Daniel Schulman – What Matters a Taco Bell

18 Dec

This guest blog post was written by Daniel Schulman, who first moved to Oakland in 1984. Following a multi-year break for graduate school and career, he returned to the city in 2001 where he has lived since. During that time, Dan has worked to improve Oakland’s livability while maintaining its unique character. He is a founding member of Oakland Urban Paths, a voting member of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and currently serves on the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board.

Before jumping into Dan’s blog post, I wanted to mention that on Thursday I will be sworn in to the BART Board of Directors. I invite you to join me at the swearing in at 9 am and the celebration from 6 pm – 9 pm, both in downtown Oakland. You can find all the details and RSVP on my campaign website or on Facebook. – Rebecca


The third item on the agenda for the December 19 Planning Commission is for the demolition and re-build of the Taco Bell on Telegraph at West Grand. This item was originally scheduled for October, but it was pulled due to unanticipated community objection. Originally, the applicant wanted to rebuild at the same location, but staff convinced them to move to the corner so as to minimize the “auto-orientation of the building” and “give the restaurant a greater street presence.”

While staffs’ goal of increasing the urban-feel of this highly visible intersection is laudable, their solution left a lot to be desired. In order to accommodate the drive-thru facility, a corner location would have required stacking the cars parallel to the West Grand sidewalk. While myself and others had a number of objections, the poor pedestrian experience afforded by being sandwiched by cars was our primary concern. In December of 2010, a group of activist successfully raised over $1,400 to appeal the Planning Commission’s decision on the rebuild of the Telegraph McDonald’s for precisely this reason.

Fast-forward to December of 2012 and the plan to rebuild the Taco Bell has apparently reverted to the original applicants desire to rebuild on the existing spot. I say “apparently” because even though it is Sunday, staff reports for the Wednesday meeting are still not publicly available. We are forced to go off of poor staff communications and old report to understand the current incarnation of the project.

Urban Design and CDB Zoning

While staffs’ solution was poor, their original concern of an overly auto-centric design is back in full-force. The zoning map below shows the location of the proposed project. That corner of Telegraph and West Grand has become the center of Oakland’s First Friday – what often gets cited as the centerpiece of the Uptown urban revival. In addition as Naomi Schiff has noted “the site is heavily traveled, highly visible, and is located between two valuable historic buildings – Jenny Lind Hall, and the First Baptist Church, with its priceless Julia Morgan sanctuary.”

So, we have a relatively large parcel, that is under-utilized (mostly occupied by 28 parking spaces), on a highly visible corner in an area that’s experiencing urban growth. In the Planning Code that took years of negotiation and just became effective on May 30, 2012, CBD-C zones (see map below) recognize a desire for increased density and urbanization

The intent of the CBD-C zone is to create, maintain, and enhance areas of the Central Business District appropriate for a wide range of ground-floor office and other commercial activities. Upper-story spaces are intended to be available for a wide range of residential and office or other commercial activities.

CBD-C Zones have specific Development Standards and Design Guidelines including:

  • Fast-food restaurants are a conditionally permitted use in the zone which is one reasons this is going before Planning Commission.
  • CBD zones have a height overlay. This project is in Zone 7 which has a minimum height of 45 ft.
  • There is also a minimum height requirement of 15 ft for the ground floor.


Project Description

According to the staff report,

the primary purpose of the project is to rebuild and expand the size of the existing one-story 1,683 square foot Taco Bell restaurant building. The new building would be 2,558 square feet in size (875 square feet larger than the existing building).

Plan is for a one-story 23 foot high building with a higher parapet. Basically, the proposal is for a slightly larger Taco Bell with an improved dining area and restrooms accessible from the inside. The elevation is a generic from a stock book of Taco Bell designs:


Variance from Zoning

Staff recognizes that a 23 foot high building is less than the 45 foot height minimum, so they are seeking a minor variance from Planning Commission. This original recommendation in the October report was based on the new site location

The City encouraged the applicant to move the building towards the corner of the property to give the restaurant a greater street presence and give a better urban form to this intersection … Therefore staff is recommending a variance from the minimum height requirement as we believe this to be a significant improvement in the property and consistent with the proposed activity.

In other words, the rationale for the granting of the variance no longer exists if it is rebuilt at the same spot.

