After nearly two years of research, consultants’ reports, community outreach and engagement and several revisions, Orinda’s 6th Cycle Housing Element was deemed in full compliance by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).
The approval marks a significant milestone in Orinda’s efforts to address the ongoing housing crisis in the state and comply with regional housing requirements. Notably, at press time, Orinda is only the second municipality in Contra Costa County and one of only 13 within the 109 Bay Area jurisdictions to receive this approval, according to HCD’s website.
City Manager, David Biggs, attributes Orinda’s success with their early start and integration of the Downtown Precise Plan (DPP) with the Housing Element.
“The HCD saw that Orinda planned for housing as a tool to revitalize downtown and not to just meet their requirements,” said Biggs. “Because of the DPP, we weren’t considered to be a city trying to plop down housing just to meet their RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation). This gave the whole plan credibility.”
Although the approval is good news for the city, with three years to complete necessary rezonings instead of one year, it is not without controversy.
HCD did not Consider CalTrans Site as Part of RHNA
By not considering the CalTrans Gateway site as part of Orinda’s necessary housing allocation, the HCD effectively moved affordable housing units to other parts of the city and left a very small buffer for low-income housing in the plan.
The CalTrans location along Highway 24 adjacent to Cal Shakes was proposed for 200 units of low-income housing. This plan was opposed by housing rights organizations and some residents amid concerns about its proximity to the freeway, distance from amenities like shopping and transportation and potential traffic impacts.
Future CalTrans Site Opportunity
Nick Waranoff, a critic of the original plan for the CalTrans site, who also opposes dense housing in downtown, primarily due to wildfire evacuation risks, sees an opportunity for the city.
“Orinda can take advantage of the approval of the Housing Element to fix this situation,” he said. “It gives the city breathing room to develop a better distribution of new housing, which would minimize the adverse impact on evacuation and also satisfy Orinda’s RHNA.”
Waranoff added, “Such a plan might reduce density downtown and compensate for that reduced density by changing the proposed use of the CalTrans site from a low density, exclusively lower income outpost to a high density, mixed-income, mixed-use village with amenities such as a casual restaurant, convenience store, dry cleaning drop-off and the like.”
He said this could serve the Wilder community and the future memory care center as well.
The HCD approval letter states, “This program commits the City to rezone the CalTrans Gateway site and decertify the cite (sic) to allow for affordable housing development by January 2026.”
According to Biggs, HCD expressed concerns about the CalTrans location and the timing from the very beginning, so this was not a surprise. He doesn’t preclude mixed-use housing there.
“We’re going to continue working on it,” said Biggs, who pointed out the City may locate affordable housing in other areas that were not in the original plan as the eight-year cycle unfolds.
Implementation is Key
Councilmember Latika Malkani is realistic, yet hopeful, noting approval of the Housing Element is great, but this is simply a plan and implementation is key.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “I’m not going to say [adding a large volume of additional housing] is not a burden. On one hand, it’s a huge challenge, one of our biggest challenges, but we have to see the silver lining.”
Malkani said the way to get a vibrant downtown is by adding housing.
“There’s a blight in Orinda and that’s not ok,” she said. “We’re not alone. A lot of Bay Area jurisdictions are facing problems post COVID-19. If you walk around Theatre Square, it’s depressing.
“We have a lot of work to do to address current needs and to plan long-term,” she added. “We need to plan multi-use structures that include additional housing density which will in turn attract restaurants and businesses. The vast majority of Orindans want vibrancy downtown.”
Affordable housing is a necessary component of development due to California’s RHNA requirements.
Malkani believes Orinda is making a true effort in that area. As evidence, she points to the grant application the City is pursuing for pre-planning of development of the BART site, which may be part of Orinda’s 7th Cycle Housing Element.
“We’re all supposed to do our part,” she said. “And I think there is a genuine interest in Orinda.”
Kathy Cordova can be reached at email@example.com.