Candidates for City Council Discuss their Priorities for Orinda

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     The five members of Orinda’s City Council are elected volunteers who set policy, give direction to City Staff and make budget decisions. Besides attending twice-monthly council meetings, each Council Member serves on several committees. They also interact with the various levels of government between the city and the state on issues such as transportation, housing and traffic.
     This November, six candidates will vie for three available seats: Alex Drexel, Stuart House, Brandyn Iverson, Latika Malkani, Sunil Rajaraman and Janet Riley.
     They were asked the following questions:

1) How would you reconcile state housing policies with Orinda’s unique character and semi-rural setting? (200 words or less)

2) Revisions are currently taking place with the Downtown Precise Plan. What do you think of the plan and what strategies/incentives would you use to make Orinda’s downtown more vibrant? (300 words or less)

3) How would you rank, in order of importance, three areas of need in Orinda? (200 words or less)

4) What leadership/management skills/experience do you possess that will make you an effective City Council Member? (150 words or less)

Alex Drexel

Alex Drexel

Housing Policies
    I value the semi-rural nature of our neighborhoods, along with the village feel of our downtown. We should preserve this along with protecting our need to stay safe from wildfire as we navigate well-intended state housing policies. Orinda is required to plan for an additional 1359 housing units in the next eight years. We must diligently lobby for a more realistic mandate so it’s sensitive to Orinda’s limitations.
    A lot can be done if we demand good design from developers; slopes of parcels can be used to add scale to a building but not necessarily make that size apparent from the street. Upper stories can be set back, architectural styles can be softened and the materials used can make buildings blend into the natural environment. Landscaping around buildings and sidewalks are also important to preserve a natural feel.
    Site identification is important. If development is concentrated in only a few sites, that development is likely to be out of scale with the town.
    Using development to restore San Pablo Creek is a fantastic opportunity to enhance Orinda’s semi-rural feel as well as reduce the chance of flooding, better connect the town with trails and make downtown more desirable for visitors.

Downtown Precise Plan
    There are things to like in the DPP. Support for local businesses is essential in keeping Orinda friendly and unique. Developing attractive streetscapes, improving walkability and taking advantage of the creek’s natural features is smart.
    Encouraging a good mix of businesses as well as making sure the ones that generate foot traffic are on the ground floors is also key. Creating an anchor such as an additional grocery store will also help bring more foot traffic and give Safeway some competition.
    Requiring developments to include public art and civic spaces such as plazas and pocket parks, as well as good screening and planting are important.
    Clarity provided by the objective design standards; higher density and a mixed-use approach, as well as helping coordinate developments that cross parcels will provide better outcomes for developers. Many in our community will want to downsize in the coming years. I think focusing on at-market senior housing, in addition to housing for our teachers, firefighters and city workers will “prime the pump” for our downtown economy.
    Let’s make sure we don’t give up more than we must for a better downtown. It’s a balance. In a city survey, almost 60% of respondents valued the small town feel of our downtown. People appreciate the hamlet Orinda is amongst the built-up areas around it. I worry the current approach to the Downtown Core zone is too intense. Five story buildings 60 feet high where Geppetto’s is across from the golf course? Lafayette and Moraga don’t have this scale and density. I wonder if our small town can even support this level of commercial activity; there aren’t enough of us. We should plan for something that’s more realistic and becoming of our town. The more moderate approach of the Downtown General Zone in the DPP is more like it.

Three Areas of Need
    Fire safety is most important. All of Orinda is in a very high or high fire hazard safety zone. Fuel reduction, home hardening, and planning for a wildfire event with evacuation routes and strategies to keep us all safe, including our school children, seniors and other vulnerable groups.
    Second, we need a downtown that better serves our residents. It’s difficult for businesses to survive downtown. Allowing for some additional density and mixed use will be part of the solution to incentivize development. However, I don’t think we have to sacrifice the character of our town to get more shopping and dining options.
    Third, we must manage the impact of state housing mandates on our safety and quality of life. As we are required to plan for roughly 1400 housing units in the next eight years, there is a risk of congestion and scale that isn’t becoming of Orinda. This may create an unsafe environment in the event of a wildfire. I will do everything I can to make sure our safety and quality of life come first.

