You're Not an Environmentalist If You're Also a NIMBY 

As both Berkeley and Oakland debate their downtown plans, there is growing recognition that the fight against global warming requires greater urban density.

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Stampe of Greenbelt Alliance also cautioned against getting hung up on green building standards. The location of housing can have a far greater effect on greenhouse gas emissions, she explained. By definition, housing in cities already is much greener because people have shorter commutes. She explained that you can build an eco-friendly home in the suburbs, but if you spend a lot of time in your car, it's worse for the environment. "If you're driving from your so-called 'green' home every day, it turns out not to be very green," she noted.


Meanwhile in downtown Oakland, the biggest impediment to growth over the years hasn't been NIMBYism but crime. The widespread perception that downtown is dangerous has stymied development. But in recent years, Oakland's Uptown area, just north of downtown, has launched a comeback, particularly since the renovation of the historic Fox Theater. And city leaders hope to capitalize on it.

At its July 7 meeting, the Oakland City Council likely will approve a plan to allow an unlimited number of tall buildings throughout much of downtown. The proposal follows months of debate that — as in Berkeley — centered on high-rises. Most developers have advocated for as many skyscrapers as possible in the downtown core. At an Oakland City Council committee meeting last week, developer Kathy Kuhner summed up the sentiment when she waxed romantic about the "tall slender buildings" of Vancouver and Hong Kong.

Local preservationists, led by the Oakland Heritage Alliance, also want more high-rises in the city's core. But they are concerned that an explosion of growth could ultimately lead to the destruction of historic structures to make room for more skyscrapers. Meanwhile, people concerned about preserving the beauty of Lake Merritt worry that tall buildings along the lakefront could "wall off the lake" and block views of iconic downtown buildings such as the Tribune Tower and City Hall.

The council appears ready to approve a sort of compromise that would allow skyscrapers throughout much of downtown, while keeping buildings along Lakeside Drive, near the Scottish Rite Temple, no taller than 170 feet. The council also seems likely to adopt plans to further study view corridors and ways to protect historic structures.

But the city's proposal could end up backfiring. Mike Pyatok, an accomplished Oakland architect who designs buildings for developers throughout the West, is making a convincing argument that the city's plan, if approved, will leave the downtown too expensive to develop, thereby stifling its growth potential and spurring more suburban sprawl. "They think they're making the city an open book for development, but they're doing the opposite," Pyatok said of city leaders. "They're closing the book."

Pyatok explained that rezoning most of the downtown for tall buildings will artificially raise property values, thereby inhibiting development. Erecting tall buildings is already a costly endeavor, so developers need to acquire land as cheaply as possible to make it work. But if the downtown is rezoned for tall buildings, property owners are going to demand more money for their land, Pyatok explained, noting that property values usually increase when land is rezoned for high rises.

"They may not understand that the interests of property owners are the exact opposite of developers," Pyatok said of council members. "Property owners want to get the most they can for their property, while developers need to get the cheapest price. So, to just block out the whole downtown for high rises is going to make property owners think they're sitting on a gold mine. And all those areas in the downtown are going to sit empty."

Other cities, particularly Seattle, have recognized this problem and thus limited tall buildings to small sections of the city while only allowing buildings of up to 75 feet tall elsewhere, Pyatok said. The 75-foot height limit keeps property values low, making land more attractive for developers. And while 75-foot-tall buildings are cheaper to erect because they can be constructed with wood framing, Pyatok noted that Oakland limits wood framing to buildings 65 feet and shorter. He said the city should change that standard to match Seattle's.

Oakland could achieve plenty of density with 75-foot-tall housing developments, Pyatok argued. Assuming that such buildings can house about 150 people per square acre of buildable space, that works out to about 96,000 residents per square mile. As a reference, Manhattan is home to about 65,000 people per square mile. "It's just a misunderstanding to think that you have to have high-rises to get high density," said Pyatok, who also has been studying the potential growth of Upper Broadway with a group of graduate students. "I really think that a 75-foot height limit throughout a great deal of downtown could create a lot of density."

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