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File #: 2019-7017   
Type: Regular Agenda Item
Body: Planning Board
On agenda: 6/24/2019
Title: Study Session to Review Proposed Text Amendments to the City of Alameda Zoning Ordinance (AMC Chapter 30) to ease restrictions on Accessory Dwelling Units, streamline Design Review for existing homes, modify the Work/Live Ordinance, and other miscellaneous administrative, technical, and clarifying amendments. The proposed amendments are exempt from the requirements of CEQA pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21080.17 and CEQA Guidelines Sections 15282(h), which exempts ordinances implementing Accessory Dwelling Unit Law (Government Code Section 65852.2), 15061(b)(3), where it can be seen with certainty that the proposed zoning text amendments will not have a significant effect on the environment, and 15183, projects consistent with a community plan, general plan or zoning.
Attachments: 1. Exhibit 1 Draft Accessory Dwelling Unit Ordinance Amendments, 2. Exhibit 2 Draft Design Review Amendments, 3. Exhibit 3 Draft Work/Live Ordinance Amendments



Study Session to Review Proposed Text Amendments to the City of Alameda Zoning Ordinance (AMC Chapter 30) to ease restrictions on Accessory Dwelling Units, streamline Design Review for existing homes, modify the Work/Live Ordinance, and other miscellaneous administrative, technical, and clarifying amendments.  The proposed amendments are exempt from the requirements of CEQA pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21080.17 and CEQA Guidelines Sections 15282(h), which exempts ordinances implementing Accessory Dwelling Unit Law (Government Code Section 65852.2), 15061(b)(3), where it can be seen with certainty that the proposed zoning text amendments will not have a significant effect on the environment, and 15183, projects consistent with a community plan, general plan or zoning.




To:                     Honorable President and

                     Members of the Planning Board


From:   Andrew Thomas

                                Acting Planning, Building and Transportation Director


Date:                     June 24, 2019



The City of Alameda Zoning Ordinance establishes regulations and development standards for the use of land. The purpose of these regulations is to protect public health, safety, and general welfare and ensure that public and private actions related to the use and development of land in Alameda is consistent with community expectations and priorities as articulated in the General Plan.

On April 16, 2019, the City Council, at the recommendation of the Planning Board, endorsed an Annual Report on the status of the General Plan and Housing Element and directed staff to remove barriers to residential development, find ways to reduce housing costs, and make home improvements more affordable while implementing measures to address the City’s climate change emergency. 

In response to these directions, staff has prepared the first package of zoning text amendments focused on removing barriers that make it difficult for property owners in Alameda to add an accessory unit or build a small addition at the back of their home.  Staff also proposes design review streamlining for climate change related improvements and clarifying and other amendments to the Work/Live Unit regulations. 

The purpose of this study session to give the Planning Board and the community an opportunity to comment on preliminary recommended zoning text changes.


Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Ordinance Amendments: Facilitating Construction of Small Affordable Housing Units in Alameda

Prior to 2017, only two Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) were approved in Alameda during the previous eight years.  In 2017, the City Council adopted a new ADU Ordinance to bring the City’s ordinance into conformance with state law.  Since then, the City has passed inspections on 20 new ADUs.  While the number of ADUs has grown in the past two years, the ordinance continues to unnecessarily restrict Alameda property owners from adding small more affordable units on their properties.  In particular, the ordinance places restrictions on unit size, requires costly architectural ornamentation, and limits eligibility to current owner occupants.  

Staff recommends the following four amendments to the ADU ordinance to reduce cost, promote sustainability, and increase housing supply:


1.                     SIZE - allow ADUs to occupy the entire basement area: Currently ADUs are limited to 50% of the floor area of the primary dwelling, up to 1,200 sq. ft.  For example, a 1,000 square foot home can have an ADU of up to a maximum of 500 square feet in size (1,000 x 50% = 500 sq. ft.).  Staff has found the 50% limit to be problematic for many Alameda homeowners wanting to convert their basement into ADUs, because the 50% rule effectively limits the basement conversion to half of the basement area.  The remaining half of the basement must be left unimproved.  In reality, many homeowners end up foregoing the project because construction costs do not justify converting just half of the basement, and this is because the costs for converting a full basement versus half a basement is insubstantial due to economies of scale.  By granting an exception to the 50% rule, homeowners can use an entire basement, instead of half of it, for an ADU.  The proposed amendment would still cap the maximum floor area of the ADU at 1,200 square feet, but this limit will be sufficient to allow homeowners with basements to maximize their use.


