Picking the Zoning Bone

Believe me, I don’t typically find myself at a community meeting on city zoning updates on a Saturday morning. But this one was being held just a few blocks from my house at Peralta Elementary School.  How could I not go? I was interested in learning more about the zoning process.

I have a whole cohort of friends who are planners or in some way policy-wonkified, who long ago learned to understand and navigate the twisted intricacies of that beast that goes by the name city planning.  Sometimes when the topic of building heights and set backs comes up, I  feel a little like Joey on the show ‘Friends’, just nodding along, but not really appreciating it.oaklandmap

Actually my particular interest was to learn how more city spaces might be used more productively, say, for example, for food production.  Especially since the “Cultivating the Commons” report released last week that found 1200 acres of vacant and underutilized public land in Oakland–just sitting there begging to be put to good use.

It turns out the Open Spaces zoning had already been completed earlier this year–as was industrial and the downtown–and this meeting didn’t address anything close to that.  However, it was  an good information sharing session on proposals to update residential and commercial zoning, in order to make it more aligned with the General Plan, which guides overall citywide development.

Evidently, the zoning plan hasn’t been updated since 1965 and they have been getting by with some interim zoning patchwork.  Eric Angstadt, Deputy Director of Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA), told the gathering of about 75 that this was the beginning of a discussion, encouraging residents to give feedback on cards or online.

Here’s a short rundown of the zoning proposals:

Project Managers Alisa Shen and Neal Gray spoke on residential zoning and commercial zoning respectively.  There will be reduced setbacks on small lots and new residential/commercial mixed zones.  New bed & breakfasts would be conditionally permitted in residential areas.  New buildings would be required to have a ground floor commercial space, with limited hours.  There will be design standards such as tall windows and auto repair shops will be limited to very specific corridors.

For those who are height-limit watchdogs, perhaps the most relevant proposal is that height limits will be set independently of zones.  They will be adjusted to neighborhoods and take into consideration things like solar orientation, transit, and historical context.

CEDA will be soliciting feedback over the next several months, then it go to the Zoning committee.  It will then be sent to the Planning Commission in the spring and to the City Council in the Summer 2010.  Design and development regulations will follow into 2011.

After those general points were shared, the meeting was opened up for people to move around the room to different stations with zoning maps and diagrams where city planners would answer specific questions.

However, before this could happen, the most exciting–or is the word annoying?–moment came when a man yelled from the back, “This is not democratic!”

He was not happy with the format of the meeting, a point he kept pressing ever-so assertively, arousing several other people to pipe in with questions or assertions and a corresponding palpable rise in confusion and adrenaline.

The man inspired one woman toward the front to address the city staffers, “Are you trying to educate us, or turn us off?”

Evidently, the man and others wanted a more open forum, a question and answer format, so that all could hear the responses.  I heard him tell someone, “This is what they do in West Oakland!”

The response from Angstadt was to first ignore him, then to reaffirm the day’s format, then to tell the man”There will be open forum meetings down the road. Today is not that day.”

I gather that the man felt that it is some conspiracy on the part of the city to quelch the voices and questions of the community.  Now, I’m the first to recommend assertive participatory democracy, but I wanted to say, “Dude, save your anger for better things.”

I have a whole lot more appreciation for my partner’s work at community meetings for the another city’s planning department.  Stories of combative engaged citizens are not infrequent.  I wonder what this this guy would be like if there was some actual injustice?  My view was that this meeting accomplished precisely what was intended–to share information, answer questions, solicit feedback.  Then hold more public meetings down the road as it works its way into the details.

If you want to get involved and learn more, or if zoning districts are your thing, another community meeting is scheduled for  this Thursday, November 12, 6 pm, at the Fruitvale-San Antonio Senior Center, at 3301 E. 12th Street.  More information can be found on the CEDA city website.

Also, read a report at Oakland North.


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