Leadership Skills
    Active listening has been essential in the leadership positions I’ve held over the years. More recently, I was brought in as an executive to transform a large organization, to help re-align how work was done, how people were organized, create a vision, and enable and motivate people to reflect that change and do great things. Listening was step one and in all the other steps in that process.
    A sense of fairness is also important. A leader understands all stakeholders in a situation, finds balance and moves forward towards a common goal in the most equitable way possible. I put this skill to the test on the Oakland Civil Service Board; we had to balance the interests of city workers, the community, and taxpayers to find just outcomes. Being the former chair and current commissioner of the Orinda Parks and Recreation Commission also puts this skill to the test.

Stuart House

Stuart House

Housing Policies
    We live on a creek, maintain riparian vegetation, have a vegetable garden, a fruit orchard, chickens, a Poodle, and appreciate our quiet semi-rural home.
    Since I moved to California 20 years ago from New Mexico – where I built over 1300 houses for Indigenous people who lived in substandard housing – it was clear to me that one of most pressing problems for Californians was the lack of sufficient, affordable housing. My first endeavor was to support ballot Proposition 46 – The Housing and Emergency Shelter Trust Fund Act of 2002.
    For this community and political organizing, the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH) awarded me a Certificate of Appreciation for Local Advocacy and Leadership. I also received the East Bay Housing Organization Affordable Housing Leadership Award which states: “Because of your leadership, $118 Million have been awarded to the East Bay from Proposition 46 Funds & Over 3,000 East Bay families have affordable homes.”
    I continue to advocate for affordable housing for senior citizens who live in our city, as well as teachers, police officers, fire fighters, city and school employees who work in Orinda. I believe we can bridge our differences with state housing policies with creativity and thoughtful planning.

Downtown Precise Plan
    I am pleased with the progress of the Downtown Precise Plan and also happy to see goals to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and climate resiliency through the design of new development projects included.
    I support OrindaVision’s goals to preserve Orinda’s history and sense of community; to generate vibrancy in downtown; to improve its commercial environment; and to realize the full potential of underutilized property.
    I believe making Orinda a destination for fine dining would serve as an anchor for other small businesses. Orinda sites for Alice Water’s Chez Panisse and Danville’s Esin would bring those who enjoy gourmet cooking to our city and anchor other businesses without taking away Orinda’s charm.
    Improving streetscape amenities such as quaint lighting and lush planting as well as pedestrian enhancements, like wider sidewalks, bike racks, attractive trash receptacles and brick inlays, would add to the charm of the downtown. I also understand the importance of having the buy-in of property owners to make any plan successful.
    I also support the focus on improvements to San Pablo Creek, including walking paths with safe and convenient pedestrian access.
    I was fortunate to attend the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom to study “Environmental and Social Planning” with a focus on the New Towns of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. I learned valuable lessons about Town Centers, greenbelts and pedestrians within city centers.
    When I lived in Detroit, MI, and worked for New Detroit, Inc. (the nation’s first urban coalition), I had an important role in the drafting and successful passage of the federal legislation, the Local Public Works and Investment Act of 1976, which provided Public Works support to revitalizing the downtown area of Detroit. I would bring this experience to the revitalizing of downtown. Most importantly, I would listen to the input from stakeholders.

Three Areas of Need
    1. Collaboration with the Orinda Union School District and the City of Orinda to help improve our schools with more frequent, joint meetings between two Council Members and two School Board Members, encourage greater communication between the city manager and school superintendent, and advocacy for the schools in council decision-making. Continue the practice of Joint Resolutions on matters of mutual concern such as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) to present a united stance which supports our democracy under threat and resists hate of every sort.
    2. Teacher housing and senior housing as part of the affordable housing plans for the city’s Housing Element. The first steps have been taken recently by the city council to advance housing for senior citizens with the Vista Verde Community Housing Project. Teacher housing can be advanced by pursuing property owned by the Acalanes Union High School District suitable for such housing. I would urge members of the Council to reach out to the Acalanes School Board and begin feasibility study of the recommended site.
    3. Downtown and San Pablo Creek Revitalization – Improving downtown to retain the city’s charm while making it more vibrant and pedestrian-friendly will attract small businesses and improve the city’s tax base.