2.                     DESIGN AND COSTS - allow Energy-Efficient, Sustainable, Pre-fab/Modular ADUs:  According to an April 2019 article in the San Jose Mercury News, the average cost of construction in the Bay Area is now over $400 per square foot, the highest in the world.  A 600 square-foot ADU could easily cost a homeowner upwards of $240,000.  Homeowners and architects have approached the City inquiring about lower cost pre-fabricated (pre-fab) or modular ADU cottages.  As mass produced products, modular units tend to be less costly than building a new building from raw materials.  Pre-fab units can achieve up to 20% savings, although many variables, such as interior furnishings and other owner options factor into the final costs.  Pre-fab units, because they are manufactured as a building system, also tend to be energy efficient by design and use sustainable building materials.  Pre-fab units are currently not permitted under the ADU ordinance, because the ordinance requires all detached ADUs to match architectural detailing on the primary dwelling, including shape, roof form, and any decorative moldings.  The current design requirement creates extra cost and establishes a barrier to sustainable building solutions.  Staff recommends allowing pre-fab units to be located in back and side yards where they are not visible from the public street.  The proposed amendment would still require ADUs in the front yard or on corner lots where they are visible from the public street to match the architectural details on the primary dwelling.


3.                     ELIGIBILITY RESTRICTIONS - remove owner-occupant requirement:  The ordinance currently requires an applicant for an ADU to be the current owner-occupant.  In practice, applicants are asked to provide copies of recent utility bills and property tax statements as proof of their owner-occupant status.  However, owner occupant status can only be verified at the time of application, as there is no effective means to monitor or enforce owner-occupant status after an ADU permit has been issued. Further, the City has no mechanism or valid policy objectives to require removal of the unit, if the property owner chooses to relocate.  Verification of owner-occupant status also becomes problematic when properties are held under a family trust or other forms of ownership.  Staff recommends deleting the owner-occupant requirement from the ordinance. 


4.                     EXPAND CAPACITY - allow up to two (2) ADUs on large lots: On April 16, 2019, the City Council expressed interest in expanding capacity for ADUs, including allowing more than one ADU on a lot.  Staff recommends up to two ADUs be permitted on large lots that are 6,000 square feet in size and greater, and permitting such lots to have one attached and one detached ADU.  The cumulative size for both ADUs would be capped at 1,200 square feet, which is the current maximum for a single ADU. 


5.                     EXPAND CAPACITY - allow an ADU on large properties with an existing duplex. Currently, ADU’s are allowed only on properties with proposed or existing single family homes.  Alameda has a number of large (6,000 square foot +) properties with existing duplex buildings that could accommodate an ADU in a rear garage or with a modular unit in the rear yard.  Staff recommends allowing addition of an ADU on properties with existing duplex units, provided that no more than two units are included in any single structure and provided that the parcel is at least 6,000 square feet in size. 


Design Review Streamlining Amendments: Facilitating Reinvestment and Improvement of Alameda’s Residential Housing Stock

Alameda’s Design Review process augments the zoning regulations to ensure that new construction is compatible with the built environment of existing neighborhoods. Design Review is required for improvements on the exterior of a building, and obtaining Design Review approval is a prerequisite for building permits in order to start construction.  For most homeowners, preparing a Design Review application requires hiring an architect to draw plans.  Once an application is submitted, staff reviews and comments on the project plans in accordance with City zoning and design standards. A public notice is subsequently mailed to neighbors within 100 feet at the start of a 10-day period for public comment. After the public comment period, staff prepares written findings and issues a written decision with permit conditions. The decision date also starts another 10-day period where any member of the public may file an appeal of the staff decision. Appeals of staff decisions are heard by the Planning Board, and the Planning Board decision is ultimately appealable to the City Council. A typical Design Review process will take anywhere from 30 to 45 days from application filing to approval, but applications where neighbors have concerns could take many months to reach a decision, especially if public hearings are involved.

To homeowners unfamiliar with Design Review, the process is often difficult and frustrating, especially when an addition is needed to accommodate a growing family and involves a major monetary investment.  Homeowners also pay Design Review fees ranging from $600 for simple exterior modifications, such as new windows on street facing walls, to up to $2,300 for room additions. These fees are necessary to cover City costs to process a Design Review application; the City does not profit from permit fees. Nonetheless, the required time, cost, and uncertainties of the public process are elements that can make the process stressful for homeowners.

Consistent with Council direction to streamline routine and small home improvements that also address climate change, staff recommends expanding the list of Design Review Exemptions to include:

1.                     SMALL ADDITIONS, including one-story home additions and replacement in-kind of any accessory structures that meet zoning regulations and design guidelines.  Currently, single story additions and accessory structure replacements in the rear yard are exempt only if they are less than 220 square feet in size.  This exemption is similar to and consistent with state law exemptions for discretionary review of ADUs up to 1,200 square feet. Furthermore, existing zoning regulations and design guidelines prescribe sufficient parameters to ensure a one story addition will have no adverse impacts to adjacent properties.  For these reasons, staff recommends exempting all one-story additions and replacement in-kind of accessory structures over 220 square feet from design review.  This would save homeowners approximately $2,300 in design review fees and 45-days in the permitting process.  This amendment is also consistent with neighboring cities, like San Leandro, which only require design review for additions on the second story or above.  Under the proposed amendment one story additions would still be required to meet all of the following:


                     Be located in the side or rear yard (not front or street side).

                     Be consistent with the Design Review Manual.

                     Comply with all zoning standards (size, setbacks, height, and lot coverage).


2.                     CLIMATE CHANGE: Energy-efficient windows. In 2016, the City Council expanded the list of design review exemptions to include windows and doors, except those facing the street. To incentivize energy-efficient home upgrades, staff recommends adding energy-efficiency as a criterion for exempting all windows and doors from design review.  In order to qualify for the exemption, the windows and doors must either be Energy Star or National Fenestration Rating Council certified and continue to meet other design requirements, including:


                     Must match all existing window trim details on the building.

                     Must not change architecturally significant features such as stained glass or special decorative treatment.


3.                     CLIMATE CHANGE: Green/cool roofs.  To mitigate the effects of climate change, two types of strategies include: 1) eliminating or reducing the human factors that contribute to climate change, or 2) developing strategies that allow for its effects to be reduced.  In the case of the latter, buildings in Alameda could be made more sensitive to the effects of climate change.  The installation of green roofs or cool roofs, including vegetated roofs, would provide better insulation for the buildings, which would mean energy savings for their owners.  A sufficient number of these roofs in Alameda would also result in an improvement in environmental conditions, contributing to cushioning the effects of the “heat-island effect,” where traditional building materials absorb and hold heat from the sun, a contributor to climate warming.   Staff recommends exempting green roof, cool roofs, and similar roof treatments from design review, provided the installation does not require modifying the existing roof form or pitch.

Work Live Studios Ordinance AmendmentsFacilitating Expansion of New Climate Friendly Small Commercial Businesses in Alameda

Almost 20 years ago, the City Council adopted the Work Live Studios Ordinance, Section 30-15, which allowed the conversion of existing warehouses in the Northern Waterfront area to commercial “studios” that could be leased individually to small businesses.   Although all commercial and manufacturing zoning districts in Alameda allow property owners to demise their buildings in a manner that allows for multiple tenants and multiple businesses, the Work Live Studios ordinance is unique in that it allows those individual tenants to live in their work space.  The ordinance establishes standards and requirements to ensure that the studios remain in commercial use and that the living portion of the units - the residential use portion - never becomes more than an accessory or incidental use to the primary commercial use. 

Work Live studios address a number of critical City of Alameda policy objectives, including:

                     Providing smaller commercial spaces for small businesses in Alameda.

                     Facilitating land uses that reduce commute hour traffic, by allowing the business owner to live where s/he works.

                     Allowing for business growth, while reducing per capita average Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) thereby moving the City closer to achieving its greenhouse gas reduction objectives.  

During the first 15 years following adoption of the ordinance, the City received only one application to build work live studios: the Rhythmic Arts Studio on Blanding Avenue.  In 2011, the Planning Board and City Council approved the North Park Street zoning that allows for work live studios in the larger North Park Street district (the area bounded by Lincoln, Tilden, Oak, and the Oakland Estuary).  In the North Park Street area, work live studios are conditionally permitted in the commercial subareas, and work live units may be approved in new construction. In 2014, the Planning Board and City Council approved the Alameda Point zoning which conditionally permits work live studios in certain areas of Alameda Point in both existing buildings and in new construction.  In 2016, the Planning Board approved 80 work live units in Building 8 at Alameda Point, which will be under construction later this summer.  In 2018, the Planning Board and City Council approved the Encinal Terminals Master Plan and the Alameda Marina Master Plan, both of which conditionally permit work live studios in new construction and existing buildings.

