What’s Going On Across The Bay:  An Oakland Update

This week, we look across the bay to update you on the latest happenings in Oakland. Oakland is about half the size of San Francisco, with an estimated population of 404,000 as of 2008. In this update, we will take a look at the demographic trends of the city, the public’s investment in improving it, and the Community and Economic Development Agency’s efforts to improve the city’s regulation of development.

Census Numbers Show Upward Momentum

The comparison of Oakland demographics using U.S. Census Bureau statistics between 2000 and 2008 quantify the gains the city has made in recent history. During that time:

• Median household income has increased from 40,055 to 48,596 (a 21% increase)
• The number of individuals in poverty has dropped from 76,489 to 64,378
• Residents with graduate or professional degrees has increased from 33,700 to 38,170 (a 2.5% increase)
• Median value of an owner occupied unit has increased from $235,000 to $541,900 (a 130% increase)
• Median gross monthly rent has increased from $696 to $1,036 (a 49% increase)

Admittedly, these numbers all pre-date the national economic crisis of 2008, but the clear trend is that Oakland is on the rise.

Oakland Recognizes its Potential

Even in tough economic times, Oakland is making serious infrastructure investments to encourage the city’s continued upward momentum. In 2008, property owners in the uptown and downtown districts voted to subject themselves to a special tax to create two new “community benefit districts.” The effects of these new taxes are already readily visible. Uptown and downtown streets are being cleaned up and beautified, community “ambassadors” walk the streets to provide information and added security to residents and visitors, and new bars, restaurants and theaters seem to be opening weekly.

Starting in June, the City of Oakland will begin offering a new, free shuttle service along Broadway, from Jack London Square to Grand Avenue. The shuttle will run every 10 minutes on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. The shuttle service will further enhance the central business district as the anchor of business and entertainment activity in Oakland.

In December, Mayor Ron Dellums finally reaffirmed Oakland’s desire to keep its Major League Baseball Athletics in the city by proposing three different sites in and around Jack London Square for a new baseball stadium. Dellums’ offer included a pledge to compile the necessary parcels and pay for parking and infrastructure, while the A’s would be responsible for constructing the stadium. An MLB study of the potential new stadium sites throughout the East Bay for the stadium is expected in the very near future.

Finally, Oakland hasn’t forgotten about its public space and residential neighborhoods. In 2002, voters approved Measure DD, a $200 million bond measure to fund park and waterfront improvements along the estuary between Oakland and Alameda and around Lake Merritt. Improvements include parks, trails, bridges, a recreation center, historic building renovations, land acquisition, and creek restoration. A new website provides a map and information on just 25 of the projects completed, currently underway, and planned for the future. “http://www.waterfrontaction.org/dd/dd_map.htm”

The list goes on and on. All of these efforts demonstrate Oakland’s awareness of its potential and its willingness to act in order to build upon the momentum it has gathered in the last decade. And the city’s General Plan and zoning regulations are also undergoing some critically-needed upgrades to ensure the city is ready to take advantage of the next market upswing.

Improvements in the Entitlement Process

In 1998, after five years in the making, Oakland adopted a new General Plan, which is intended to guide development of the city through 2015. Mandated by state law, the general plan provides a “big picture” view of where the city is and where it is headed. Oakland’s general plan adopted cutting-edge “smart growth” policies of the time. Transit-oriented districts were identified around transportation nodes where higher density and mixed use development was encouraged. Oakland’s neighborhoods and activity centers were identified, with an emphasis on improved, pedestrian-friendly design and access features. The general plan identifies the seaport, downtown, the waterfront, the Coliseum area and the airport as “showcase corridors,” where the bulk of Oakland’s transformation and growth would occur.

In many ways the general plan has successfully guided Oakland’s growth. Transit hubs such as Fruitvale, downtown, uptown and West Oakland have all seen a surge in new housing development. Residents’ sense of place is largely defined by the neighborhood they reside in. Temescal’s turnaround was even written up in the Wall Street Journal recently.

