By Chris Engl
I've seen a number of articles/advertisements about candidates for city council, and the opposing views for improving Orinda's roads but little attention is being devoted to the attempts to 'revitalize' downtown Orinda. Sadly, I think this is a huge issue and has the potential to change the character of Orinda and the impact will be felt for decades. Even more important is the underlying cause of this (The Association of Bay Area Governments) development, which looks benign at first but seems it is being done under false pretenses (sustainability, global warming, environment, public transportation, diversity, etc). As a husband & father of three with zero political affiliations, I want to stop this. Before I dig into the ABAG issue further, I'd like to address the issues I (and many others) have with revitalization plans in Orinda.
In a nutshell, we should be saying "Thumbs down" on Orinda's downtown 'revitalization' plans. Why? Here's a list:
1) Proponents will say that Orindans agree or don't have issue with the plans for downtown revitalization. Don't mistake silence for agreement. Orindans are business owners, partners, physicians, investors, scientists, project managers etc. Maintaining their income so they can care for their families is of highest priority.
2) Developers have higher stakes than residents in trying to convince Orindans to spend more tax dollars to 'revitalize' downtown: a few hundred dollars of increased taxes each year can be overlooked by individual taxpayers while, in aggregate, there are millions of dollars at stake to developers and their agents.
3) A walking bridge across a HIGHWAY ... Really? Are we kidding? Who is going to find a leisurely walk across eight lanes of Highway 24 leisurely? Try talking a stroll or a bike ride along the bike path next to Highway 24. I applaud you if you don't need earplugs.
4) Government projects rarely generate revenue to justify the cost (take a look at the $5 billion of bonds approved to fund high-speed railway 'to nowhere' between northern & southern California). In the real world, good business & investment practice dictate seeing revenues BEFORE spending money, or making sure an up-front investment generates expected returns to pay one back for risks of putting up one's capital. If a developer could make enough money on this project to make it worthwhile, they wouldn't be using public funds.
5) State & Local governments tell you they are in dire need of revenue. That's because their predecessors spent your money unabated in boom years and expect the current & next generation to pay for it. I've tightened my budget, so should they.
6) The average age of the population in Orinda is one of highest in the area. Baby Boomer retirees will downsize, selling their homes, resetting the tax basis on these properties to current (read: much higher) market levels. Once this happens, the city & county coffers will see a large jump in revenues. Developers are well aware of this and realize they are running out of time before their arguments for 'more revenues' as a reason for redevelopment is a moot point.
7) Market forces will change the character of storefronts for higher & better use when the cost of doing so makes sense. More family-friendly & small high-quality boutique restaurants are coming. The typewriter and rotary telephone disappeared when their time was due but not before then.
8) Neither families nor active retirees will want to live above a retail store with a view of a parking lot or close to road noise. They'll be rentals for singles/couples who won't ever buy a home (which means they won't directly contribute to maintaining property values) or for low-income housing; these folks won't spend major dollars here. Orinda isn't Emeryville, Walnut Creek or Los Gatos nor should it be.
9) Walk TO downtown? If you live in Orinda, you know that there are large tree-filled properties set into the hillsides on streets without sidewalks. No one is strolling into downtown. You'd need massive parking structures to accommodate the 'walking crowd' parking their cars.
Furthermore, the recent "Orinda Way" newsletter published by the city clearly showed that 50 percent (roughly $4.5m) of the revenues for the city come from Property Taxes while only 8 percent (roughly $800k) of the revenues come from sales tax. It's clear that, while the bulk of improvement in revenues could come from sales tax, spending many millions of taxpayer money to "beautify and revitalize" downtown will not pay back enough in sales tax revenues to make the venture worthwhile in any reasonable time period.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a more sinister force at work. I recently attended a privately funded unaffiliated presentation at the Lafayette Veterans Memorial Building which discussed the connection between the Association of Bay Area Governments, Metropolitan Transit Commission, and local city councils. I've been digging further. I'm only now realizing that this 'public/private' redevelopment issue is larger and more menacing than what we are witnessing in our little town of Orinda. If you've never heard of ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments), you are running out of time to learn about it and shut them out of Lamorinda — and I believe we don't want them here. They are rezoning areas for higher density, low income housing, sweeping funds from the state's funding for roads, getting exceptions for long-standing parking minimums per unit, pushing through development without environmental impact studies (I thought this was about the environment?), raising height limits with ease, linking Federally granted transportation funding (for land-use) to complying with high-density/low-income property development etc. This is the culprit behind changing the character of our communities forever. In the next 10 years, 880 high density residential units (mostly Section 8 subsidized housing) are slated for development in Lamorinda, over 50 percent of which are low-income (305 are for very low income, 173 are low income). These are to be sold at below market values, subsidized by the other residents in the community.
But don't ask me. Ask the city of Corte Madera. Corte Madera has already stopped ABAG from infiltrating their city. And Novato is up in arms.
If Corte Madera can shut them out, so can Orinda, Lafayette & Moraga. I humbly request that Lamorinda residents tell their city council members that we want nothing to do with this super-committee (ABAG) & its public/private partnerships (public pays, developers profit) and vote against anyone that is willing to give up local control to these super committees.