Oakland Rezoning Could Make Things Easier for Business 

Small groceries won't be treated like large supermarkets, and yoga studios and stadiums won't be lumped together.

Zoning is not the sexiest topic in the world. It's the domain of the wonky world of urban planning, a universe aswim in an inscrutable alphabet soup of land-use designations. So perhaps it's no surprise that on a recent Wednesday night, fewer than a dozen Dimond district residents gathered at the local library to listen to a presentation on zoning changes to the neighborhood by the city's planning department. Even boxes of La Farine pastries didn't bring the crowd.

But new zoning rules could significantly impact future small business owners throughout Oakland. For example, the new zoning will affect how commercial corridors develop by imposing facade requirements and specific height limits on new construction. And due to some policy changes, in some cases "it'll be easier to open up a business," said Neil Gray, a planner with the City of Oakland.

With a push from the city council and the mayor's office, Oakland is being re-zoned to match the city's master plan, which was developed in 1998. Barry Miller, a city consultant who is working on the zoning update, told the residents at the Dimond district meeting that the underlying philosophy behind the master plan is to "take the development pressure off of the neighborhoods and focus on it on the commercial corridors and the downtown, to concentrate future development on those areas."

The city has created new zoning categorizations for Oakland neighborhoods, from the purely residential (Elmhurst), to residential-commercial combos (Laurel and Rockridge), to the purely commercial (Hegenberger Road, near the coliseum). Existing businesses, for the most part, will not be affected by the changes, but here's how the changes could affect future business owners:

Certain zoning categories have been broken up to presumably make it easier for small businesses to open in commercial districts, and they will now be applied to the new zoning maps. For example, restaurants and grocery stores used to fall under a general category called "general food sales." Now, restaurants, major supermarket chains, and small groceries each have their own categories, and in some zones, only restaurants and major markets will require a conditional use permit (which costs $2,500 and can take two to three months to process). This is also true for so-called "group assembly" businesses (yoga studios are now different from stadiums), as well as handful of other zoning designations.

In residential spaces that have commercial spaces already built into the ground floor, low-impact businesses, such as an accounting or law office, can open up without a conditional use permit.

For new construction along the existing commercial corridors, the ground-floor facade will require a specific level of window transparency, and parking lots will not be allowed in front of the building. There also is a ground-floor height requirement of 15 feet.

The Oakland Heritage Alliance has been vigilant about making sure the city balances historical preservation with the zoning updates. "Our main concern is that a number of historical areas would be affected by zoning changes," explained Chris Buckley, who is the alliance's representative on the Commercial Technical Advisory Committee for the city re-zoning project. "Our take is that even though zoning is intended to promote development and investment, sometimes it has the opposite effect."

For example, Buckley said that if an area is zoned in a way that allows for development outside the current uses, owners of historically significant buildings can find themselves incentivized to demolish the buildings to develop something larger and more lucrative. This, in turn, he said, can make property owners reluctant to enter into long-term leases with merchants, making it unlikely that business owners will invest in improvements to their storefronts.

Still, Buckley acknowledged that the zoning decisions are far from etched in stone. The city is still actively seeking public input by convening community workshops on May 17 and June 10 (more information available at OaklandNet.com/zoningupdate). From there, the zoning proposals will go to the planning department and then to the city council. If all goes according to plan, new base zones could be adopted by 2011.

Shari Godinez, the executive director of the Oakland Merchants Leadership Association and a Dimond district resident, attended the April zoning meeting in her neighborhood and noted that there were a dearth of business owners in attendance. "It's great that they're going out into the community and trying to meet up with the residents and the merchants, although there was only one merchant in the room," she observed. "It's a great opportunity to give input, and merchants need to take advantage of it."  

Retail Tour: Old-School Media

For those with a highly developed nostalgia bone, the news is grim. The future of books and journalism are being pinned on Kindles and iPads. Meanwhile, to the detriment of some fine music stores, many kids are going online to download MP3s, and the art of correspondence is lost on a generation that only e-mails, texts and tweets.

But some East Bay businesses owners are fighting the good fight. Issues (20 Glen Ave, Oakland; IssuesShop.com) is a charming shoebox of a newsstand that features some 3,000 magazine, journal, and ' zine titles on its shelves (and for good measure, they also sell second-hand books and records). The store was founded in 2007 by Noella Teele and Joe Colley, who harnessed his contacts as a former magazine buyer at Tower Records (R.I.P) to get Issues up and running. In the Tower tradition, the store is known for its eclectic mix of foreign and domestic inventory — which ranges from Oprah, to hard-core political journals like Social Text, and the Middle Eastern art magazine Dune.

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