Friday, March 19, 2010

The View Corridor Study Moves Forward

Two City meetings took place recently to review progress of the view corridor study - at the Landmarks Board and at the Zoning Update Committee. Presentations included photographs of significant views and discussion of basic mapping methodologies in view corridor studies, specifically the mathematics-based methodologies used to calculate building heights on a “rising line of sight” between the view point and the object. These meetings provided the first glimpse of the study and how it might operate to allow for adequate project sizes while preserving views of the Tribune Tower or City Hall from across Lake Merritt, among others. Here’s the staff report,, scroll to the links at the end of the report to see pictures and diagrams of view corridors.

The study recommends five views of downtown Oakland from Lakeside Park along Lakeshore Avenue. The Landmark Board endorsed the five views and forwarded their recommendation to the Zoning Update Committee (ZUC).

At the ZUC the following week, the same presentation was given along with the same recommendations regarding the five views. For this meeting, CALM submitted a supplemental set of photos since it was our sense that the photographs in the staff report did not accurately represent the views. Here are the photographs CALM submitted:

Rejected View of City Hall
After the staff presentation and public comments, however, the ZUC endorsed only two of the five views. The views are both from the same viewpoint: the East 18th Street Pier, with the ZUC calling the view of the Tribune Tower and of City Hall “separate views.” The esthetic value of the other three views, the commissioners said, is “too subjective” with regard to whether the views are truly unique, and they refused to recommend the other three views for preservation. 

Accepted Views
The commissioners also expressed concern about the legality of view corridors relating to private property.  This is somewhat puzzling since numerous California cities have successfully designated view corridors.  It really seems the legal argument is more of way to obstruct the designation of view corridors by the pro-development planning commissioners.  The ZUC members mentioned the possible loss of "tax revenues" because view corridors will limit project sizes.  This, too, appeared to be an obstructing tactic, particularly so since deliberations on tax revenues are outside the mandate of the Planning Commission. 

Naturally, CALM strenuously objects to the limited approach of the ZUC and will continue to advocate for the designation of all five views.

Rejected View of Tribune Tower
In separate development, City staff indicates they will recommend building heights of 400 feet along the 14th Street corridor. This is significant since, in 2009, the City Council set a temporary 85 foot building height limit along 14th Street between Madison and Harrison Streets. The 85 foot height will remain until the view corridor study is complete. The reason the council did this is two-fold. The first is the same reason as for the view study generally in ensuring views of downtown aren’t blocked. The second is that the City Council expressed concern that the Gold Coast neighborhood, the well-established, low-rise neighborhood abutting 14th Street to the north, would be adversely affected by such tall buildings. The exact expression by one council member was that she did not want the area to end up in a “canyon” surrounded by tall buildings.

The difficulty with staff’s pending 400 foot recommendation is that there is no analysis or discussion of conditions along 14th Street to support such a recommendation. No models, images, or drawings exist depicting 400 foot structures along the 14th Street corridor or how the area would be affected. Closely related to height and bulk considerations will be the shadows created by 400 foot buildings. No analysis exists in either case and no discussion took place at the ZUC or Landmarks Board.

Gold Coast Neighborhood
The unsupported 400 foot building height recommendation is the exact opposite of the very purpose of the view study, which is to reach a studied understanding of the effect of new high-rise construction in the downtown.  It also directly contravenes City Council direction on the matter.  As a matter of fact, it was the same 400 foot recommendation by staff in 2009 that spurred the council to enact the interim height limits.  Staff is proposing the same 400 foot height without any study or new information. CALM has asked, and will continue to ask, staff to provide visual representations and a rationale for the 400 foot recommendation.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Report on the First Two Meetings for the View Corridor Study

Two preliminary meetings for the View Corridor study took place recently attended by representatives of CALM, Oakland Heritage Alliance, Oakland Builders Alliance, and a representative from the City’s Landmarks Board. Both meetings were conducted by Laura Kaminski, a planner with the City of Oakland.

The first meeting took place on site along Lakeshore Avenue during which all possible views the Tribune Tower and City Hall were considered. As the first step, this inventory of views does not attempt to eliminate views or make final decisions. It was a modest kick-off allowing us to meet and to photograph and document the views.