The original staff report was deficient in citing other variances from zoning. While it is not codified as design standard, it seems pretty clear that CBD-C zoning does not even envision single story buildings. From all of the wording of standards (see above), there seems to be a pretty clear indication that 45 foot high buildings are expected to have more than one floor.

Additionally, the whole project is so far outside the vision of the zoning, that it doesn’t properly account for the height of the first floor. Nobody bothered to argue that the 15 foot height minimum of the first floor shouldn’t include the roof parapet, because everybody assumed that the top of the first floor would be a second floor. It is hard to make out from the provided design sketches, but it looks like the top of the window line is only 9 feet high.

Can’t We Do Better

When talking to people about development projects like the Taco Bell, they often retort along the lines of “So what? Oakland has bigger problems to worry about.” While issues like public safety and municipal finances clearly supersede a lone fast food restaurant, they also have more difficult answers. Right now, coming to Planning Commission is a really bad project that we can do something about.

If this project goes forward, that high visibility corner site will be locked into low-intensive use for at least the next 30 years. I have nothing against Taco Bell, I would just like to see it as one of several ground floor commercial businesses in a high-rise mixed-use building.

What our your thoughts? Continue the discussion on a new Oakland forum website at http://www.oakhash.com/topic/taco-bell-on-telegraph/

8 Responses to “Daniel Schulman – What Matters a Taco Bell”

  1. Marty Selnick December 18, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    I, for one, am totally against Taco Bell getting any kind of permit for anything at this location. It should just go away. This corner could be developed for something so much better. The new Uptown does not need a Taco Bell!

  2. Daniel Schulman December 18, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    Since I wrote the post, the updated staff report has been posted on the City’s website at http://www2.oaklandnet.com/oakca1/groups/ceda/documents/agenda/oak039102.pdf

  3. nbschiff December 18, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    A very clear and excellent explanation. We just passed these zoning regs after enormous, lengthy, painful discussion. The stated objective of bringing new zonings in was to ensure conformance with general plan, so that many fewer requests for variances would occur. Now we see variance requests galore! Why did we spend all that time on the rezoning, then? Deny the variance!

  4. Justin Horner December 19, 2012 at 11:30 am #

    I agree. Cities must stay true to their planning, particularly when it’s pretty darn good. A variance here will make Taco Bell more viable and a likely permanent resident of that corner for years to come. Neither outcome seems particularly desirable to me, and I am sure there are plenty of existing public policies to support the view. Perhaps a denial will suggest to Taco Bell that they should abandon the location. Their grandfathering means we cant force them to change their current deal; it does not mean they are entitled to stay under any circumstances.

  5. Tim December 20, 2012 at 11:44 am #

    Force out Taco Bell and we probably end up with another empty lot for a few years if not longer. Oakland is not in a position to force out normal businesses like Taco Bell. It’s not a strip club or a gun shop or anything

    • Elusis December 20, 2012 at 6:35 pm #

      And it is low-cost, late-night food, two things that area continues to need. People need to eat, regardless of whether you like what they’re eating or not. An area with nightlife needs late night food. An area with low income people needs inexpensive, easy to access food. Taco Bell is “pedestrian” and unglamorous but it meets a need.

      • Daniel Schulman December 20, 2012 at 9:24 pm #

        Tim & Elusis,

        I think you two are missing the point. It was not a choice between Taco Bell and nothing. Nobody was saying that. The Taco Bell people are obviously happy with their current business which is why they want to invest more in the location.

        Instead it was a choice between a low intensity use older Taco Bell and a slight better low intensity use new Taco Bell. However, with the new investment the newer Taco Bell will lock that important corner into low-intensity for decades to come.

        I said in my main piece that my perfect world solution was a high-rise mixed use building with a Taco Bell one of several ground floor businesses. In the current economic climate we’re no where close to that perfect world. However, it is easily conceivable we’ll be close enough for high intensity development in 8-10 years. Unfortunately, that type of solution will nolonger be viable if there is the need to depreciate the proposed Taco Bell.

        Unfortunately, the Planning Commission also attached themselves to the false choice of approve the variances or lose the Taco Bell entirely. They unanimously approved the project without further conditions.

        • Tim December 21, 2012 at 8:25 am #

          My response was to Justin, who seems to be of the opinion that Oakland should tell Taco Bell to scram

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: