Community Debates Future of Downtown

David Beal

Orinda citizens and leaders review different proposals for downtown revitalization

Controversy is stirring around proposed changes to Orinda’s downtown. Two public workshops at the Orinda Community Church on Oct. 18 and Dec. 9 provided forums for discussion about the downtown’s commercial, residential, and architectural future.

Over 200 people attended the October workshop, and around 150 attended the December workshop, mostly older residents. The City of Orinda hired MIG, a planning and communications services company, to facilitate the events and synthesize public comments.

For the first workshop, MIG facilitator Christopher Beynon led an open conversation about the different assets and challenges facing the downtown area. For the second workshop, city leaders gave background on planning processes, timelines, and documents. Attendees then separated into five groups to talk about key areas of agreement and disagreement.

At the crux of the debate are two sets of proposals to revitalize downtown Orinda, one from a city-appointed planning task force and one from an independent group of Orinda citizens.  Although the proposals coincide, the city is not officially reviewing the independent proposal.

In Oct. 2007, City Council established the Planning Process Review Task Force (PPRTF), a ten-member committee of residents, planners, developers, property owners, and city leaders. The PPRTF produced a detailed series of recommendations for the entire city, including different areas of the downtown: the Country Club Village, the Village Center, the BART station, the Crossroads Theatre District, and the surrounding office and downtown residential districts.

The downtown subcommittee primarily recommended altering zoning restrictions to encourage new multi-family housing above ground-floor retail shops. To make this possible, they proposed raising the allowed building height from the current 35 ft. to 55 ft., adding one to two stories. Building heights would be limited to 27 ft. along street fronts, with the taller building portions set back.

Starting in mid-2009, OrindaVision, an independent group of six Orinda architects, designers, financers, and project developers unaffiliated with the PPRTF, voluntarily began to put forth renderings of a more ambitious conceptual development scheme for what downtown could look like in 20 years. The OrindaVision drawings imagine large plazas, meeting places, and coordinated architecture in all of the downtown areas, a pedestrian bridge over Highway 24 to “knit the city together” more efficiently, and development over the BART station and parking lot.

The OrindaVision plan fulfills and expands upon the recommendations of the task force, but “it’s not a plan,” said OrindaVision member Tom Trowbridge. “It’s a vision. It is not the vision…we’re not proposing uses so much as ideas.”

OrindaVision has been trying to build momentum for their ideas with monthly slideshows and community outreach. So far they have around 300 supporters, or “friends.”

Other residents, however, have expressed concern and confusion. Many have particularly taken issue with suggestions to increase building heights to accommodate new housing development. They worry it would block views of the surrounding hills, change the character of the downtown, and in turn decrease the property values of adjacent residential areas.

Save Orinda is a self-described civic watchdog organization that supports a ballot measure for citizens to vote on any downtown changes. According to Save Orinda member Owen Murphy, the PPRTF lacked “true, pro-active” community outreach, and the PPRTF committee members may stand to benefit financially from development money flowing into downtown.

“City elected officials and employees have a stewardship responsibility to preserve Orinda’s semi-rural way of life and the village character of downtown.” said Murphy. “I don’t know if anything other than normal evolutionary practices are needed…Save Orinda believes in market determination for development, within the existing General Plan.”

City leaders emphasize that the city is not trying to tear down buildings, that there is no hidden agenda or single plan. “We’re trying to include more people in this process,” said City Manager Janet Keeter, who notes that there was little community input while the PPRTF was crafting its recommendations. She decided to keep City Council from voting on the downtown recommendations until more public workshops occurred.

Dean Orr, a newly elected City Council member and former Chair of the Planning Commission, supports the recommendations of the PPRTF, but he believes that they made a few unintended mistakes. “There was no real backup for why 55 ft. was a good decision. Maybe it’s 50, maybe it’s 45, maybe it’s 40, maybe it’s no change.” But, according to Orr, the height issue immediately “hijacked” and polarized the community, halting a broader discussion about the future of downtown.

