In Search of Fresh Perspective

The Orinda City Council dedicated most of last Tuesday's meeting to discussing two outside groups that it might engage to help move Orinda forward: the Urban Land Institute (ULI)  and Main Street America (MSA). Who are these groups? The ULI is a volunteer based non-profit trade organization focuses on solving problems pertaining to all types of land use, while MSA is a privately funded, non-profit group dedicated to economic development and downtown preservation. 

It seems to WUDO that we could benefit from the expertise of both groups, and based on Tuesday's meeting, most of our leadership agrees, including Planning Director Drummond Buckley and his staff. (Note: the below mostly focuses on the ULI which presented its services; we will delve into the MSA in a future blog post).

What is the ULI?

In a nutshell, the ULI is a worldwide consortium of 40,000 architects, economists, developers, transportation experts, attorneys and other cross-disciplinary land use professionals that volunteer their time and knowledge to "help cities solve problems." The Bay Area chapter is the second most active in the US behind New York. Over much of the meeting, volunteer spokeswoman Dana Van Gilder from the ULI presented its services and mission to "create better places" and answered thoughtful questions from City Council.

What's on the table?

The ULI program on the table is known a two day Technical Assistance Panel (TAP) to evaluate city challenges and propose solutions, that the city can then take or leave. The study isn't haphazard - the City of Orinda, led by Planning Director Drummond Buckley, would propose three to five questions for the panelists to delve into.  In advance of the study, four to six Panelists (all volunteers) are recruited and selected based on their expertise relevant to the questions posed. They review Orinda’s General Plan and other background materials to read up on our situation. Then they come to Orinda and spend two days meeting with and interviewing stakeholders on all sides, touring the city, and putting their knowledge to work identifying challenges and opportunities. Finally, they hunker down in a room to debate possible solutions. Within four to six weeks they deliver a comprehensive written report of their recommendations.

WUDO's Take

Given how historically difficult it has been for for Orindans to make progress on Orinda, we think it makes a lot of sense to invite a cross section of outside experts with no commercial interest in Orinda to help tackle questions like:

  • What can Orinda do to attract better restaurants and retail options?
  • How can Orinda alleviate parking and traffic congestion in its commercial areas?
  • How should Orinda engage property and business owners to take more pride in their buildings?How can Orinda unify a downtown that is split by Highway 24?
  • In terms of retail revitalization, what can be accomplished without adding housing downtown?
  • Of course, these are the questions WUDO would ask. City officials will ultimately decide where the focus should be.

Putting Rumors to Rest

Over the past year, there has been confusion regarding what the ULI is all about. Some naysayers are quick to paint the ULI as greedy real estate developers with an agenda to urbanize Orinda with “stack and pack” housing plans. But based on our research, plus the case studies they provided and the presentation by Van Gilder on Tuesday, WUDO feels otherwise. Our take is that the following guidelines makes the ULI well-qualified to lend ideas. 

  1. Panelists must have not have past, current or future business interest in Orinda.

  2. A core tenant is to interview stakeholders on all sides and engage those community members both "for" and "against" change, in order to understand the issues and make sensible recommendations.

  3. There is no obligation for the city to act on the panel's recommendations - they are merely suggestions.

  4. The price tag - for $15,000 we get a group of experts with outside experience and and fresh thinking to evaluate our areas of concern. This seems like a bargain by any standard.

  5. Case studies: The “Urban” in ULI is a bit of a misnomer - the group has worked with many suburbs to help tackle development and land-use issues, including San Mateo, Concord, Hercules, Brisbane and others

It seems the City Council agrees that the ULI’s services are appropriate for Orinda…

The Council's Take

Four of the five council members were in favor of the planning department moving forward with a formal proposal from the ULI.

  • Darlene Gee, Victoria Smith and Amy Worth were all in favor of engaging both the ULI and MSA, and exploring how the organizations might work together to look at both land use and economic development issues.
  • Dean Orr wants to move forward with the ULI first, while continuing to explore the MSA. So far, he is not convinced that it makes sense to run two studies concurrently, as the ULI's recommendations might inspire a different approach with MSA.
  • Through the questions she asked of Van Gilder, it was clear that Eve Phillips was highly skeptical of the ULI's intentions. At one point she openly doubted that Orindans could even determine the handful of questions to give to the ULI to focus on. WUDO has more faith in our city planners and stakeholders than that, and we were left thinking that Phillips is not open to outside input on Orinda's conundrum, or perhaps not open to change at all.

The net-net? Drummond Buckley plans to return in 2-4 weeks with concrete proposals from the ULI and the MSA that the council can vote on. We'll be there, and in the meantime we are encouraged to see the Council considering outside perspective. It’s high time!