The second meeting took place at City offices on February 10th. Ms. Kaminski had made considerable progress on the study and it was apparent to all of us that the City is taking the study seriously.

The 14th Street Corridor Will Be Included in the View Corridor Study

We reviewed several documents including aerial photos and parcel maps with the corridors plotted across them. The photos and maps clearly show the corridors as they traverse parcels in downtown Oakland. We then reviewed a preliminary inventory of views based on the Lakeshore walk which includes eight separate view points in a series of 24 photographs. The commentary for the inventory discusses the factors which contribute to the uniqueness of a given view, the positive/negative aspects of each view, and the quality of each view taking into account whether views are partial or full views of the building being view, i.e., Tribune Tower or City Hall.

We also reviewed preliminary building height limits within the identified view corridors the Central Business District. The preliminary heights were obtained using methodologies similar to Portland and Austin’s height calculation formulas. Both of those cities designated view corridors and building heights using triangulation methods to calculate maximum heights of new buildings while retaining desired views of existing ones.

The high quality of the planning work was evident and everyone was generally pleased with the progress. There was discussion about whether to expand the study more broadly to all parts of Lake Merritt or to the greater central business district. The consensus was, however, because of the on-going budget constraints, especially the spending cuts approved by the City
Council on February 16, and that this is a new type of planning for the City, the limited study is a better approach and will achieve a desired result more quickly.

The first public draft of the study will be presented at the next Landmarks Board meeting on March 8 and then at the Zoning Update Committee on March 18.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Notes on the View Corridor Study

The City of Oakland will soon begin a view corridor study in order to preserve scenic views of downtown. This is occurring at the direction of the City Council in July, 2009. During the downtown rezoning at that time, there was wide spread community support for a view corridor study. Much of that support came from a growing awareness that views of downtown from Lake Merritt were being lost behind the slow but persistent development of high-rise buildings at the edge of Lake Merritt. This was especially true for views of City Hall and the Tribune Tower which could easily be lost forever with the addition of only two or three more high-rises.

Even though view corridors are new to Oakland, they are well known elsewhere. And, because a number of cities, such as Cincinnati,OH (whose study has a number of sections), Austin, TX, and even Sacramento, have conducted them, Oakland won’t need to start from scratch. I think the study that Seattle did for the Space Needle is pretty interesting, too. A review of these studies of other cities is helpful to quickly understand what a view corridor study entails and how such a study is undertaken. Some of the views at Lake Merritt can be seen on Flickr

There are some interesting themes across the studies that are worth mentioning. First, cities often start view studies with a common sense of agreement among constituencies – government, preservation, and development - that preserving views of historic buildings, architecturally-significant structures, and natural features, is worthwhile and has tangible positive benefits for a city. At the same time, the studies typically demonstrate an explicit understanding of the need to strike a balance between view preservation and the development goals of a city.

A second striking feature is how seriously cities approached the task of conducting a view corridor study. Each undertook open processes to ensure that objective criteria were used. From there, they identified and analyzed views, cataloguing the strengths and weakness of specific views, and then producing final reports and recommendations. The use of such objective standards and a public process resulted in high-quality and credible policy and implementation documents. There is a lot that Oakland can learn from the efforts of other cities in this regard.

For example, cities typically conducted an inventory of all possible scenic views with no attempt to eliminate views at the beginning. Views were later evaluated using a set of criteria such as: quality of the object being viewed (historic, or otherwise); the characteristics of the view point (pedestrian oriented, or otherwise); the amenities available at view point (benches, pedestrian, or otherwise); whether a view is seasonal, or year-round (or otherwise), etc. These characteristics were assigned values and final judgments were made whether or not to preserve specific views.

In practice, initial inventories collected baseline information on many more views than were finally selected. For example, Cincinnati began with 93 views, of which 48 were given high ratings. (Note: Cincinnati is older and larger than Oakland, and the topography is hilly with a large river running next to downtown. These features in Cincinnati create views not available within Oakland’s topography.) Likewise, the study for the Space Needle in Seattle began with an initial inventory of 86 separate views. That city eventually designated 10 views for preservation.