Oakland’s zoning regulations, however, still largely date from the 1960’s. Needless to say, the general plan and zoning regulations don’t exactly work well together. State law requires consistency between the two documents, forcing the Oakland Planning Commission to adopt extensive regulations in order to apply them with consistent results.

The general plan established at least 15 zoning districts and the zoning regulations have at least 54 separate zoning districts. Since the general plan supersedes the zoning regulations, one must first determine if a use or proposed development is permitted in the general plan district it is located in. Next, one must determine if the use or development is permitted in the zoning regulations district it is located in. Currently, there are numerous conflicts between the general plan and zoning regulations, which require a project sponsor to obtain conditional use permits, variances, rezonings, and general plan amendments.

Fortunately, the city’s Community and Economic Development Agency has been working to achieve conformity between the general plan and zoning regulations. In 2006, the Planning Commission and City Council adopted new zoning regulations for Housing-Business Mix districts. In these zoning districts, no longer will project sponsors need to confirm whether their use or development is permitted by the general plan – now the zoning regulations are in conformity with the plan, so the zoning regulations are all one needs to check.

Rezoning of the industrial and the downtown zoning districts have also been completed, again meaning that the zoning regulations are now in conformity with the general plan and can be relied upon solely. The downtown rezoning was the most contentious part of the rezoning process so far, specifically with regard to building heights.

Unlimited building heights were set for much of the downtown core along Broadway and Franklin Streets, and 400 foot height limits were set in the area bounded by Harrison, 11th, Madison and 13th Streets (currently the tallest building in Oakland is the Ordway Building, at 21st and Valdez, just topping 400 feet). However, the City Council decided some height districts in the east part of downtown near the lake would remain the same until the Planning Department could study five “view corridors.” Agency staff has now studied these view corridors, which would protect the view of City Hall and the Oakland Tribune building from several points along Lakeshore Avenue, across Lake Merritt. This study was the basis of the agency’s recommendation to the Zoning Update Committee last Wednesday to lower height limits in some areas, including the southeast part of the unlimited height district, down to heights ranging from 70 to 140 feet.

The Agency has now moved on to rezoning the remaining areas of the city: residential and commercial districts outside of downtown. A number of community workshops and technical advisory group meetings have been held since late 2008, and three more community workshops are schedule in April, May and June. The Planning Commission intends to hold hearings on these rezonings over the summer, and the City Council will hold adoption hearings in the fall. We’ll keep you posted on these developments.

And next up on the Planning Commission’s agenda: new green building regulations. Compliance with various Build It Green and LEED standards will be required of all new residential construction, certain residential additions and alterations, non-residential construction of 5,000 square feet or greater, certain non-residential additions and alterations, as well as various other types of projects. The Planning Commission will hold a hearing on these new regulations on April 7, and we will update you on the specifics of this measure in a future update.

While the city is making great strides in assisting Oakland’s continued growth through making its zoning regulations consistent and clearer, further improvement is always possible. We are impressed with Planning Commissioners’ thoughtfulness in making the zoning regulations work for Oakland. At a recent Zoning Update Committee hearing, one commissioner discussed ways in which the zoning regulations could make it easier for homeowners to open a bed and breakfast. In response to the growing popularity of Art Murmur in uptown, the Planning Commission and City Council recently approved changes to the zoning regulations expanding the permitted arts activities in the area. It’s this type of problem-solving, goal-oriented thinking and action that is required to position Oakland to continue its growth into the future.

Reuben & Junius, LLP is a full service real estate law firm. We specialize in land use, development and entitlement law. We also provide a wide range of transactional services, including leases, purchase and sale agreements, formation of limited liability companies and other entities, lending/workout assistance, subdivision and condominium work.

Copyright 2010 Reuben & Junius, LLP. All rights reserved.