Leadership Skills
    I have worked for government at all levels. In Detroit, I was deputy director of Detroit Council of the Arts, director of summer youth employment, principal for the employment and training department running the CETA Program, and commission member of the Consumer Affairs Department.
    In Lansing, MI, I was administrative assistant to president pro tem of the Michigan Senate; in Washington and Detroit, I was Assistant to the congressman, legislative aide to the U.S. House of Representatives.
    I was also Southeastern Michigan campaign director for President Jimmy Carter; campaign director for the congressional campaigns of George Crockett, Jr. (Detroit) and Richard Vanderveen (Grand Rapids).
    In New Mexico, I was twice assistant sgt-at-arms for the New Mexico Senate. In California, I have been a licensed general contractor since 2002; director of facilities for the Walnut Creek School District and director of facilities, management and operations for the Orinda Union School District.

Brandyn Iverson

Brandyn Iverson

Housing Policies
    We’re going to do our best to make lemonade out of lemons.
    The State demand for 1,359 units of housing in the next eight years is way out of proportion to Orinda’s growth rate and is a mismatch with our city profile. In the last eight years, we created 346 new dwellings (beating the 227 required), and we have fewer than 10% renters vs. the 44% Bay Area average. This is the proverbial hammer where a scalpel is called for, and the City planners have been downright heroic in delivering a plan to meet this new hurdle. We can’t afford to lose local control over approvals.
    Our semi-rural charm and multi-decade resident tenure is at odds with the kind of small, dense apartments that would most easily fit the bill to meet our State numbers. It’s up to us to meet our housing numbers in a way that: 1) makes downtown improvements happen, and/or 2) creates housing for Orinda’s workforce, and where possible with ownership or family-sized units that match the greatest need. Priority for below market rate units to go to Orinda employed families first is in our existing plan, but more people need to benefit from it.

Downtown Precise Plan
    The current draft of the plan is a roadmap for Orinda’s downtown revitalization, and it’s ready to be put in place this December. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the DPP and how, combined with the need to create new housing, it is a critical step to unlocking the potential of our older, under-utilized downtown sites.
    Prior to the State SB35 housing laws, the debate was over what price we were willing to pay to get financially viable projects downtown. Were we willing to have taller buildings or apartments downtown if that brought more retail? Would residential units over retail even work in a small town? SB35 changed the question from if to how we should create more housing, and it compelled us to make a bolder plan for what we’ll allow in the commercial district. Until now, a potential project had to ask for a variance on an allowed density of only 10 units per acre, and in a town with an anti-growth reputation. The one, truly important thing these downtown zoning changes bring is certainty. That certainty doesn’t just bring projects forward, it makes parcels more valuable for landowners who might consider selling. The DPP should be in place before this group starts – we will be a success when projects actually get 
done.
    We should also go beyond the state’s playbook of density for affordable housing and add retail and parking incentives of our own. Other cities have had success offering things like extra height or expedited permitting for including retail or excess parking capacity, and we should include models that work here. More ways to make projects feasible is a win-win. Finally, the Connect Orinda studies had some great suggestions for the public spaces that I would like to help make happen.

Three Areas of Need
    Downtown Revitalization: Voters resoundingly cite our tired, nothing-ever-changes downtown as their top issue for this election. They want to know why we’re losing retail tenants, why Theatre Square seems to struggle, and what that means for attracting new projects. It’s time to start making things actually happen.
    Safety: One of the main reasons people move to Orinda are its schools and the feeling of safety. The Measure R wildfire programs have been a big success for evacuation protocols, creating fire breaks, and grassroots awareness. Here, we just need to make sure resources are spent to keep safety front and center, as always.
    Response to State Housing Policies: One thing we can all agree on is that we don’t want to lose local control over the entitlement of large housing projects, so meeting our housing numbers is a priority. Recent laws making ADUs, lot splits, and second units automatically allowed are still new, and the consequences remain to be seen. Will we get infill duplexes jammed on small lots or family compounds better using existing land resources? It could be the best kind of inclusionary zoning, or it may detract from neighborhood charm and beauty.

