As we continue to educate ourselves about why our commercial area is what it is, we sought the expertise of residents who have been involved in Orinda’s downtown issues for years. Some were kind enough to join us on a walking tour of both the Village side (from the Country Club end of Orinda Way to the Shell gas station) and the Theater District. Over the course of nearly three hours we heard about almost every commercial property including who owns what, and the history of past efforts for improvement, investment, and redevelopment.
We came away from the tour feeling both energized by what COULD be, and depressed by the historically strong opposition to progress - even basic progress - among the stakeholders of our city. Here are some interesting highlights:
Country Club Area
Properties in the Country Club area from Camino Sobrante heading north along Orinda Way, including Avenida de Orinda, are good candidates for revitalization. The Phair's building, which was on the market for years, stands a better chance of being demolished and assembled with nearby properties in a new redevelopment plan. Most of the these buildings date back to the 1940's-1950's with little attention paid to building facades, storefronts, ADA compliance and seismic upgrades. But the charming location, with exposure to the golf course, would benefit from a new retail/restaurant merchandizing plan. Concerns about this being a flood zone would have to be addressed, but this is not insurmountable and FEMA, for one, would like to get this area taken care of.
Of note: One Camino Sobrante (the building across from Safeway where Starbucks is located) is a perfect example of positive change. Purchased in 1997, the current owner redeveloped a dilapidated property using a respected retail design firm and a local retail real estate company to market and lease the space. This is the only privately owned property in the Downtown Commercial District to be redeveloped in 30 years since the City's incorporation.
We’ve all noticed the glaring incompatibility between Village Square (McCaulou's, Village Cafe), Bank of America and the Rite Aid/Post Office properties. Why can't the three property owners at least engage in a comfortable traffic and parking plan instead of the existing rat maze? Better yet, these properties are perfect candidates for assemblage, at least with Rite Aid, Post Office and BofA. We would think that if the businesses are part of a new development that looks attractive while maintaining its Village character, everyone would win. What if these funky, asphalt-heavy parcels (watch out for the transmission lines!) were purchased and redeveloped as a Town Square with grass and the old oak trees in the middle, retail and parking all around - similar to Healdsburg or Sonoma? Sounds heavenly to us!
The U-shaped combination of #17 Orinda Way (Clean Cleaners), #19 (Village Pizza, Parker Thatch) and #21 (Hilton House, UPS) fits well and looks like it belongs in the Village. Those older buildings are nothing fancy, but they are clean and well maintained with a nice tenant mix. The parking lot is even convenient with it’s well-defined entrance and exits, too.
Theater District aka "The Crossroads"
You may or may not be aware that the City has commissioned a study on downtown parking. (We attended last night's meeting and will give an update here soon). It turns out that 72% of the Theater District is covered with buildings, compared with 32% in the Village and 57% in the Country Club Plaza area. Four (4) two-story buildings on the east side of Moraga Way have no off-street parking which adds to the demand for street parking stalls. The Theater District is short by over 200 stalls, 100 of which are the result of the CVS, BevMo, Europa, Nations block. This block has the ability to add 300 below-ground parking stalls if a redevelopment plan is pursued by property owners, while at the same time creating a more pedestrian-friendly environment.
Merchant Disinterest Amplifies the Problem
A number of Orinda retail and food businesses are closed on Sundays, the second busiest retail day of the week: McCaulou's, Hollyhock, Orinda Beauty Supply, The Medicine Shoppe, Turquoise Mediterranean Grill (also closed Saturday), Maya Mexican Grill, Morrison's Jewelers (also Monday), and Hilton House. We like these shops and restaurants but wonder if Sunday closings add to Orinda residents' disinterest in the Downtown, and give them more reasons to shop in Lafayette and Walnut Creek instead. Do Sunday closings communicate that Orinda is not open for business? Conversely, ground floor businesses at One Camino Sobrante (housing Starbucks mentioned above) are required to be open 7 days a week.
Our biggest takeaway from the tour was that property owners hold the keys to our Downtown, and their way of looking at their properties determines whether we have a Downtown that is just occupied, or one that is vibrant and alive. And now the question becomes...what are Orindans going to do about it?
Thanks as always for following along, and please remember to tell friends and neighbors about our group, or share our posts on Facebook or NextDoor.