July 15, 2016
Mr. Drummond Buckley, Planning Director
Re: General Plan Dialogue – Downtown
Dear Mr. Buckley,
The following citizen comments are provided for your consideration, in anticipation of a public dialogue regarding Orinda’s downtown, at the Aug 2 city council meeting.
I have been a keen observer of downtown Orinda planning matters over the last 8 years. I am also familiar with the retail sales tax study, commissioned by the city council a few years ago. I welcome the opportunity for this upcoming citizen dialogue. I hope that you find these remarks to be helpful, as you draft your staff report for the upcoming, public, Orinda City Council meetings on this subject.
My comments are structured into three categories: Scope, Process, and Vision.
The upcoming discussion should be scoped as a review of the downtown elements of Orinda’s existing General Plan. Scoping as a Downtown Specific Plan is not recommended for reasons noted below.
The Orinda General Plan and associated codes, ordinances and zoning are representative of broad citizen preference and devote considerable detail to downtown planning specifics. For example, regarding land use, Parag 2.1 reads in part as follows: “The retail and office districts should have characteristics that can be described as village character. This can be defined as a commercial area of relatively low density, with a predominance of small-scale, low-lying buildings of varying architectural styles (generally not exceeding 2 stories), fronting on streets or landscaped plaza-like spaces.”
Another example is Parag 2.1.4.D. which specifies a 35 foot height limit.
The General Plan already integrates the role of the downtown within the context of the entire Orinda community. Suggestions to define the scope as a “Downtown Specific Plan”, as if the downtown were a separate entity, detached from other Orinda neighborhoods, or to start with some sort of SimCity-like, “blank slate”, will NOT be productive and possibly even unnecessarily divisive. \
Some have argued that a Downtown Specific Plan is required, by asking the question, “What would happen if Orinda’s downtown was destroyed by a massive fire or earthquake?” To that, I say, read the General Plan and supporting documents. The physical guidelines for re-construction (or for any individual development proposal) are already there. If someone doesn’t like those criteria, then propose a change to the General Plan and take it to the citizens for a vote.
The notion of a “Downtown Specific Plan” is perceived by many citizens as an end-run around the highly transparent General Plan update process, and as a back door way to detach busy Orinda citizens from city-wide matters beyond their immediate neighborhood. In other words, only the self-serving interests would choose to participate. That would be bad news for Orinda.
Any public dialogue regarding downtown planning needs to be orchestrated directly by the City of Orinda’s very capable Planning Department, not by outsiders.
Consider the following, identified as Parag 1.0 in Orinda’s existing General Plan. “One of the primary reasons cited by many Orindans for supporting incorporation was the desire for local decision making. Land use planning and development application review by local citizens was thought to be of primary importance. This feeling stemmed from a widely-accepted desire to preserve the quality of the natural and man-made living environment that has evolved in Orinda. The timing of incorporation was crucial due to the extreme regional pressure for more intensive development and re-development in the area.”
The suggestion to have an outside entity, such as the Urban Land Institute (ULI), orchestrate the process, makes many Orinda citizens extremely uncomfortable. ULI is certainly knowledgeable about urban planning. But a simple review of their projects to “help” local cities, reveals staffing by pro-development insiders and urban, regional thinking. This is the antithesis of the Orinda citizen preference, as stated in Parag 1.0 above. Even if there was a “Semi-Rural Planning Institute”, I’m not sure that any outside player would be welcome in this process. Attempts by outsiders to facilitate Housing Element public outreach in recent years, proved to be disastrous and counter-productive.
The process needs to be inclusive and transparent, with ample opportunity for all citizens and constituent interests to comment and be heard. At a minimum, this would include representatives of the downtown private property owners (first and foremost), Chamber of Commerce and local business owners, Friends of Orinda Creeks, Orinda Vision, Orinda Watch, Save Orinda, What’s Up Downtown Orinda, and neighborhoods adjoining the downtown. Every Orinda citizen’s input should matter. Being an architect should not be a pre-requisite. Widespread public outreach must be more than a consultant-driven, formulaic, for-show exercise with a pre-determined outcome.
There are many opinions on a vision for downtown Orinda. Some are focused on infrastructure or physical appearance. Some propose changes to land use and existing code and zoning requirements. Still others are concerned with the types of businesses in Orinda’s downtown. Some ideas are modest in their scope. Others are more sweeping. Urban-based visions articulated by those earning a living within the development industry, come across as highly suspect and self-serving to many citizens.
