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.
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.
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.