Update: The Planning Commission hearing on temporary conditional use permits for surface parking lots has been delayed to February 2nd so please put that on your calendar. If you go tonight, you can still speak on the issue, but there will be no hearing on it.
There are a couple of urban planning nightmares in Oakland that, no matter how hard advocates try to squash them and no matter how little sense they make, keep popping back up somehow. It’s like they have nine lives. One of them is the Oakland Airport Connector, which is back before BART and the Port Comission, and I’ll get to that later this week. The other is surface parking lots downtown.
Even though the downtown zoning code that was passed in 2009 prohibits surface parking, and even though the blogoaksphere and advocates fought hard and won to stop a surface parking lot in Uptown and instead build a temporary public arts space, surface parking is back before the planning commission. Actually, it’s was before the Planning Commission this past summer and fall, but I was caught up in elections and didn’t have a chance to write about it then. They’ll be considering surface parking again this Wednesday, so there’s still time to act.
V Smoothe did a thorough job covering the issues in these two October blog posts, and I encourage you to read them for the full story, but the short version is that the Planning Commission is considering temporary conditional use permits (TCUPs) for surface parking lots since they don’t confirm with downtown zoning. V Smoothe asked what the point is of zoning if we’re just going to go around it with these TCUPs, and I agree. The downtown zoning process was long, involved tons of public comment and planning commission discussion, and it was done less than two years ago with most of the current planning commissioners involved in the entire process! If surface parking lots downtown were so necessary, why did they prohibit them?
They prohibited them for good reason – surface parking lots detract from the urban fabric of downtown Oakland. Their multiple curb cuts endanger pedestrians and bicyclists, and particularly at night they attract crime and litter. Do we really want more of this downtown?
Those photos are from today’s A Better Oakland post on TCUPs and surface parking. V Smoothe took them at a recently reopened parking lot on 1333 Harrison Street. You might ask, how did a new parking lot open without TCUPs passed and with downtown zoning that prohibits surface parking? Simple – the lot owner applied for and received a variance.
People apply for and are granted variances all the time when their land uses don’t conform with zoning. Recently, the Planning Commission granted a variance to the Feelmore adult store. It needed one because it is less than 500 feet from a school and less than 1,000 feet from a residential zone, which zoning does not allow.
So right now, land owners can apply for a variance to build and operate surface parking lots downtown and the Planning Commission has granted a variance and will be considering yet another variance on a surface parking lot on Wednesday night.
If you’re confused by now, I don’t blame you. You might be thinking – why do we need TCUPs if land owners can just apply for variances and open their surface parking lots anyway? We don’t.
As Dan Schulman commented:
What has most recently become apparent to me that I did not realize at first, is that staff is just asking for a big transfer of power from the Planning Commission to themselves. As the report notes, most of the uses are already conditionally permitted, so what they are asking for is to change the process of applicants going in front of the Planning Commission seeking a variance to a closed-door one of applicants going to staff for approval. Without the Planning Commission involved, ordinary citizens won’t have the ability to know what’s going on and to comment on it.
Yeah. All TCUPs are is a power grab for staff and a way to make it much easier for land owners to circumvent downtown zoning.
So like I mentioned, the Planning Commission considered TCUPs in October and V Smoothe, Dan Schulman and Naomi Schiff spoke against them. I unfortunately arrived just after public comment so couldn’t speak, but I was so grateful that the three of them had spoken. I don’t have video and it was several months ago, but I recall that most of the commissioners were very skeptical of the proposal. They grilled staff pretty hard and ultimately found out that not one other locality in the country is using TCUPs in this way.
Several of the commissioners were open to hearing more, so they asked staff a bunch of questions and asked them to come back in January with those answers. And that’s what will happen this Wednesday night.
Even though policy and reason are on our side, it’s possible that the Planning Commission could wash away the pedestrian gains earned in downtown zoning by approving TCUPs for surface parking lots. Please, if you care about the pedestrian experience and livelihood of downtown Oakland, email the Planning Commission (contact info below) and/or come speak on Wednesday night. The meeting starts at 6pm at Oakland City Hall, Hearing Room 1. It’s hard to say when the item will come up so your best bet is to arrive close to 6pm.
If you send an email or speak, please remember to be polite and to explain why we don’t need more surface parking lots in downtown Oakland. Feel free to use any language from this blog post that you find helpful.
I hope to see you on Wednesday!
Planning Commission Contact Info: