The Evolution of Orinda’s Newest Community

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(Contributed Photo)
Sunder and Rupa Joshi on one of the many trails in the Wilder development.

    Originally a working cattle ranch, then a proposed housing development with golf course and hotel and, lastly, a 245-residential development, the Gateway Valley has gone through many variations on its way to becoming the Wilder we know today. And this final variation is one both the City of Orinda, long-time residents and members of this new community welcome.
    “We love this place actually,” said Rupa Joshi, a four- and one-half-year resident of Wilder. “So many people helping each other. So many young minds.”
    Carmela Clendening and her husband John Fernandez, who moved to Wilder in March of 2020 with their two young children, completely agree. “The pandemic hit right after we moved, but the community couldn’t have been more welcoming. With all our wonderful neighbors and the Sibley Volcanic preserve right behind us, we know we made the right decision,” said Clendening, whose son Noah attends kindergarten at Wagner Ranch Elementary School with daughter Isla attending St. Stephens Preschool.
    “It’s been absolutely wonderful to watch this diverse community develop,” said Orinda Mayor Amy Worth. “Such a wide age range of residents from families with young children to older retired couples all enjoying the beauty of Wilder with its miles of open space and easy access to other parts of the Bay Area.”
    While some Orinda residents know Wilder only from escorting their children to and from the public sports fields on the edge of the development, other long-term residents remember the bitter fight that went on for decades over the various visions proposed by four different developers for the 1,500-acre parcel at the southern end of Orinda.
    Two current Wilder residents know the history of the development well. Lynn and Tom Trowbridge lived in Orinda for 43 years before building a home in Wilder three years ago.
    “We had a two-story house on two-and one-half acres and wanted to downsize but stay in Orinda if possible,” said Lynn Trowbridge. “Years ago, we had moved into a planned community on the East Coast and knew the excitement attached to that as well as the trials of living with construction. But I do like living here, being able to stay close to my friends and make new ones in Wilder.”
    Initially, Trowbridge thought she and her husband would be the only older people in Wilder and was pleasantly surprised to count a number of grandparents as her neighbors.
    “It’s been fun meeting neighbors who moved from across the country to be closer to their grandchildren. The neighborhoods here are very diverse – culturally, racially and age-wise, which adds to the excitement,” Trowbridge said, who noted the large, heated swimming pool at Quarry House is a plus for visiting grandchildren.
    Rupa and Sunder Joshi also take advantage of the amenities for their grandchildren. The couple moved from Dallas, TX, in 2016 to be closer to their grandchildren in San Carlos. With many friends living in Orinda, they decided to look into Wilder.
    “It’s so beautiful here, and we love all the trails and enjoy playing with our grandchildren on the sports fields. We even brought them here for the Easter Egg Hunt. So many young people with children live here and having all this youthful activity all around, makes us feel young,” Rupa said.
    Rupa sites some of the many activities in Wilder such as a social committee, finance committee, book club and movie club as well as pre-COVID progressive dinners as a way to stay active.
    “Even the HOA board meetings are well attended,” added Sunder Joshi. “which to my experience is rather unique.”
    While enjoying the many activities at Wilder, the Joshis have also tried to be involved in other aspects of Orinda – attending The Orinda Association events and meetings, supporting Orinda restaurants, making Black Lives Matter signs and donating to The Orinda Theatre’s GoFundMe campaign.
    “We hope to get more involved in the future but right now we need to support our daughter, who is a cardiac intensivist at Stanford Pediatrics ICU and her husband is a surgeon with Palo Alto Medical Foundation. They are working such long hours and we’re over there several times a week to help,” said Rupa.
    The Trowbridges, have a long history of community involvement in Orinda with Tom one of the founders of Orinda Vision, a proposed plan for revitalizing the downtown area. Lynn continued their tradition of being involved with community by becoming block captain for her street and also coordinating the other block captains throughout the Wilder development.
    “We have a huge welcoming committee, and we present new occupants with lots of information of all sorts of things but especially on emergency preparedness. Many people from the East Coast aren’t familiar with earthquakes or wildfires,” Lynn said.
    When COVID-19 forced shelter-in-place orders, Lynn sent sidewalk chalk to everyone on her street encouraging the children to decorate in front of her house and others if the occupants agreed. “It’s nice having young children close by. I love driving home and seeing the kids playing at the sports fields.”

