Housing Element and Downtown Precise Plan Move Forward

(Charleen Earley, Photographer)
Orinda City Councilmembers started the city council meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance on Nov. 1 via Zoom, before discussing the Housing Element draft revisions, which included public comments.

    Orinda’s mayor, city councilmembers, city manager and city attorney reviewed the updated Orinda Housing Element draft along with representatives from Placeworks on Nov. 1 via Zoom, with the public invited to comment.
    The nearly five-hour meeting comprehensively reviewed the draft which was then sent to the California Department of Housing and Community Development office (HCD) on Nov. 10. Once received, members of HCD have 60 days to approve the draft or make comments for revisions.
    “This is not only a complicated process, but it’s a long process,” said Councilmember Darlene Gee. “And we’re a long way from really knowing exactly how things will fully play out.”
    Echoing Gee, Mayor Dennis Fay spoke to the complexity of the Housing Element process.
    “This is a complex process with many moving parts,” he said. “Staff has done a good job balancing the multiple objectives of the City and HCD and citizen input has been valuable and has helped shape the outcome.”
    During the 36-slide PowerPoint presented by PlaceWorks, Inc.’s Principal Jennifer Gastelum and Senior Associate Cynthia Walsh, the two covered the updated Housing Element draft to include an overview of the Housing Element, importance of compliance, Housing Element progress, revisions to address HCD comments, state law review and next steps.
    This PowerPoint, along with the entire Housing Element draft and Downtown Precise Plan (DPP) is available for public consumption at http://www.planorinda.com.
    While the Zoom meeting ended publicly at 11:30 p.m., Mayor Dennis Fay explained what resolutions took place after the cameras were shut off.
    “The Council adopted revisions to the staff report that limited the building height in the downtown commercial district to 45-feet,” said Fay. “This is, effectively, a four-floor limit. The combination of this height limit and the objective design standards will limit building mass, since the fourth floor will be set-back from the floors below.”
    Councilmember Amy Worth explained the basic process of the Housing Element.
    “California has a process that all the cities and counties in the state have to do every eight years,” she said. “They have to do an update to their housing element, but what happens first at the state level, is the State HCD, along with the Department of Finance, these two agencies sit down and go through a process that determines the future housing for the next cycle; how many housing units will be needed across the state of California to accommodate the future.”
    Fay talked about the considerable comments on the BART station and the Caltrans site on the north side of the Wilder Rd. freeway exit, and how it could affect health.
    “The BART station is likely a good site to consider in future Housing Elements but has some timing issues for this cycle,” he said. “The BART site also has environmental issues since it is surrounded by the freeway. Because of that, carbon monoxide from auto exhaust stays close to where it is created and may be a health issue for those living in housing there.”
    Fay added, “This environmental concern will fade as the fleet of autos in California transforms to EVs (electric vehicles). As for the Caltrans site at the Wilder Rd. interchange, it has some terrain constraints, and the 20 units/acre the staff recommended is likely a practical number. I have confidence that working with Caltrans we can get this site declared surplus and available for development.”
    He sees this revised Housing Element draft as something the new councilmembers can approve with ease.
    “I am hoping that the action Tuesday night by the current City Council will make it easier for the new City Council to approve a final Housing Element in January 2023,” said Fay.
    City Manager David Biggs said the City Council made another decision at that meeting.
    “They [HCD] also asked we add language about how Measure J funding requirements relate to having a certified Housing Element,” said Biggs. “And at this point, we will have to await the State’s comments on the next draft. Those comments will influence what additional changes staff might recommend to the Planning Commission and City Council in February before final approval.”
    Biggs felt the meeting to review the draft was helpful to city staff members.
    “The refinements which the City Council made helped provide guidance to staff which we can also share with State HCD as coming from the City Council,” said Biggs. “On balance, we believe we have a Housing Element – with hopefully limited additional changes as required by HCD – that can be certified by them after final approval. This should result in Orinda avoiding any possible negative consequences of not meeting State deadlines.”
    Councilmember Worth, along with city staff, said she feels the frustrations of balancing the state housing requirements while maintaining Orinda’s small town charm and what the community wants collectively.
    “You know, sometimes what gets frustrating is that ‘one size fits all’ doesn’t always ‘fit all.’ So, I think what we’ve tried to do is to say, okay, how can we accommodate the state’s housing requirements and planning requirements?” said Worth.
    Worth said this Housing Element draft, along with the DPP, presents a real opportunity for the Orinda community.
    “This is what communities across the Bay Area are trying to address,” concluded Worth. “In other words, as the retail world changes, how do we continue to have a have a vital, downtown unity? When you think about it, we’ve done a lot of public investment – the beautiful park, the library, the community center sidewalks – and so we want to be able to have people be able to experience the downtown. The challenge is for cities to deal with state requirements!”

Charleen Earley can be reached at 

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