City Council Looking at Downtown Rezoning and Housing Needs

(Jeff Heyman, Photographer)
Orinda Theatre Square is a hub of activity within the family-oriented city. Mixed-use and residential design standards will be established for the area through the efforts of the City’s Downtown Precise Plan.

Downtown Plan Seeks Rezoning for Office and Commercial
    The Orinda Theatre, open since 1941, is a unique and historical slice of the City’s family-oriented community. With its easy access from Highway 24 and selection of restaurants, professional services and shops, Orinda Theatre Square is a central hub for residents and visitors of the City.
    Since 2020, the Orinda City Council has been working on the Downtown Precise Plan (DPP), which, as stated by, will revise downtown development standards and establish mixed-use and residential design standards for the City’s Theatre and Village Districts.
    “You would have new retail and new businesses that would be associated with these changes,” said Orinda Planning Director Drummond Buckley.
    A spring 2021 joint meeting between the City Council and the Planning Commission established that work on the DPP, in parallel with the updated Housing Element, would continue, and an April 2021 EPS analysis of the plan detailed how proposed zoning changes to the downtown area would increase the number of maximum allowable developed housing units. 
    But will the suggested zoning updates projected for downtown Orinda help the City meet its housing goals, as well as serve to revitalize the area?
    Perhaps not, according to Orinda resident Nick Waranoff. “Orinda’s downtown does not need to be ‘revitalized,’” Waranoff said. “Currently, we have very few vacancies. Existing businesses serve the needs of the residents and there is ample parking. Fancier dining and retail are available five minutes away in Lafayette.” 
    The April 2021 EPS Development Feasibility Memo notes demolition and replacement of the existing commercial buildings in the downtown area “represent a significant financial hurdle” offset only by a redevelopment project that “also provides a large amount of additional, high value development.” 
    In the Downtown Orinda Objective Design Standards presentation from
November, 2021, building heights within the Downtown General and Downtown Core areas are projected an allowance of up to 55-feet at three unspecified key locations. 
    The City of Orinda’s Planning Director Drummond Buckley clarified on Jan. 10 that the City staff was no longer recommending a 55-foot height limit for the theatre block and that the planned revitalization was about creating a mix of residential and retail downtown.
    Resident Waranoff mentioned concerns about the ability of local, decades-old restaurants located within the outlined DPP plan to adapt to the changes, due to “moving costs and higher rents in the new buildings.”
    As reported by The Orinda News in June 2020, the results of a resident survey conducted by Orinda’s Planning Department showed a general dissatisfaction with the existing layout of the downtown area, including a lack of mainstream retail, grocery options and parking.
    “It’s not going to be automatic,” Buckley said about the changes described in the DPP. It would be years before things change, he said, and hopefully existing businesses would be able to make the move when property changes happen.
    The City of Orinda has listed a total of 151 units projected for the downtown area, with the DPP proposal looking to rezone the Downtown Office to Downtown General, allowing residential use of 25 dwelling units an acre. 
    The current Downtown Commercial allows residential use at 10 dwelling units an acre as part of a mixed-use project. The DPP would seek to also rezone this area to Downtown Core, allowing the mixed-use residential density to increase to 30 dwelling units an acre.
    Planning Director Buckley emphasized the housing goals that align with Orinda’s Downtown Precise Plan.
    “Our hope is [for] a mix of affordable and market rate units that would be constructed over time,” he said.

Council Members Work on 6th Cycle Housing Element
    As 2022 begins, the City of Orinda is preparing the public draft of its 6th Cycle Housing Element, which is expected in the spring. Among the discussed locations – 1,359 allocated units, 1,699 in total with a 25% recommended buffer – are potential housing sites located on Orinda church lots and on school district land. Very low- and low-income allocations represent 587 of the units.
    The City’s update to its Housing Element and zoning, as a part of its general plan, is due to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) by Jan. 31, 2023. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) adopted the final Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) plan in mid-December for Bay Area jurisdictions, which runs from 2023 to 2031. Updates to the Housing Element are required every eight years in California. 
    “The City Council will have the option of meeting the RHNA by allowing more residential uses downtown in addition to potentially rezoning other sites, such as churches, outside of downtown,” Orinda Planning Director Drummond Buckley said on Jan. 10. 
    Buckley mentioned that the state-required Housing Element update is being processed concurrently with the City’s Downtown Precise Plan (DPP). The city has estimated the DPP’s planning horizon as roughly 27 years, extending from 2023 to 2050. Two new downtown zones, Downtown Core and Downtown General, are proposed in the plan.
    According to the ABAG’s RHNA webpage, the number of allocated housing units is the result of surveys the organization collected to inform development in a jurisdiction. Orinda’s 5th Cycle Housing Element, which ran from 2015 to 2023, had a RHNA allocation of 227 total units.
    The Bay Area RHNA needs, as determined by the HCD, currently total 441,176 housing units. Many of these are above-moderate income, numbering 188,130 units.
    The City has listed four possible RHNA sites located on church parking lots in Orinda, which would need to be rezoned for housing. Also listed as properties that could potentially undergo rezoning to allow for residential, and possibly higher density use are ones owned by the Orinda Union School District and Acalanes Union High School District. 
    The City of Orinda has released a Notice of Preparation of a Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which lists Jan. 4 to Feb. 3, 2022 as the public review period for the DPP and both the Housing Element and Safety Element updates. 
    The notice acknowledges that changes in city zoning could cause increases in density and height. The EIR is anticipated to analyze potential impacts to issues such as air quality, noise, tribal cultural resources and greenhouse gas emissions.
    Site inventory for the Housing Element is a process that includes multiple steps to identify potential new residential sites that can be developed within the eight-year planning period. 
    Identification of sites that can accommodate low and very-low income units is one step in the site inventory process, as is the analysis of site capacity and the identification of non-vacant sites.
     Non-vacant locations and their redevelopment potential are discussed during site inventory. The determination of adequate sites establishes that if 50% of the lower-income RHNA is on non-vacant sites, the City will provide solid findings that the current use will likely be discontinued during the planning period.
    The Housing Element also aims to determine whether it contains suitable and available land to meet the need of housing for each income level. The presence of sufficient capacity to accommodate RHNA is also examined. In the absence of adequate development sites, a program containing an inventory of potential rezoning sites is mandated to be created.
    An early January internal article from the City of Orinda, covering updates in city development projects and goals, states that the City’s housing sites inventory is currently in development.
    “We are soliciting public feedback about which sites [will be chosen for the Housing Element] with a ‘Housing Plan Challenge,’” said Buckley. 
    The Housing Plan simulation tool can be accessed at Residents can use the interactive site to create a balanced plan that can be submitted to the City. The Plan Orinda page also allows residents to subscribe to email notifications pertaining to Plan updates.

Andrea Madison can be reached at

(Sally Hogarty, Photographer)
Orinda Senior Village Foundation hopes to create housing opportunities for low and middle income seniors on the upper parking lot of the Orinda Community Church.

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