Leadership Skills
    My most relevant experience was chairing the Planning Commission from 2018-2020, a time when the elements of the Downtown Precise Plan were coming together. Serving in a leadership capacity on a public commission gives me years of experience in the kind of consensus decision-making we will need for the City Council. Also, with three seats open, having the continuity of someone who has worked on implementing State housing policies, permits for parcels downtown, and Wilder matters will be a big help. I am now in my 7th year on the Planning Commission and am proud of the way the group makes decisions in terms of both the process and the results. I have also been a senior executive in several companies, where consensus decision-making is just as important. I can contribute skills in law, finance, and negotiations and a strong background in real estate and land use.

Latika Malkani

Latika Malkani

Housing Policies
    Recognizing California’s housing shortage, state law requires each locality to plan for increased housing. Orinda must plan for an additional 1,359 housing units by 2031.
    This is not an easy task. Orinda has a limited number of sites on which to build, a unique geography and is vulnerable to wildfires with limited evacuation routes. We are car-dependent with heavy commuter traffic, few major road arteries and limited parking. As we plan, solving for these issues must be front and center.
    Ultimately, this challenge is an opportunity for Orinda to attract residents and amenities that build a more vibrant, connected community and enhance Orinda’s charm. This may allow long-time residents to remain in place while transitioning to senior living communities. Planning for affordable housing may entice young working people (including our own adult children) to live here, adding vitality. Providing local preferences in housing could help Orinda retain and recruit the very best talent in our school teachers, firefighters, and city personnel. Locating housing near transit or in mixed-use downtown sites could help alleviate congestion and provide a much-needed boost to local small businesses that otherwise struggle to stay afloat with their limited walkability to housing.

Downtown Precise Plan
    I know many Orinda residents join me in their excitement to see our downtown transform into a walkable, connected, lively area.
    Orinda has struggled to attract and retain quality retail. Most developers and planners will tell you that the key to retail development is housing with sufficient density that supports the spacing of desired stores. So, if Orinda wants to lure more desirable dining, shopping and entertainment, we need to revitalize the entire downtown, with a comprehensive plan that promotes mixed-use development that balances retail and other commercial use with housing appropriate to our downtown landscape and city charm. The Downtown Precise Plan’s vision of creating a vibrant, welcoming, and accessible community, is a substantial step in the right direction. I would continue to support these efforts, responsibly but promptly, as we embark on long-term revitalization.
    As we move forward, I would be attentive to the needs of small businesses, seeking out resource programs and funding to encourage retention and growth. I would encourage the development of arts and cultural centers, including exploring joint partnerships with existing arts and charitable organizations to promote speakers, entertainers, and functions that benefit our residents while supporting our local business community. I would continue and expand the city’s present efforts to integrate more pro-environment amenities to downtown, such as additional EV charging stations, and better preservation of the creek and natural habitats. I would encourage beautification, both by making sure that objective design standards promote an attractive aesthetic, and by continuing to encourage art in public places. I would continue with a vision of an intergenerational, dynamic community that encourages residents to shop, dine and enjoy being local. Finally, we must continue to engage all stakeholders in the DPP process because considering varied input often produces better results.

Three Areas of Need
    Orinda can and should be California’s model for wildfire resilience. As we continue to support infrastructure improvements, we must also prioritize wildfire preparedness. Our beautiful environment and homes are Orinda’s most valuable asset, and we must do everything we can to be prepared. That means not only working with our local fire protection experts on preventive actions that will keep us safe but pressing state and federal leaders for broader solutions. I have been very involved in drafting Orinda’s SSTOC recommendations and best practices, and I hope to continue this important work on the Council.
    Revitalizing the downtown and attracting more retail development is also essential. We can do better than what we currently have and doing so will raise revenue that will help fund all of our priorities and goals.
    Celebration of diversity and inclusion is priceless. When San Francisco and the Bay Area emerged as one of the most welcoming and inclusive communities in the world, the impact was stunning. The Area grew to become the world leader in technology and innovations, its commerce, arts and culture blossomed, and it became one of the most visited and sought out places on Earth. Inclusion is dynamic and uplifting.

