East Bay, Oakland, Parking, Streetscape, Zoning

Let them have parking lots

1100 Broadway

Let them have parking lots while waiting for high rises?

This week, the Oakland Planning Commission will consider a peculiar concoction brewed up by Planning Department staff called temporary conditional use permits (TCUPs).  As explained by the staff report (41 MB PDF), the purpose of the proposed TCUP program is to help property owners maintain the economic viability of their vacant parcels, by allowing them to host temporary uses on their land to weather the economic downturn.  The report compiles an inventive list of various types of uses — including “edible gardens” and “crop and animal raising” — that could theoretically be installed on vacant lots with the help of a TCUP.  But it buries the lede: The true purpose of the TCUPs is to ease approval of surface parking lots, particularly in Oakland’s central business district (CBD), where the zoning prohibits surface parking.

You might expect planners to grasp a few basic truths about surface parking.  You might expect them to recognize that curb cuts dangerously intrude on the sidewalk’s protective right of way for pedestrians; that surface parking is hostile to the urban fabric; that it makes no sense to encourage people to drive to a transit-rich downtown by providing excessive parking; and that surface parking lots waste space and are unattractive dead zones that are deleterious to the health and vibrancy of the surrounding area.  In short, you would expect planners to acknowledge that surface parking is one of the worst uses imaginable in the CBD, which should by all rights be a city’s most attractive and thriving neighborhood.  I have quoted Ms. Jacobs before, but some things bear repeating: “… parking lots … are powerful and insistent instruments of city destruction.”

Applicable zoning in the CBD permits parking structures, but quite rightly forbids surface lots.  Instead of simply following this principle, staff proposes TCUPs as the mechanism of choice to circumvent zoning restrictions.  And this is no brief detour: Although billed as temporary, the TCUP program is expected to last five to six years — including an 18-month period for reviewing applications, a three-year permit, and a potential one-year extension of the permit.

Courtesy of A Better Oakland.

It is reasonable that a property owner might want to extract some measure of productivity from a vacant parcel until it becomes feasible to develop it.  But if there’s one thing downtown Oakland does not need, it’s more surface parking.  There is already plenty of parking distributed throughout the CBD, taking the form of both parking structures and surface lots (1.5 MB PDF).  Ironically, the staff report in one breath identifies blight reduction and the promotion of economic development as the principal objectives of the TCUP program, and in the next breath admits that parking would be the principal use for TCUPs.  And yet, as documented in graphic and excruciating detail on A Better Oakland, the City’s actual track record for enforcing permit conditions on surface lots lies somewhere between haphazard and nonexistent — a situation unlikely to improve if there is a crop of new permits to monitor.  Far from “reducing blight” and “promoting economic development,” more surface parking would devalue the CBD, increase blight, and hinder development of the downtown.  An aura of disinvestment would pervade the area, undermining the progress that has been made since the restored Fox Theater opened for business two years ago.

Regrettably, the staff report declines to offer any comprehensive analysis on this issue, and in fact deliberately understates its importance.  In response to a comment, which expressed the concern that “[s]urface parking is ugly and causes hazards for pedestrians and bicyclists,” the staff report explains that “auto fee parking is already permitted or conditionally permitted,” and that all parking, even structures with above-grade parking levels, require access and egress points for vehicles.  Although the zoning conditionally permits “auto fee parking,” it does not permit surface parking because the condition for approval is that the parking spots be housed in a structure.  The zoning purposely distinguishes between parking structures and surface lots, but the staff report conflates them.  While it’s true that both require curb cuts that interrupt the sidewalk, it is disingenuous to imply that the driveway issue could be the only salient distinction worth addressing.

As it stands, the TCUP program contradicts the CBD zoning, and the staff report’s attempt to reconcile the two therefore fails — as does its attempt to reconcile TCUPs with the General Plan.  Staff opines that TCUPs “would not conflict with any goals or objectives of the General Plan” because the temporary uses being approved would generally be permitted anyway.  But once again, by discussing the TCUP program in the abstract and avoiding mention of its true purpose — the approval of otherwise-forbidden surface parking — the staff report misses the point.  Surface parking is explicitly incompatible with the General Plan.  For example, Policy T3.8 of the Land Use and Transportation Element provides that downtown parking should be “screened from public view” because of the negative impact that surface parking has on pedestrian safety and the vitality of the downtown.

Finally, the proposed procedure for reviewing TCUPs is problematic.  The report proposes that TCUPs be classified as “major” and “minor,” like other conditional use permits.  To its credit, the report does not try to pass off all TCUPs as “minor.”  But in the context of off-street surface parking, only major TCUPs — for lots with 50 or more parking spaces — would be subject to a public hearing.  Lots with fewer than 50 spaces would require no hearing and would escape public notice.  Short of filing an appeal with the Planning Commission, citizens would be denied the opportunity to voice their opinions on an historically controversial issue affecting Oakland’s most prominent neighborhood.

In short, there is little to recommend here.  Unfortunately, I may not be able to attend the commission meeting, but would appreciate it if readers could either comment at the meeting at 6:00 p.m. on February 16, or email all the commissioners, encouraging them to reject this misguided TCUP program: dboxer@gmail.com, VienV.Truong@gmail.com, Blake.Huntsman@seiu1021.org, sgalvez@phi.org, michael.colbruno@gmail.com, mzmdesignworks@gmail.com, VinceGibbs.opc@gmail.com.

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Discussion

3 thoughts on “Let them have parking lots

  1. To be fair, I think there’s a difference between allowing parking, and demanding or encouraging it. As long as they don’t get any discounts or benefits for doing so, let them have their parking lots. Houston happened because the government demanded that every project build a lot of parking, and subsidized its construction (and, for that matter, there was an article about how San Jose had spent much of its redevelopment money in recent years on parking garage construction). As long as we avoid that ridiculousness, I’m satisfied.

    Posted by Alai | 15 February 2011, 4:45 pm
  2. Alai, I understand what you’re getting at re: requiring vs. allowing parking, and am also unfortunately familiar with SJRA activities. You’re right to point out that there’s a difference, but I’m not satisfied that this low bar rubric is appropriate here, for four main reasons:

    1. Just because Policy X isn’t as bad as Policy Y doesn’t automatically mean that Policy X is desirable and should be pursued. Policy X should still have independent merit.

    2. The City should not have to put up with the blight and other negative effects of surface parking for the next six years — residents and visitors deserve better. It would be better to use these lots for temporary uses like artwork, food vendors, or something else that contributes to the area. Just because property owners are eager to do something with their property doesn’t automatically mean they should be allowed to do it. That’s the point of zoning, and in this case, the zoning clearly forbids surface parking.

    3. Speaking of zoning, downtown recently got through an extensive rezoning process that involved lots of time, effort, and meetings. It’s disrespectful to that public process to just throw it out the window now because planning staff wants to. The goal of zoning is to realize a vision for what an area should be like and look like. It isn’t suspended or adjusted dynamically to account for short-term changes in the health of the economy.

    4. The General Plan isn’t for show. Cities are prohibited under state law from passing ordinances that contradict it.

    Posted by Eric | 15 February 2011, 6:36 pm

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