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The Urban Land Institute’s Recent Technical Assistance Panel in Orinda

As reported recently in the Orinda press, a Technical Assistance Panel organized by the Urban Land Institute spent two full days in Orinda, April 10 and 11. The panel of experts, intimately familiar with the processes of renewal and revitalization in other Bay Area cities, was invited by the City Council which has at long last turned its attention to downtown planning.  In addition to needing to update our General Plan, you may also know that we are the only city in Contra Costa County without a plan for its downtown.

The ULI panel was well prepared thanks to an extensive briefing book prepared by Planning Director Drummond Buckley and his staff.  The panel members conducted numerous interviews with the primary downtown stakeholders, including City Council members, Planning Commissioners, City staff, the Orinda Association, the Chamber of Commerce, property owners, and a variety of community groups, including OrindaVision. At the conclusion of their visit the panel members described what they had heard and offered their own initial observations, with the promise of a full report to follow this summer.

In describing Orinda’s strengths and weaknesses and its opportunities and threats, the panel members demonstrated they had come up to speed quickly. In response to questions posed by the City, they gave us some preliminary “Big Ideas” to think about. There was no grand scheme to remake downtown, but rather a thoughtful approach to build on its existing assets and to consider ways of integrating them better within our commercial districts. You may click on this link to review their concluding public presentation.

Those who have been Friends of OrindaVision for the last couple of years are aware that the retention of the ULI panel by the City was recommended by OrindaVision, endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce and put forward to the Council in the summer of 2015. The purpose of this initiative was to restart the community dialogue about the future of our downtown, a dialogue which had been tabled in 2009 and given low priority by the City Council since then. OrindaVision’s objective has been to urge the Council to re-engage with the community in the conversation on a professional plane, to help us all move beyond the “growth” vs. “no growth” standoff in which the public discussion had been framed.

I believe the panel has made an excellent beginning in accomplishing a more professional and civil tone to the community conversation. We all look forward to its final analysis and recommendations. We should not expect a grand plan for downtown Orinda from the panel, rather some practical guideposts for us to consider based on the experiences in other Bay Area cities that have preceded Orinda down the path toward renewal and revitalization.

The challenging work of addressing the General Plan update and the details of a specific plan for Orinda’s downtown remains ahead of us. Success or failure in these endeavors will be up to the Orinda community, not to outside experts. There is, however, no lack of talent in the Bay Area to help us along the way. Hopefully the ULI TAP process will bring into focus some useful concepts and best practices from the experience of our sister cities.

Thanks for your continuing interest in the future of downtown Orinda.


Tom Trowbridge



Council Subcommittee on Downtown Planning Formed

At its January 24, 2016 meeting, the City Council created a downtown planning subcommittee comprised of Mayor Eve Phillips and Councilmember Inga Miller. The committee will conduct public meetings to assist staff in managing the planning process.

For example, the subcommittee will review staff’s suggested list of community stakeholders for the ULI Technical Assistance Panel (TAP) interviews, expected to be conducted this Spring. Potential interviewees for the National Main Street Center (NMSC) study, which will analyze the market potential for downtown business and is now underway, have already been selected. OrindaVision has been invited to participate.  The NMSC report will be forwarded to the TAP for its use, as well as to City Council.

The council’s subcommittee will act as a “sounding board” for staff but will not make decisions on behalf of the Council.

Inga Miller and Darlene Gee elected to City Council

Our congratulations to Inga Miller and Darlene Gee. Their election to the City Council is an unambiguous message that a majority of citizens want to move forward on downtown revitalization. The new council has our support in this vital effort to improve our quality of life.

East Bay Times Editorial: Gee, Miller clearly best for Orinda Council

The substantive candidates seeking two seats on the City Council fall into two camps, two desiring forward motion and a curmudgeon.

We recommend Darlene Gee and Inga Miller, who represent progress with their support for the roads program and a cautious, measured approach to revitalizing downtown with extensive community participation.

Gee, a civil engineer with an MBA, chaired the citizens committee spearheading the roads program before her 2015 appointment to a council vacancy. Miller, a former parks and recreation commissioner, grew up in Orinda, where she now practices law.

Retired radiologist Bruce London objects to updating the 1987 downtown general plan, the consultant city officials plan to hire to moderate community discussion of downtown and the June voter-approved ballot measure for the latest phase of the roads program.

Perennial candidate Linda Delehunt is also on the ballot. She was unprepared when she ran for council in 2012 and for county Board of Education in 2014. She did not participate in last week’s interview.”

Gee and Miller Discuss the Future of Downtown

Each candidate had something to say about the future of downtown when asked by Orinda News in its 10/1/2016 edition.

Darlene Gee

“The first step toward reconciliation of views about downtown is to get professional assistance from an outside, objective resource that can help identify feasible alternatives for our staff and council under different scenarios. These scenarios will include the current General Plan and zoning options, as well as ideas that will require changes to the General Plan. Most importantly, the scenarios must take into account marketplace reality and the community’s desire to retain a small town atmosphere and the connection to our natural environment.

I am in favor of requesting assistance from the Urban Land Institute or a comparable alternative to provide Orinda with top tier planning expertise for a modest financial investment. Once feasible alternatives are identified, I would like to see robust public outreach/ input from the community via workshops, public meetings, on-line surveys for all residents (with security identification to ensure each resident only submits one survey), and mail-in surveys for those without on-line access.

We need more public input than ever before to fully understand the desired outcome of the majority of Orindans. Once we have concept plans supported by the majority of our community, our planning department and outside professionals can advise on the policy changes needed to allow new and remodeled development, as well as the financial costs and timeline of required environmental clearances.