Leadership Skills
    As a mother of three raised in Orinda, a practicing lawyer, and a city commissioner, I spend my days engaged in rigorous legal analysis, interacting with persons across the commercial spectrum, conflict resolution and negotiation, and collaborate with leaders on the most effective policies to serve our constituencies.
    I originally ran for this position based on feedback I received from many community members that they want their City Council representatives to listen and really hear their concerns and bring fresh ideas to our community. Listening and hearing is job one as a mother and as a lawyer. But job two is taking what you hear and finding effective solutions. That is what I strive to do every single day.
    I have held numerous leadership positions in my professional life and in our community – supporting our schools, youth sports, scouting, local arts, and charitable organizations.
    For more information, please see www.latika4orinda.com.

Janet Riley

Janet Riley

Housing Policies
    One of the biggest challenges that cities like Orinda face is enacting local zoning to maintain the character of the community while following state mandates. I’m deeply committed to working together to set planning the way the community wants downtown Orinda and our neighborhoods to look. We’ve had tremendous input from the community for the Downtown Precise Plan. Orinda is a family town, and I want to continue to attract young families. With the Downtown Precise Plan in place, I support a vibrant downtown while minimizing negative effects on traffic and parking. Senior housing such as Orinda Community Church’s buildings is much needed here and is the type of housing that meets the housing mandates and adds very little traffic to our streets, and I believe is a welcome addition to Orinda. In addition to working closely with staff, I will actively support advocacy efforts to incorporate the City of Orinda’s perspective in state legislation.

Downtown Precise Plan
    Orinda has been exploring ways to revitalize the downtown for many years. In recent years, the community has been actively engaged in a community process to discern the key elements and features of what would make our town vibrant. Connect Orinda was an effective supplemental planning process that identified ways to connect the south and north side of downtown. The Downtown Precise Plan provides for revitalization of the downtown restaurants, housing, library, park, and community center. Having grown up here, I know how vital the library, community center and park are to children, adults and seniors.
    At the core of downtown revitalization is bringing people to downtown to support businesses. Once they are downtown, we have good pedestrian access and signage between the two areas. We need to have people living in the downtown and need to promote the activities of the community center especially as we reemerge from COVID. The Concerts in the Park and the food trucks draw people to the community center and give them an opportunity to connect with their friends and neighbors.
    As a family friendly place with our warmer climate, we need restaurants with an open feel accommodating indoor and outdoor seating. Some restaurants need to have kid-friendly atmospheres and other restaurants need to provide environments for adults. With the increase of pet adoption during the pandemic, we also need restaurants where we can take our pets with us. COVID taught us how much we want to be with each other, how we want to be in relaxed settings and how we want new experiences with our friends and neighbors.

Three Areas of Need
    #1. Orinda is a family friendly place and, in order to retain that character, we need activities and services for everyone in the downtown. We need places that bring us together and allow us to connect with each other. We need to attract businesses that will bring people downtown.
    #2. Wildfire prevention and disaster preparedness are vital efforts to continue in Orinda. As part of the effort to mitigate wildfire, the City needs to continue to work closely with the Moraga-Orinda Fire District and encourage residents to undertake the important work of vegetation management and home hardening at their homes. Additionally, securing evacuation routes and clearing vegetation from these essential safety corridors is essential.
    #3. We need to continue to build our partnership between the community and the schools. School age families move to Orinda for the suburban family-oriented community and the excellent public schools. The City of Orinda and the OUSD have an excellent working relationship and I will continue to foster that partnership. Orinda’s schools are a foundation of Orinda and by increasing community support we can ensure their continued financial stability and educational excellence.