According to the City of Orinda, the more pressing problems facing downtown involve the economics of retail and the current state of Orinda businesses.

A recent sales tax leakage study by Wahlstrom & Associates estimated that Orindans spend an annual $256 million on retail. However, Orindans spend over 70% of these retail dollars outside the city, only spending $80 million in the city itself.

According to the report, this spending leakage is present in nearly all business categories, including basic needs.

In spite of this, downtown Orinda has a low retail vacancy rate, which would imply retail vibrancy. But in fact, this low vacancy limits opportunities to increase retail options.

“The City of Orinda historically had a reputation as being a major headache for incoming businesses,” said architect and Chamber of Commerce Director Rick Kattenburg. “But now we’re seeing that attitude change.”

While few citizens want to change Orinda’s character with a big-box store like Target, PPRTF recommends strengthening existing retail by creating a coordinated leasing and merchandising strategy, which would help members of the business community to more effectively support each other.

The population of Contra Costa County, currently at around one million, is expected to increase by 250,000 in 20 years. Some of those people are expected to live in Orinda (whose current population is around 18,000), so the PPRTF also recommended creating in-town housing options to serve young families and seniors looking for convenient, affordable small apartments.

Supporters of downtown development say that aside from providing new customers for Orinda retail outlets and restaurants, higher-density housing would limit suburban sprawl and make the city more environmentally sustainable for future generations. With mixed-use planning (housing mixed in with retail, offices, services, leisure spots, etc., in one geographical area), people use cars less, and energy stays more concentrated.

Furthermore, Contra Costa County requires every city to periodically update the Housing Element of its General Plan to accommodate changing residential needs. Failure to do so could put Orinda in danger of losing county funds for road repair. “It all, sooner or later, comes back to the potholes,” said Orr.

Orinda hasn’t had a comprehensive update of its General Plan since the plan was created in 1987, two years after the city was incorporated. Save Orinda members, however, want minimal changes to the plan, which they believe is still applicable. “That plan was a product of the entire citizenry, not a few insiders,” said Murphy.

The proposed downtown changes would require major updates to the city’s General Plan, as well as the city’s architectural standards. But for some city officials, even though many downtown buildings are in disrepair, it’s less about architecture than about good urban planning. “Anything we do to the downtown is really about quality of life,” said Orr.

Some of the discussion also focuses on teens and younger residents. OrindaVision artist Peter Hasselman wants more street life, including a downtown plaza where teens can hang out. And Kattenburg wants the young and the old to interact more. “We need values to be transferred from one generation to the next,” said Kattenburg. “We’re not getting it from TV.”

The city still needs to conduct traffic studies, environmental impact studies, and, importantly, a parking study. “Downtown Orinda is about three-quarters pavement,” said Hasselman, who hopes to see “pedestrianized” development at the BART station with more parking underground.

OrindaVision takes global inspiration from structures like the Spanish Steps in Rome. But city leaders look for ideas in nearer downtowns, like those of Mill Valley, Pleasant Hill, and Danville – always careful not to mention Walnut Creek, whose design is anathema to some Orinda residents.

Comprehensive developments like these take time. The Wilder housing development has been in the planning stage for over two decades. But, said Trowbridge, “if you can get one small downtown project done to a high standard, the community is likely to be very supportive of subsequent development.”

No downtown changes will be implemented until more community meetings occur and multiple scenarios are created and reviewed. “The process will develop slowly,” said Keeter, but there is no specific timeframe.

No matter what happens, all parties involved want to continue having a conversation. “There’s a lot of overlap in objectives,” said Orinda Planning Director Emmanuel Ursu. “In the end, people are going to look back and say ‘what were we all worked up about?’”

If you are interested in the future of downtown, visit:
Planning Process Review Task Force
Save Orinda
Email your thoughts and comments to Orinda Public Information Officer Monica Pacheco,