Current business and property owners must also be fully engaged in the process. We need their input to understand business concerns and to gauge their interest/willingness to support the community’s goals. Ultimately, we will not be able to satisfy everyone’s personal preferences, but I believe we can demonstrate both that we have given Orindans every opportunity to be part of the process and the direction the majority of residents favor.”

Inga Miller

“Orinda is the best small town in the Bay Area and changes to the downtown should reflect its history and charm. One of the leading forces for incorporating Orinda as a city was to save and reopen the then shuttered Orinda Theatre, which now glows through the night as a beacon of our original leaders’ commitment to preserving art and enhancing our gathering places.

We do not do enough to encourage the ongoing success of the Orinda Theatre and our other downtown gems. We are standing by passively while our downtown ages when we should be actively providing the guidance needed by our property owners and local businesses to propose upgrades and enhance downtown. We too often forget that the only people empowered to make significant changes to our downtown are our property owners.

We, as the city, are empowered under the law to place requirements on projects and, in some cases, to deny them. So our role as the city is to create requirements that allow and encourage improvements to the extent they retain the charm and character of the community. By encouraging improvements consistent with the collective foresight of our community, our property and business owners have the tools to do their part: to propose enhancements that meet these guidelines as to retention of historical characteristics, respect for our small-town character and selection of materials that are harmonious with our natural surroundings.

We have a duty, not only to these property and business owners, but to our entire community to provide the guidance necessary to encourage this vitalization so that we provide a significant opportunity to our community to dine, shop and utilize our local services in Orinda.”

OrindaVision Endorsements for City Council

OrindaVision, along with What’s Up Downtown Orinda? and Monica Fitzsimmons, the Wagner Ranch mom who in 2015 circulated a petition to the Council – backed by over 700 signatures – to commence development of a plan to renew downtown, have combined in their endorsement of Darlene Gee and Inga Miller for the two open seats on the City Council in this fall’s election.  See Newsletters for additional information on our choices.

Council Action

We are pleased to report that at its September 6 meeting, the City Council agreed to proceed with a downtown planning process.
The Council received over 200 letters and heard comments from 31 citizens on various aspects of this important subject. Council members stated that it was “time to take action” and directed staff to develop a community engagement process that would begin with a ULI Technical Assistance Panel (TAP).
Council members requested that Planning Director Drummond Buckley return to a future meeting with recommended questions to be addressed by the Technical Assistance Panel and also asked that ULI staff be invited to answer questions about the TAP process.
We look forward to contributing to the success of the TAP as a starting point for a fact-based framework that will form the basis for a wide-ranging community dialogue about the future of our downtown.

City Council Discussion Re-scheduled to September 6

This is an important ongoing discussion that Orinda citizens need to have. We hope you agree and that you will be a part of it. This is the primary agenda item for this meeting which will be held on Tuesday, September 6 (7 pm, Library Auditorium). See “Newsletters” for details. Planning Director Drummond Buckley’s report on alternative ways to proceed with downtown renewal will be posted to the City’s website prior to the meeting.  We will also post it on this website and on our Facebook page.

City Council Discussion Scheduled for August 2

City Manager Janet Keeter has confirmed that a discussion of planning alternatives for downtown Orinda will likely be taken up by the City Council at its regular meeting on Tuesday, August 2 (7 pm, Library Auditorium).  See “Newsletters” for details.  All Orindans interested in downtown renewal are urged to attend.

Orinda has a new Planning Director

Drummond Buckley has been appointed as Orinda’s next Planning Director.  He will assume his responsibilities on February 29.  We look forward to meeting and assisting Drummond in planning for the revitalization of downtown Orinda.

A Petition to Orinda’s City Council

A petition has been initiated by Wagner Ranch parent Monica Fitzsimmons urging the Orinda City Council to begin planning for the future of downtown Orinda.  The petition drive has secured over 650 signatures to date.  Heartened by this response, and with the months ticking by since the Council agreed in July to “consider the planning tools available to the City”, Monica has raised her goal to 1000 signatures. Monica’s petition doesn’t propose any specific plan for downtown. It simply asks the Council to provide the leadership to the City to get on with formulating one. Her initiative deserves the support of her fellow citizens. Here is the link to the petition. Please add your name and send it on to friends and neighbors, if you haven’t already done so.

Many petitioners have commented on their reasons for supporting downtown renewal.  You can see several of these comments at Comments in Support of Downtown Renewal

Orinda’s Downtown Needs Independent Professional Expertise

The Orinda community’s conversation about downtown revitalization would be greatly enhanced with ideas from independent, objective planning and development professionals.  At the July 21 City Council meeting, OrindaVision proposed that the City apply for an Urban Land Institute (ULI) Technical Assistance Panel (TAP).  You can read our proposal below.

ULI has been invited to convene a TAP in several Bay Area cities including some comparable to Orinda.  Comprised of professionals with a variety of perspectives including marketing, land use and design, financing and development strategies, governance and implementation, a TAP will bring a wealth of ideas for consideration and provide a valuable beginning point for a renewed discussion on the future of our downtown.

In a 4-1 vote (Gee, Orr, Smith, and Worth for; Phillips against), Council instructed staff to place an item on a future agenda to discuss how to restart the discussion on downtown revitalization, including the use of relevant tools such as a ULI TAP.

Proposal to City Council

Professional Expertise Needed

ULI TAP Description

ULI TAP Application Form

Proposed Panel Questions

Chamber Endorsement Letter

OrindaVision welcomes your support for this initiative.

Coffee and Dessert Presentation

OrindaVision has captured some of its ideas for downtown Orinda in a slide presentation and has facilitated conversations about the future of downtown Orinda in several homes.  If you would like to host or attend a presentation and discuss the possibilities for Orinda’s future, contact Bob Burt at (510) 589-6206 or


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