Leadership Skills
    I have served Orinda in many leadership positions for over 30 years – President of Sleepy Hollow Parents’ Club, President of Orinda Intermediate School Parents’ Club, President of the Educational Foundation of Orinda, President of the Orinda Garden Club, Co-Chair of the Orinda Fourth of July Celebration, and Co-Chair of the Santa Maria Social Justice Committee. I have also served on the USTA Nor Cal board and as general counsel. I chose these organizations to help Orinda students, protect our environment, put on our hometown parade, feed the hungry in our greater area and improve league tennis. Before I had my two children, I practiced business and tax law in local private law firms for small businesses and non-profits. In all my pursuits, I have and will identify and research the issues, listen to all sides, work collaboratively, and help reach quality and common-sense decisions. Please visit www.janetrileyfororinda.com.

Sunil Rajaraman

Sunil Rajaraman

Housing Policies
    The main issue I am focused on regarding residential real estate is affordable housing for teachers. Part of what makes Orinda amazing is our schools – as the father of two students who attend Orinda public schools, I want to make sure we keep our best teachers from turning away from our district.
    To the point above, I am focused on the inclusionary zoning ordinance. I have not yet formed a strong opinion on what the City should do, but I am aware that some of our neighboring cities have inclusionary zoning ordinances (including Lafayette).
    Daly City, Santa Clara and other cities have figured out ways to keep teachers from churning through finding ways to slot affordable housing for teachers. Daly City had 25% churn in its teacher population in one high school alone before they focused on this problem.
    I want to work with the School Board to keep our schools top notch, which will help all residents (and continue to make Orinda an attractive place to live). A big part of this equation will be solving this problem – whether through the inclusionary zoning ordinance, or otherwise. I believe this can be done without sacrificing Orinda’s unique character.

Downtown Precise Plan
    I fully support the Downtown Precise Plan and commend the Council for their work on getting us to this point. The biggest job of the new Council – in my opinion – is to see the plan all the way through.
    Perhaps the biggest callout I would make is that we need to make sure local businesses that have been in Orinda for a long period of time do not get left behind. There will definitely be impact as the way the plan is written to a lot of local businesses, and we want to make sure we provide support to them on an ongoing basis in the face of all the change.
    With regard to incentives and strategy, I think it’s the new Council’s duty to track progress very publicly on the plan. And notify the public when we are off plan, how much we are spending, and where we’ve hit snags. Without public accountability, we will not continue to make progress.
    I am not a real estate developer by trade, but numerous council members and candidates are. I’ll rely on the expertise of the council to supplement my knowledge here.
    Where I can support is attracting some of the top retailers to Orinda in partnership with the Council. I also plan on frequently using technology that is easily available to the community to get a sense of what residents actually want. And using my background in tech analytics to find ways to bring retail in that satisfies the largest number of residents, without sacrificing on ‘must haves’ (safety, no excessive traffic, etc).

Three Areas of Need
    Focus. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the business world is that if you try to do too many things, you’re in effect doing nothing. I consider keeping Orinda a safe place to live as table stakes. Outside of safety – I’m most focused on:
    Making sure the great work the existing council has done on the Downtown Precise Plan goes all the way through.
    Working with the School Board to keep the quality of education very high. It’s a major part of what drew us to Orinda and will bring other families this way for decades to come – provided we can provide affordable housing for teachers and support the School Board in any way we can.
    Fiscal discipline. The city has done an amazing job planning for the future and being fiscally responsible (credit to the Council for this). I’d only like to add to that by seeing if we can bring in some new retail, thereby increasing tax revenue – which obviously has numerous positive effects on the community writ large.

Leadership Skills
    I am an entrepreneur at heart, but I’ve been fortunate to have a varied number of career experiences. I’ve built companies from scratch to millions of revenue raising funds from the top venture capitalists in the world. I’ve personally invested in a number of successful private companies. And been part of the executive team at public companies. I’ve even had the opportunity to teach technology product management at UCLA as an adjunct professor. The common thread between all of these varied experiences is I have a strong sense of what success could look like in different settings, so I’m not intimidated by being thrown into something completely new. I believe the fact that I don’t have experience in public office, and that I’m relatively new to Orinda, are actually major assets to the Council. I have a fresh set of eyes, and an unlimited amount of energy to 
contribute.

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