplan told the speakers that Transit Oriented Development for International Boulevard wouldn’t necessarily usher in the rapid transit plan, though some loudly protested at her remarks.
“The suggested changes to the [Bus Rapid Transit] plan that have been made I think are excellent,” Kaplan said after the public comment period. “I’m completely committed to working with you.” Overman said in the interview that Kaplan would like to work with community members to create a “tangible list of demands that can be made to AC transit” regarding the plan.
After voting to send the Transit Oriented Development plan back to city staff for environmental review, the council moved on to discuss extensive revisions to Oakland’s zoning ordinance. Public debate flared over height limits on buildings on Broadway in North Oakland, which affect several properties that previously had no height restrictions. The height limits would vary block by block, and sometimes by individual parcel. Brunner said that the height restrictions were meant to keep taller buildings at major intersections, and lower buildings near single-family residences.
Noah Friedman, who said he owns property on Broadway that the new law would affect, said he and other affected property owners found out about the height restrictions less than a month before this vote. “We the property owners believe that the planning process was not participatory and has been fundamentally weighted against our interests,” Friedman told the council.
While some speakers commented that height restrictions promote a closer-knit, residential feeling neighborhood, Friedman said that building up creates a denser community where people walk and use public transit more. Friedman said he and other investors have been planning to purchase property and build up on it; the zoning amendments would require a variance, according to city staff.
District one councilmember Jane Brunner said she regretted that the city didn’t properly notify Friedman and other Broadway property owners of the proposed changes. Noting that the changes came after two years of study and public comment, Brunner agreed to a proposal by Kaplan to look at the Broadway issue again, saying this time she would see that the city notifies all parties involved. “I really don’t want to do this again, but I think it’s a fair decision,” Brunner said.
After approving a general zoning plan affecting the entire city, the council looked at individual pieces of these changes that dealt with zoning in regions that come within 500 feet of a councilmember’s residence; councilmembers recused themselves when their property was in question, resulting in five rounds of voting. While District 3 councilmember Nancy Nadel didn’t vote on the section affecting her home, she did address the council as a constituent, asking them to change the zoning designation back to mixed residential housing as city staff had originally proposed.
The council also approved the current draft of the city’s Energy and Climate Action Plan for environmental review. The plan, a work in progress since late 2008, sets the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Oakland to 36 percent of 2005 levels by 2020. Several members of the Oakland Climate Action Committee addressed the council, asking them to consider three additional actions not listed in the 150 that comprise the action plan: energy efficiency, local food production, and renter protections.
Kirstin Schwind of Bay Localize supported the idea of Oakland taking control of public goods charges currently collected by PG&E, which the company currently uses for energy efficiency programs. Saying the utilities company doesn’t use the funds well in any city, Schwind said, “Oakland needs to do better than the status quo.”
Dawn Phillips of Causa Justa/Just Cause said that stronger renter protections would keep low-income families in housing that is already affordable, preventing residents from moving further away from public transit and traveling more in cars. Phillips said this made sense in terms of lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and as a strategy for keeping affordable housing in Oakland even with the current threat of cuts redevelopment funds from governor Jerry Brown. “This is a concrete step you can take today to protect housing affordability,” Phillips said.
Though Nadel proposed a plan to set aside between 600 and 1,000 acres of city land for local food, the change was not made to the action plan before the council approved it for environmental review. The council agreed to discuss addressing energy efficiency and renter protections at a later date.
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