Last Tuesday night drew a packed house to hear the preliminary recommendations from the experts at the Urban Land Institute (ULI) who were in town conducting a two day Technical Assistance Panel (TAP). The study was run by six land use professionals who volunteered their time and expertise to bring some fresh thinking to Orinda's downtown.
The study involved a careful review of Orinda's physical assets (land, infrastructure, buildings, etc), interviews with stakeholders, and a report on our opportunities and challenges. The full written report will be delivered in the coming months, and last week's PPT can be found here.
The list of challenges was not new - it included our 30-year old General Plan (the oldest they'd ever seen), the physical division by highway 24, lack of parking and enforcement, seismically unsound buildings, and retail revenue leakage to nearby cities, among other items. The panel concluded that the town is "too car centric" and lacks a "Third Place" (the concept is that home and work are your first two places, and a community gathering spot could become your "third" place). Orinda "was robbed" of an identity over the years, they concluded, but we have many enviable assets to leverage going forward.
- Our highly educated and involved citizen base, in particular our "exceptional teenagers" who brought frank feedback and creative ideas to their interview
- BART: "Most cities would kill to have a major transit stop" and we have an opportunity to maximize its benefits
- Some buildings with fantastic architectural character that we could build upon, particularly County Club Plaza/Phair's/Orinda Motors
- The San Pablo Creek and Orinda's beautiful natural setting
- Existing spaces that could easily be "activated" and marketed for free community use and events
- A few engaged property owners such as Joanna Guidotti who now owns the Phair's property, and other upcoming properties that will be turning over. And more...
There was a lot of goodness coming out of the TAP Panel. Here are some of the most exciting recommendations we heard.
- First things first, the panel urged the city to update Orinda's general plan in a very inclusive Orinda style involving the community. Given that the city has $300,000 set aside to tackle this project, we completely agree and see it as a "no brainer" next step in shaping the future. We will be continuing to advocate for this with CIty Council and the new Downtown Subcommittee of councilwomen Inga Miller and Eve Phillips.
- Focus on creating THREE rather than two downtown Districts. 1) Theater District 2) Civic District (Park, Library, Community Center area) and 3) Village Creek District. They suggested creating a "San Pablo Creek Action Plan" to incorporate the creek into Orinda's usable spaces (likely a long process)
- Consider a property based improvement district (AKA a "BID") which is a public/private partnership between the city and property owners to enhance the streetscape and better maintain buildings (YES! WUDO has advocated for this in the past and strongly believe that Orinda's property owners must be engaged and incentivized to do their part. We also believe that hiring an Economic Development Director makes a lot of sense)
- "Take the recommendations in the parking study from 2016 seriously," and enforce parking limits downtown. Enforcement or meters seem like an obvious way to reduce all day parking by BART commuters.
- "Re-jigger" walking paths from BART to the Theater to direct walkers THROUGH Theater Square, rather than around it. Smart!
- Build connected, shared parking resources to free up land for better uses. Extra attention was paid to the massive parking lots spanning from Rite Aid to McCaulou's - connect it, share it, and make it pedestrian friendly.
- Experiment with short term "activations" of our existing spaces to bring the community together. Market free use of our existing spaces to create community "living rooms". Invite food truck organizers, art shows, pop up retail shops, chess tournaments or even put some lounge furniture and ping pong tables on the Library plaza. Put the unused third screen at Orinda Theater to use for our teenagers. Experiment and see what sticks. Build on our amazing Parks and Rec programs to give the community and our youth exciting places to hang out.
- Create low-cost parklets, widen sidewalks and make space for restaurants and cafes to set up tables outdoors. Reward "early adopter" businesses that invest and experiment in Orinda!
- Change Orinda's zoning to allow zero setbacks on the sides and fronts of commercial buildings. This will improve window fronts, reduce the number of driveways and ultimately improve walkability.
- Develop a signage and wayfinding program to create an identity for downtown (No brainer! More on this in a future post!)
- And yes, the ULI brought up the idea of housing options downtown, and encouraged the Council to consider a variety of housing types, already allowed within Orinda's laws, to spur commercial development and vitality. A mix of luxury condos, townhomes and senior housing were recommended, along with ideas for how the buildings could be oriented to face the creek and not to overpower the streetscape.
The meeting lasted nearly three hours and we are looking forward to the final report, which we hope will suggest some concrete next steps. Of course, the logical next question is - PRIORITIES and RESOURCES? What comes first and how do we fund it?
We'll be continuing that conversation with city leadership while we advocate for progress.