Housing As the Value Enhancer

June 1, 2017

By: Chris Kniel

The Urban Land Institute (ULI), a development group, website https://uli.org and presentation,  http://orindaca.iqm2.com/Citizens/Default.aspx , has put forth their plans for Orinda’s downtown. Forget that semi-rural setting of a meandering stream, overlooking the bucolic Orinda hills and open spaces. 

Instead, ULI’s presented vision, Tues., April 11, 2017, is all about “housing as the value enhancer.” Unless you favor “housing as the value enhancer,” employed in Walnut Creek and Lafayette’s downtown, this is a disastrous approach for Orinda. It defies the reason why most of us live here.

Despite the enormous work and competence of Orinda’s original visionaries, who created our General Plan in the ‘80s, picture six new buildings, of 40 units each, at five stories, crammed into the Post Office and Rite Aid space. The ULI presentation included many fanciful distractions, but this vision accurately describes what the ULI has in mind. Don’t quibble about 100, 150 or 200 new units. This ULI plan is wrong by an order of magnitude. 

You might ask, how this massive increase in housing (240 units or thereabouts), at five stories, crammed into a small area, would impact schools, traffic flow and the quality of life. You might ask how a ULI development could be five stories when the General Plan calls for two stories or no more than 35’. Part of the answer would include, ULI’s recommendation to redefine how to measure. Put simply, building heights would be measured from the curb. The General Plan would be revised to provide more ”flexibility.” There are many other recommendations or distractions to support the overall development objective: “housing as the value enhancer.” Details can be important, but don’t lose perspective and the impact of a massive increase in downtown housing. Is this what you want? 

If you favor “organic growth,” the two- story Montessori plans proposed for the Phairs’ location a few years back, which I strongly supported, along with the current plans for 25 Orinda Way are good examples. The Montessori plans were approved by the Planning Commission, but were killed by the City Council and the Orinda Vision folks. The positives of “organic growth” versus the negatives of ”housing as the value enhancer” produce dramatically different outcomes. The ULI proposed massive increases to downtown residential real estate, if approved, would be irreversible. 

Ponder the perspective and magnitude of the ULI proposal. Don’t get lost in promises and less substantial issues. Get involved and demand a vote. It’s your community. 

Orinda May Get More Than a Facelift

By Richard Colman

April 14, 2017

For downtown Orinda, let's try this:  Put up a 150-story Donald Trump Super Tower.  Or there can be a nuclear power plant.

Treat Towers, Walnut Creek, CA

Treat Towers, Walnut Creek, CA

Other alternatives for downtown might include a Wal-Mart, a sports stadium, or a Disneyland. 

The way Orinda has been going for the last dozen years any type of downtown development is possible.

Orinda, a fashionable, high-income suburb 15 miles east of San Francisco, used to be a great place to live.  The city had excellent schools, beautiful homes, places to park, and little traffic.  One could buy a home with a garden, a swimming pool, and an expansive lawn.  Crime was practically non-existent.  Orinda's population is about 18,000.

The schools, while still excellent, are becoming overcrowded. 

Over the last decade, Orinda has seen more traffic congestion.  During rush hour, a two-mile trip through downtown can take 30 minutes.  Finding a parking space downtown has become harder and harder.

But the worst may be yet to come.   In 2016, the city council awarded an organization called the Urban Land Institute (ULI) a $15,000 contract to examine the feasibility of adding new commercial and residential development to downtown. 

On April 10 and 11, 2017, ULI presented its recommendations to the Orinda public.  One recommendation called for the construction of six 40-unit high-density housing structures  -- a total of 240 units -- for downtown.

With 240 new housing units, how will Orinda' schools accommodate more pupils?  Will new schools have to be built? 

Another ULI recommendation calls for creating building heights between 35 and 55 feet. Currently, Orinda has a 35-foot height limit.

Currently, Orinda's front-yard and side-yard downtown buildings need to be recessed by 10 feet.  The term "setback" is used to describe a recessed area.  ULI recommends that setbacks, for the purpose of better window shopping for retail stores, be allowed to go to zero feet.

If there are more stores and residences in downtown Orinda, there would have to be more parking to accommodate extra people. 

In Cupertino, California, a developer must provide two parking spaces for each apartment.

Parking is expensive.  In Los Angeles, the cost of a multi-story parking lot is $25,000 per space, according to The Economist (April 8, 2017, issue). 

The Economist article said that, generally, parking adds 67% to the cost of a new shopping mall if the parking is above ground.  The extra cost escalates to 95% for underground parking.

To Orinda residents, ULI has not given full details on how it plans to provide extra parking. 

SaveOrinda, a preservation group, states, in its April 2017 newsletter, that "Save Orinda must flat-out reject the . . . ULI recommendations." 

Around 2005, Orinda's environment came under attack.  The city council changed from a body that held sleepy council meetings that debated where to put a new stop sign to a treacherous pro-development coalition that began to transform Orinda into some kind of Tokyo or Manhattan. 

At 2 Irwin Way, the city council approved the Monteverde Senior Apartments, a 67-unit structure that has 30 parking spaces.  Monteverde is located across the street from the Orinda Way firehouse.  Monteverde opened in 2015.

On Altarinda Road, not far from the BART station, 73 homes were squeezed into a tiny area. The development, called Orinda Grove, has homes so close together that a tall individual can extend his arms fully and touch two adjacent structures.

Orinda Grove


In 2015, the city council approved the Fifth Cycle (version) of the Housing Element.  Each Housing Element requires Orinda to add hundreds of new homes in a city that is full. Mandated by the California Department of Housing and Community Development, a city's failure to have a Housing Element means that the State of California can cut off a local community's funds for road repair. 

From 2005 to 2014, the Orinda City Council was made up of members who supported more downtown development.  Then, in November 2014, Eve Phillips, an Orinda resident who ran on a platform of preservation, was elected to the city council.  

Ms. Phillips, who grew up in the Orinda area and graduated from Miramonte High School in Orinda, did more than win a council seat.  Among six candidates vying for three city-council positions in November 2014, Ms. Phillips came in first.  By coming in first, Ms. Phillips was in line to become Orinda's mayor from December 2016 to December 2017. 

The mayor's job rotates among city-council members. 

So, will Orinda become another Tokyo or Manhattan?  No one knows.  But between 2010 and 2012 two groups, SaveOrinda and another group called Orinda Watch have emerged to halt more downtown development.

Perhaps the Orinda City Council will continue to support more development.  But unlike that period in the 10 years before Ms. Phillips' election, there is now organized opposition to making Orinda another Tokyo or Manhattan.

If Measure J is NOT the way, then WHAT?

Over the past several weeks Orinda Watch has shared with our readers why we think Measure J is NOT the right way to fix the roads. It’s indisputable that the City Council / Citizen Infrastructure Oversight Committee (CIOC) have dropped the ball on this issue for years and their dereliction of their responsibilities has left our roads in terrible shape. We have been clear in all of our communications that we want to fix the roads and we understand that substantial costs are involved which regrettably for the most part will have to be borne by Orinda residents--likely through a variety of revenue sources.

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