The #1 question we hear from friends and supporters is this: “What IS the deal with downtown Orinda?” Over the last 9 months, WUDO has identified four key challenges to progress in Orinda, and naturally (natch!) we have ideas about how to solve them, or at least begin the process. We will be taking these ideas to City Council on September 6th at 7:00 PM and we hope you’ll be there to make your voice heard. After all, we can only expect change if we ask for it, and the dialogue that has begun has caught the Council's ear!
CHALLENGE 1: A VOCAL MINORITY THAT OPPOSES CHANGE
SOLUTION: LET’S SPEAK UP!
For a long time, a vocal minority in Orinda has been saying “NO” to downtown renewal, and has done so very loudly. They use terms like “stack and pack housing” and imply that any change must mean the addition of high rise, high density housing. They have, in the past, convinced the City Council that they speak for everyone because they speak the loudest.
We see things differently. We embrace moderate, thoughtful change that preserves Orinda’s character but brings it into the now, and we support exploring options for downtown that meet the needs of young families, older families and everyone in between. We also know that change is hard and we think even having the discussion and hearing diverse viewpoints and ideas is a great first step. We want the city to get to the heart of what the majority of Orindans want going forward, and hear all ideas through surveys, town hall meetings, workshops and brainstorming sessions.
If you are on board with us, we ask that you PLEASE let the City Council know if you want Downtown to be a priority. Simply email City Clerk Sherry Kelly (email@example.com) before September 6th and she will share your correspondence with Council members. Every email has impact whether it is a sentence stating “I want downtown renewal to become a priority in Orinda”, a paragraph or a page of your ideas!
We also hope you’ll join us at September 6th and bring your comments to the public forum (max three minutes). If you speak up, we'll have your back. Promise ;-)
CHALLENGE 2: THERE IS NO PLAN
SOLUTION: BRING IN EXPERTS TO HELP
Many cities are required to review and update their General Plan every 10 years. Orinda’s Downtown Plan has been largely unchanged since 1987 (yep, you read that right). Danville - which many cite as a city with character and vitality - has recently updated its General Plan and carefully delineated what types of businesses belong where so as to attract residents and visitors downtown while preserving charm. Orinda should do the same.
We are told there is $300,000 in the city budget to update the General Plan and/or create a Downtown Specific Plan, so the question becomes “how?” We would like to see the city contract experts who can help guide the planning process; experts who have “been there/done that” with success. OrindaVision is in favor of engaging the Urban Land Institute which can bring in a panel of expert counsel at a very low cost ($15,000) to assess and make preliminary recommendations. Seems like a good starting place. Or why not pursue help from Main Street America - an organization whose entire mission is to help renew downtowns? There are many consulting firms we could engage as well.
On Tuesday, we will ask the Council to create a subcommittee that can evaluate current resources and outside experts who will help guide the planning process without bias. Nearly 30 years have proven that we can’t do it alone.
CHALLENGE 3: OUR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT VOID
SOLUTION: CREATE A POSITION FOCUSED ON COURTING GREAT BUSINESSES
When you think of other Bay Area towns that boast bountiful, charming downtown areas you can bet this is not by chance! These cities have an Economic Development Director (EDD), an employee of the city whose role is to recruit, retain and expand businesses in their city. Orinda does not have this function. We feel that Orinda's unique character should be a draw, but we are simply not on the radar!
We would like the city appoint a person or committee to evangelize for Orinda as a great place to do business, and to retain and support those businesses already finding success here, as well as finding more funding for our Chamber of Commerce.
CHALLENGE 4: COMPLACENT PROPERTY OWNERS
SOLUTION: OPEN THE LINES OF COMMUNICATION
We have discovered that Orinda's downtown is over-run with apathetic property owners. Many buildings have been owned by the same families for generations, and the second- or third-generation trustees now live far away and are disconnected from Orinda. Most seem content to collect low rent checks in exchange for tenants who don’t ask for much. We have also found that some “local, small” business owners in fact live out of state. What do they care about attractive storefronts and being a great reflection of the community?
We all suffer when crummy businesses in crumbling buildings dominate the landscape, but it’s a classic “Chicken and Egg” scenario - building improvements are required to attract better, higher paying tenants, and somebody has to get the ball rolling. One business owner we approached worried that her rent would go up, and we get it, but the alternative is to let Orinda’s aging buildings continue to fester.
We are hopeful that in years to come, properties that turnover will be bought by locals who care. Of course we understand that you can't force property owners to invest, but nobody at the city level seems to be engaging them in a meaningful dialogue to let them know we want more, which seems like a worthwhile starting place.
We ask that the city explore ways to encourage and incentivize the property and business owners to take an interest in Orinda. Start by reaching out to property owners and meeting with them regularly. Possibly form a Business Improvement District to maintain facades and building cosmetics. And, increase funding and resources for our Chamber of Commerce so that they are better equipped to help. Consider a coordinated effort for plantings, seating, lighting and trash/recycling throughout the city to unify it.
WHAT CAN YOU DO? It's Simple. TURN OUT SEPTEMBER 6TH
We will be reading a statement summarizing the above suggestions at the September 6th Council Meeting and it is so important that WUDO supporters turn out in high numbers. The city has told us outright that WUDO has influence and that they are eager to see the next generation speak up.
If we ask for change, we can make it happen. And if we don't, we can only expect more of the same. There is strength in numbers... let's do this!