Historic Building Symbolizes Hard Times


The Phair’s building sits abandoned in a prime location in the Orinda village.

Eric Hass

In the heart of Orinda Village, a large pink building lies empty. The Orinda Store, later Phair’s, occupied the space until almost a decade ago. Since then it’s been unused. The Phair family, which still owns the two-story, 14,000 sq. ft. building, has received few development proposals, and none have resulted in any renovation. Orinda lacks a few amenities, of which the space could host one or two.

According to Emmanuel Ursu, Planning Commissioner of Orinda, 24 Hour Fitness submitted a formal development proposal to the city in October 2004, which was denied by the Planning Commission. The Commission cited “zoning regulations which limit service uses like fitness clubs, hair/nail salons, tutoring centers, etc. on the ground floor,” said Ursu. These regulations make sure that all ground floor businesses generate sales tax for the city.

24 Hour Fitness appealed the denial, but withdrew the appeal before the City Council could review it.

In 2008, Orinda Village Development Group entered into contract to purchase Phair’s outright. The firm conducted due diligence for about two years, eventually finding contaminated soil, which caused the firm to back out.

“The contamination occurred before modern regulations,” said Tom Phair, co-owner of the building. “There may have been a gas station there before. It shouldn’t be a problem for would-be developers in the future. Once the economic climate improves, there will be development.”

In fact, there was an Arco station around the Phair’s site, which caused detectable contamination.

Fountainhead Montessori submitted a conceptual development application to the Planning Commission in October 2010 for a two-story preschool. The school currently leases space from Santa Maria Church, east of City Hall. “The plans included retail space on Orinda Way,” said Ursu. “They haven’t submitted a formal application. The service use limitations are constrictive, preventing banks or professional offices from using the space.”

“Some worthwhile retail would be good, probably,” said Phair, noting that Orinda only has one food store now, Safeway. “Orinda isn’t really a retail community, but it’d be nice to see something the local people can use, like a hardware store.”

Historically, the building has held a real estate company, a soda fountain, a library, a grocery store, a gift store, and a clothing store.

An Orinda Village Development Group LLC spokesperson contended that the contaminated soil will, in fact, be “an issue to contend with” in the future. Remediation, a term for environmental cleanup in developments, is still necessary. The spokesperson added that the sellers were unwilling to allow the Group to clean up the soil with its own crew. If that had happened, the Group would have wanted the sellers to reduce the price in exchange for the Group cleaning it up themselves. Different agencies have different standards for environmental hygiene.

The spokesperson added, however, that the economy was definitely a major factor and the vacancy can’t be reduced to a single factor.

The contamination occurred before most environmental regulations, and some regulations didn’t take into account downstream contamination. The site is directly uphill from the creek that runs through Orinda Village, and tests have detected contamination in the creek.

The Development Group was planning high-density housing for the Phair’s site. The condominiums would have reached three-four stories, with 20-25 units total. This plan reflects a development philosophy that in order to have retail, a community must first have local demand for the retail, and there’s no better location for the demand than in the heart of downtown. “If demand for retail were there, the retail would be there,” said the spokesperson for the Development Group. “Nobody can make it in retail in downtown Orinda.”

“We’d be very interested in the site later,” said the spokesperson. “For now, the price is too high.”

Although Orinda has a store for those who have everything, the Horse Shop, a few holes remain. There is no video rental shop, no bowling alley, no frozen yogurt store.

“Yeah, I’d like a frozen yogurt shop,” said senior Jacqueline Garell. “Also, haven’t they been trying to set up a teen center but lacked a site? That could go in Phair’s.”