(Contributed Photo)
Carmela Clendening with her husband John Fernandez and children Noah and Isla in their backyard at Wilder.

    Moving in just as the pandemic began, makes the Clendening/Fernandez family happy to have found such a welcoming place. The natural beauty of the Gateway Valley and the excellent school district were major reasons they moved to Wilder but as Noah was about to begin kindergarten at Wagner Ranch Elementary, Clendening began to worry how he would do attending school on Zoom.
    “I felt overwhelmed, but our thoughtful neighbors offered their backyard and created an afterschool pod,” Clendening explained. “The kids attended Zoom school in the morning and then 8-10 kindergartners had after school play time. Another neighbor set up a gym on one of the sports fields on Fridays. They created these amazing opportunities for my son to meet other kids in the neighborhood.”
    Originally from the East Coast, the couple moved to San Francisco to accept jobs in the tech industry but moved to Oakland when Carmela became pregnant with Noah. Five years and another child later, the couple began looking for a larger home in a good school district and found Wilder.

History of Development
    Of course, Wilder wasn’t always such a robust community of diverse families who site the plentiful wildlife and open space as major reasons for living in the Gateway Valley. In fact, long-time Orinda residents find it ironic various realtor website’s tout its miles of open space and closeness to nature as defining attributes of Wilder. The first proposed development in the valley had very different priorities.
    Originally a working cattle ranch, Gateway Valley was purchased by four entrepreneurs in the late 1980s. After years of stalled negotiations with the City of Orinda, they sold to Pacific New Wave in 1991. The Japanese-owned company proposed building on much of the valley’s environmentally sensitive acreage including more than 270 homes, an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, a hotel and conference center and a road connecting it to nearby Moraga. Protecting wildlife and creating open space for residents was not part of the plan. The city agreed to move forward with the development, which resulted in several legal actions.
    In 1993, local voters, led by the environmental group Save Open Space-Gateway Valley (SOS) passed a referendum repealing the City-approved plan. In 1994, Pacific New Wave sued the City of Orinda in federal and state courts for not being allowed to develop its land. The federal lawsuit was dismissed with the state court instructing both sides to compromise. In a settlement, the City agreed to review the development plan. With continued scrutiny from SOS, Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Sierra Club, Pacific New Wave opted out of the project in 1996. Southwest Diversified, Inc. took over the project with Pacific New Wave a minority partner. The new entity became Orinda Gateway LLC.
    But the new developer also faced many impasses and in 2001 sold to one of the nation’s largest hedge funds, Farallon Capital Management of San Francisco. The new owner kept the name, Orinda Gateway LLC, but installed Brooks Street as the new manager, who under Project Manager Michael Olson, listened to critics and found ways to compromise. By 2004, a settlement reached between Orinda Gateway LLC, SOS-Gateway Valley, the Golden Gate Audubon Society and the Sierra Club eliminated 80% of the development, including the golf course. Development was restricted to 200 acres with 1,000 acres deeded to East Bay Regional Parks District and the East Bay Municipal Utility District in perpetuity. The City of Orinda and its residents received five public ballfields, a public clubhouse, a public art and garden center and funds to build low-cost housing for seniors on the former Orinda Library site at Orinda Way and Irwin Way.
    While dips in the economy helped fuel a slow start to home sales in Wilder, sales began to climb in recent years bringing the total number of lots sold and completed houses to 186 as of December 2020. Like any new development, however, there have been growing pains. For instance, the Art and Garden Center’s parking location has proved difficult to access for both members of the public and Wilder residents. Compared to the difficulties encountered when the development was first proposed in the 1980s, this and other problems seem small indeed.
    Clendening expressed her family’s appreciation of all the efforts to bring Wilder to fruition. “We were looking for a fantastic neighborhood for our children to grow up in and Wilder has not disappointed. I really want to thank everyone who worked for over 25 years to make this beautiful development happen. Now my family and many others can live here, enjoy the nature and wildlife all around us and take advantage of the wonderful public schools. Thank you so much.”

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