Here are a few specific thoughts on vision:
a.) The existing building height limit of 35 feet, the existing maximum, residential density of 10 units per acre, the existing off-street parking code, and the environmental, traffic impact of development, are bedrock holdings and are non-negotiable for many citizens.
b.) The General Plan was amended (2004) to allow mixed use (commercial & residential) in the downtown. It is what it is. Downtown discussions focused on driving heavy residential development there would not be productive for many citizens, and any attempts to increase the building density above the current 10 units per acre maximum, would be a non-starter.
c.) Talking about the downtown largely means talking about someone else’s private real estate. Differentiating truly public matters from private property matters would be helpful, when collecting and organizing citizen input during the process. If the downtown, private, real estate owners are not fully engaged and vocal in this process, then the results will probably be minimal.
d.) Amazon and similar online-fulfillment companies are the current and future face of the retail sale of most goods. Focusing on brick and mortar facilities for the retail sale of goods would seem to be missing the mark. The primary type of local retail business, serving local citizens, is currently and will continue to be service-oriented businesses (dry cleaners, gas stations, restaurants, etc). Facilitating an optimum environment for service-oriented retail businesses would seem to be a far more productive focus for downtown discussions, than the retail sale of goods.
e.) A re-routing of northbound Moraga Way traffic onto eastbound Hwy 24, without the need to clog Moraga Way through the Theatre District, would provide a huge benefit to the downtown. Fellow citizen Chet Martine has articulated some specific suggestions in this regard. But, fractured jurisdiction and lack of funding are probably show-stoppers. You need to decide how you want to handle suggestions for such transportation remedies during the process.
f.) Inexpensive beautification projects, as articulated by citizen Ann O’Connell Nye, seem like a no-brainer to me. Yet, nothing much seems to happen. Why?
g.) Lack of funding will probably kill 99% of the citizen suggestions during this process. You need to decide how far that you want some of these ideas to float, before someone brings things back to reality.
h.) Larger-scale re-development would likely require a change in downtown, private real estate ownership. Such ideas are welcome, so long as they don’t come with variance requests for land use, building height, building density, current parking requirements and full CEQA review. However, this pending dialogue should not have the blatant objective of facilitating parcel aggregation. That would strongly indicate that self-serving insiders have excessive influence in the process.
i.) I support strong collaboration with Friends of Orinda Creeks in the event of any large scale re-development project, especially on the Village side of town.
j.) If an inexpensive, fundable way to facilitate better, safer and more attractive walking and biking connections between the Theatre District and the Village side of town, could be accomplished, without giving up something important, I could get behind that idea.
k.) Orinda BART is the 3rd highest station in the system for the percentage of riders who drive themselves or who are dropped off by a private car. Look at the demographics of Orinda citizens and the local topography. We are not going to abandon our cars. Deal with it and move on to more fertile areas of discussion.
l.) I support converting all 4-hour spaces in Orinda into 2-hour spaces and putting such restrictions on the currently unrestricted Bates Blvd spaces. I encourage local businesses to share and self-fund off-street parking capacity, as non-conflicting use allows. I don’t support “commercial creep” (employees parking in adjoining residential neighborhoods). Other than enforcement, the City of Orinda should not be in the parking business.
m.) I have supported the following, transparent, development project proposals: (1) the Fountainhead Montessori proposal for a retail/day care re-development of the Phairs site; (2) the pending commercial development at 25A Orinda Way; and (3) the Agemark Astoria elder care facility on Wilder Road.
n.) I understand that some citizens have personally met with you, to advocate their thoughts regarding the scope, process and vision for Orinda’s downtown. I would be pleased to do the same, if you judge that it would benefit you.
Thank you for considering these comments.
November 28, 2016 The Hon. Darlene Gee Orinda City Council Dear Council Member Gee: I would like to know the answers to the three questions below: (1) Did you publicly support Measure RR?This measure, which was passed by voters on Nov. 8, 2016, authorized a $3.5 million bond for upgrading BART's facilities? (2) Did you return any of the campaign contributions you received from any aspect of the HNTB Corporation and any employees of HNTB?Form 460 (Monetary Contributions Received) shows that on September 6, 2016, you received $1,000.00 from the "HNTB Holdings PAC, 715 Kirk Drive, Kansas City, Missouri 64105."According to Form 460, you also received the following contributions. Anthony Lee, Cranford NJ 9/9/2016HNTB$99 Darrell Vice, Orinda CA 9/6/2016HNTB$250 Dina Potter, Piedmont CA8/31/2016 HNTB$500 Joshua Englander, 8/26/2016 HNTB$100 Sherman Oaks CA Shannon Gaffney, Moraga CA9/22/2016 HNTB$100 Maureen Hays, Ladera Ranch CA 9/6/2016HNTB$100 Jeff Watson, Novato, CA 10/8/2016 HNTB$100 (3) Did you return the $200.00 campaign contribution you received on September 6, 2016, from Grace Crunican, the general manager of BART? As you know, I am an Orinda resident and taxpayer. I am also the editor and publisher of The Icon, a printed publication that is sent to all Orinda residents. I look forward to your reply. Sincerely, Richard Colman Resident of Orinda