Why Zoning Matters: McMansions, Anyone?

Every so often, the City of Oakland examines its zoning ordinances and locals are given an opportunity to be heard.  Our big opportunity is related to new homebuilding density footprints, as McMansions aren’t terribly practical for the hills.  It’s possible to curtail the free-for-all taking place, by adding some kind of control and clarity to home sizes.

Zoning exclusions should end

These days in Oakland, homes built on properties with a 20 percent grade are completely exempt from coverage ratios required elsewhere in the city:  the home’s footprint of square feet vs. total lot size.  Also there’s another exemption from neighborhood consistency reviews in the hills.  Simply put, we should be subject to all these zoning regulations.

Several years ago, Oakland planners recommended another measure called floor area ratios (FARs):  the home’s total square feet vs. total lot size.  We agree this is an appropriate measure which should be applied to all Oakland homes.  The planners recommended a .50 maximum (50 percent) for 5,000 square foot lot sizes or less.

Tracking and comparing FARs

Montclair neighbors have seen changes that emerged after the 1991 firestorm.  When looking at all the North Hills homes which rose from the ashes, there were noticeable density changes as average FARs rose from .35 (1993) to .52 (2005) – a big leap during a relatively short time period.

During the real estate boom, we believe similar density changes occurred in homes built throughout our hills.  The lots remained difficult to develop, and perhaps more square footage was desired by the developers to justify their projects as well as to lure prospects.  But the recession’s changed the mindset of home buyers, so there’s likely less upward pressure.

There have been some comparisons made to other Bay Area cities, and we can continue looking at lots under 5,000 square foot.  Not surprisingly, Piedmont caps at 0.50 in a pretty densely-built city.  Palo Alto drops to 0.45, while Mill Valley maxes out at .35 instead.  We’re probably most like Mill Valley, with odd lots and steep hills.

Suggested zoning regulations

We would be pleased to get any caps in place, based on what the City of Oakland explored before.  For homes that are on 5,000 square foot lots or smaller, there would be a reduction in lot coverage from 40 to 35 percent maximum.  Also there would be a brand-new floor coverage ratio set at .50 for these smallest lots, and FARs would drop for larger landholdings.

Getting some zoning in place is long overdue and the timing works well.  First, there are limited new homes getting built right now.  Additionally, Montclair homeowners seem to be supportive of zoning controls.  If you would like to weigh in, then please come to next week’s meeting with city planners – held at Montera Middle School, on Tuesday, March 23rd at 6:30pm.

More info:  Visit the Shepherd Canyon Homeowners Association site, which stores some of the zoning documents.  Next week’s meeting is hosted by the Shepherd Canyon Homeowners Association, Piedmont Pines Neighborhood Association, Montclair Village Association, Council Rep Jean Quan’s Office and the City of Oakland’s Planning Department.

3 thoughts on “Why Zoning Matters: McMansions, Anyone?

  1. This post addresses some long needed changes, and gets the word out about some zoning issues that can impact all of us. It discusses some of the underlying policies – or lack of them -that are currently in place and the root of many of our challenges. It is amazing the extent to which the Hills are excluded from zoning standards like lot coverage ratio (footprint of home relative to lot size) and that the design guidelines like the City’s “Design Review Manual for One and Two unit Residences”, has a great standard for “Neighborhood Consistency”, (Criterion 8) but the hills are excluded.

  2. I am glad to see these changes being considered. Grade and coverage ratios in the hills should be subject to the same coverage ratio required elsewhere in the city as well as square feet versus total size. Floor area ratios should be applied to all Oakland houses. And last I agree that houses in the hills should be subject to neighbor consistency.

  3. I agree whole heartedly with Mike’s and Adrienne’s comments re the hill area being excluded from lot coverage ratios. Without consistent zoning regulations, the next new construction on your block may result in a 4500 sq. ft. McMansion looming over your more modest 2000 sq.ft. home – disrupting neighborhood consistency.

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