Staff is recommending several changes to the work live studios ordinance to facilitate and encourage development of more work live studios in Alameda.  The recommended changes are informed by:

                     The recently released Climate Action and Resiliency Plan, which identifies telecommuting and working from home as one of the most effective strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Alameda;

                     Consistent survey responses from Alameda residents and business owners who identify commute hour traffic congestions as one of the single biggest problems affecting quality of life in Alameda;

                     The Alameda Economic Development Strategic Plan, which identifies providing additional small commercial spaces, creating space for the arts, and building housing as important economic development strategies for the City of Alameda; and

                     The finding that in almost 20 years, less than 100 work live studios have been approved in Alameda under the existing ordinance.

For these reasons, staff is recommending ordinance amendments to:

1.                     Broaden the geographic scope of the ordinance.  The revisions broaden the applicability of the ordinance to all existing commercial, manufacturing and mixed use zoning districts.


2.                     Eliminate the restriction on new construction.  The existing ordinance limits work live studios to existing buildings. The revisions eliminate that restriction and allow for new construction of buildings or rehabilitation of existing buildings for work live studios. 


3.                     Eliminate the residential density limit.  The existing ordinance establishes a 20 unit per acre residential density standard as it requires that there shall not be less than 2,000 square feet of lot area for each work live studio.  Work live units are not residential units; they are commercial studios.  They are not subject to City Charter Article 26 (“Measure A”). In Alameda, commercial development density is governed by height limits, setbacks, lot coverage, and other similar development standards. The revision eliminates the residential density standard.


4.                     Eliminate the minimum unit size.  The existing ordinance requires all studios to be at least 1,000 square feet.   Many small businesses including computer-based businesses, design and architectural studios, start-ups, and single employee businesses may not need a minimum of 1,000 square feet of space to reside in and operate their businesses.   The revisions eliminate the minimum studio size requirement.


5.                     Modify the living portion standard.  The existing ordinance states that the living space should be no more than 30% of the total space or 400 feet, whichever is greater.  It is important that the living space remain accessory or incidental to the primary commercial function of the space.  This revision simplifies the provision to simply state that the living portion cannot be more than 30% of the studio space.  Small studios will need to have small living areas.  If a 600 square foot studio has 400 feet of living space it is hard to argue that the living space is accessory or incidental to the commercial space.


6.                     Revise parking requirements.  Reducing vehicle miles travelled, greenhouse gas emissions and automobile traffic is a primary objective of the ordinance revisions.   This objective is facilitated by limiting the supply of free off- street parking.  Therefore, staff is recommending that the existing ordinance’s parking requirement of a minimum of 1.5 spaces per studio be amended to establish a maximum of 1.5 spaces per unit.  (The Alameda Point zoning district establishes a one space per unit maximum.)  


7.                     Eliminate retail restrictions. The existing ordinance discourages and restricts retail commercial in work live studios.  The revisions eliminate those restrictions.  Work live studios may provide an excellent business environment to start up a small retail business.

8.                     Eliminate restrictions on employees. The existing ordinance places limits on the number of employees that may be employed by a business.  No other commercial or business district zoning district place limitations on employment.  The City of Alameda is trying to increase job opportunities, not restrict job opportunities in commercial and business districts.


The proposed amendments are exempt from the requirements of CEQA pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21080.17 and CEQA Guidelines Sections 15282(h), which exempts ordinances implementing Accessory Dwelling Unit Law (Government Code Section 65852.2), 15061(b)(3), where it can be seen with certainty that the proposed zoning text amendments will not have a significant effect on the environment, and 15183, projects consistent with a community plan, general plan or zoning.  Similarly, the ministerial approval of ADU applications would not be a “project” for CEQA purposes, and environmental review would not be required prior to approving individual applications.


Hold a Study Session to review and comment on the draft amendments described in this report and included in the three exhibits to this report. 

Respectfully Submitted,


Andrew Thomas,

Acting Planning, Building, and Transportation Director




Allen Tai,

Planning Services Manager



1.                     Draft Accessory Dwelling Unit Ordinance Amendments

2.                     Draft Design Review Amendments

3.                     Draft Work/Live Ordinance Amendments