We should expect Oakland’s study to unfold in a similar manner, beginning with an inventory of all possible views from Lakeshore Avenue and perhaps other areas at the perimeter of Lake Merritt. While some of the most dramatic views of City Hall and the Tribune Tower are from the park land and walkways along Lakeshore Avenue, there might be other less obvious views to consider. As to finishing the study, no timeline is available yet for the Lake Merritt portion. CALM has suggested that the study might be concluded and forwarded to the City Council for final adoption on or before July, 2010. Keeping to this time table will fulfill the City Council's wish in 2009 to finish the view corridor study in one year.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Next Up - View Corridor Study

Happy New Year everybody and welcome back to Rezone Lake Merritt. As you might recall, when rezoning in the Central Business District last year, the Oakland City Council directed City staff conduct a view corridor study. The study will identify significant views of historic and architecturally significant buildings and determine how views of those buildings might be affected by new-rise development projects. The Council singled out the Tribune Tower and City Hall for special emphasis. You can read more about this on page four, item 12, of the 2009 Rezoning Ordinance. CALM anticipates that a number of well-known and popular view corridors will be designated for preservation, especially between Lakeshore Avenue and the downtown.

The view corridor study will begin soon and CALM will be an active participant. We'll provide details of any meetings, along with reports and graphics as they occur and by way of the "Rezone the Lake" emails from John Klein, similar to last year, and through posts in this blog. The blog will be refomatted slightly soon, also, and will therefore look a little different next time. At that time, in the next week or so, there will be more detailed information regarding the view corridor study.

Please let me know if you'd like to be removed from this email list, or if you know of others who might like to be added to the email list.

On behalf of CALM,

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rezoning Moves to the City Council

On April 15, the Planning Commission gave its final approval to new Central Business District zoning regulations. The commission also voted to send the recommendations to the City Council; the Community and Economic Development Committee will be the first City Council body to consider the rezoning, probably in May.
April 15, 2009 Staff Report

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Downtown Rezoning at the Planning Commission

On Wednesday April 15 at 8:00 pm, the full Planning Commission will consider the CBD rezoning for the first time. With the rezoning now with the full Commission, the rezoning process has moved into a new phase since the full Commission is more closely watched by City Council members and the public. CALM hopes that this greater exposure will help to build more support for limiting the heights of new buildings along Lakeside Drive. Everyone is encouraged to attend the Planning Commission meeting to support the 55-foot proposal. However, if you are not able to attend, the meeting will be broadcast live on KTOP.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

January 2009 Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board Recommendations

On January 12, 2009, the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board finalized major recommendations regarding historic properties and districts in the Central Business District (CBD). While most of the discussion focused on refinements to the Fine-Grain Zoning approach for historic districts and properties, the Landmarks Board did make a recommendation regarding new buildings at the Lake Merritt edge. You can see the staff report here: January 12, 2009, LPAB Staff Report

A significant issue being discussed is the preservation of view corridors into the CBD and views of historic buildings such as the Tribune tower and City Hall. There are numerous policies on preserving views listed in General Plan documents including the 1998 EIR for the General Plan, the Land Use and Transportation Plan, and the Open Space Conservation and Recreation Plan. Each of these documents contains policies promoting the preservation of views and view corridors and each proposes mitigations, including limiting building heights through zoning. The Landmarks Board identified a number of “scenic vistas” to be preserved in the CBD, including views from Lakeshore Ave.

Secondly, because most of the area of Lakeside Drive where building height limits are sought is an Area of Primary Importance, the Landmarks Board addressed the area directly. It should be noted that the Landmarks Board has not made specific height recommendations for any area of the CBD, including along Lakeside Drive. For Lakeside Drive, the Board’s recommendation is to limit the lot area utilized by new buildings. Specifically, new buildings may only cover 50% or 70 feet (whichever is less) of the direction of the lot running parallel to Lakeside Drive. For example, if the portion of a lot paralleling Lakeside is 200 feet long, a new building is limited to 70 feet and must leave the remaining 130 feet open in order to preserve the view corridors into downtown.

The Board’s recommendation does not address building heights which is an issue that still needs to be addressed since ZUC staff is still recommending heights of 170 and 275 feet along Lakeside Drive. We will continue to pursue reduced building heights with the Planning Commission.