Blogging Bayport Alameda

June 27, 2016


Filed under: Alameda — Lauren Do @ 6:07 am

With the Planning Board a near majority of NIMBY or NIMBY leaning, here’s some excerpts from a long think piece on the history behind zoning codes, how that shapes our cities today and continues.

It’s a piece by Mark Hogan from a journal about California called Boom. One of the main takeaways is that the single use zoning that we currently cling on to may have made sense in the industrial age, but not so much now other than a way to exclude new housing and therefore new residents. We keep piling on new codes and new zoning and new regulations while keeping old ones intact which just leads to more confusion and, of course, less housing.  Excerpts:

Zoning promoted neighborhood homogeneity that had not existed in cities prior to its creation. While people had legitimate concerns at the turn of the century about dangerous heavy industrial uses being built next to residences, the large tracts of single-family homes that were encouraged by the new code were designed to exclude large segments of the population. Zoning provided a government-backed mechanism to spatially segregate people by income and consequently by race.

Even where layers of code aren’t in conflict with one another, they can be in conflict with neighborhood groups. In California, which allows for a great deal of citizen participation in the planning process, it is not uncommon for neighbors to object to projects that will introduce rental apartments or taller buildings even where they are allowed in the existing code.

The other largest regulatory factor influencing construction costs and feasibility, and the one communities have the greatest control over, concerns the mandatory parking requirements spelled out in local planning codes. Many of these codes still require two or more parking spaces for each residential unit. This both increases the cost of construction and reduces the number of units that can be built.

Building codes for any residential building larger than a duplex have been written in a way that penalizes this type of construction. In cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, the permitting process for a large apartment or condominium project can take years. Even adding a single additional apartment unit to an existing building can easily take eight months or more in city review time. The end result of our acres of code is a process that exacerbates our housing shortage, drives up the cost of housing, and stymies our own plans for building more sustainable cities. Each cycle of building codes generally brings more stringent sets of guidelines, the value of which is often debatable.

Adding more housing to existing communities doesn’t have to mean “Manhattanization,” as is often claimed. People who grew up watching Three’s Company (set in Santa Monica) or Melrose Place(set in West Hollywood) are familiar with the type of middle-density apartment living that is not being built in most of urban California today, where the majority of the residential land in our largest cities is still zoned for single-family homes or saddled with parking requirements that make increased density unfeasible. Even the popular family-oriented 1990s sitcom Full House, a show about an extended family living together in the heart of San Francisco, features Uncle Jesse and his wife Becky living in what would, in reality, be an illegal in-law apartment upstairs.

If only life could imitate art—or popular culture anyway! New housing in California has come to mean either auto-dependent sprawl or expensive high-density apartments and condos in the urban core, but to really make a difference we have to allow the kinds of middle-density development like the low-rise Melrose Place apartments or the Full House in-law unit in all of our communities. Disallowing this kind of gentle medium density in the name of preserving neighborhood character does a disservice to those who arrived here or were born too late to afford a single-family home within commuting distance of their jobs. It also fails to recognize that making communities more walkable and sustainable will improve neighborhood character over time, not diminish it.



  1. Good post Lauren. I think we need to be more creative as it relates to new housing. More granny units, more live work units in converted industrial buildings, more TIC units — all of which can be designed in a beautiful and artful way that would add more units to the housing shortage. There can be incentives to develop this type of housing for moderate income levels as well — teachers, clerks, artists, etc. I think the second unit ordinance makes an attempt to do this — but we can do more.

    Comment by Karen Bey — June 27, 2016 @ 6:33 am

  2. Great TV show examples of screwed up adults and weird living situations. I liked how they lived in The Brady Binch, Green Acres, The Jeffersons, or Leave it to Beaver better. How about updating to Modern Family?

    Comment by Captain Obvious — June 27, 2016 @ 6:46 am

  3. In an “in-law” apartment with one or two persons living in it–will they have one or two cars? If one block has three “in-law apartments” will they add six cars to that street? Where will they park those cars?

    or, will “staff” propose an “in-law” be rented only to people who walk and take public transportation?

    There is no city more “walkable” than Alameda–and look at the cars we have parked and also moving on the streets.

    Comment by A Neighbor — June 27, 2016 @ 11:23 am

  4. I guess, generally. But let’s not forget that a good portion of Alameda (the newer developments) is covered by extensive CC&Rs, which have their own history and which are designed, more than any zoning code, to freeze in time (all the way down to color schemes) what can occur within their boundaries. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but if we want to point the finger at zoning codes as a problem (or the residents who like the zoning that covers their homes), then shouldn’t we include in that discussion the CC&Rs that cover most newer development in Alameda (say, Harbor Bay on forward). Not likely. And don’t expect to see many in law units in those places in the near future.

    Comment by MP — June 28, 2016 @ 9:01 am

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