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Published February 22, 2017
Main Street America Comes to Assess Orinda's main streets
Many Orinda residents would like a Trader Joe's grocery store. Photo Andy Scheck

Matt Wagner, a representative of the National Main Street Center, arrived in Orinda this month to interview residents and city leaders for two days about their visions of what development of downtown Orinda might entail.
Main Street America, involved in revitalizing small towns and mid-sized and large urban cities for over 35 years, takes credit for over 260,000 buildings being rehabilitated, $65 billion being reinvested in communities, over a half million net new jobs and over 125,000 net new gains in businesses in communities across the United States. Wagner noted that Main Street America would produce a report in 90 days, and added that he found Orinda truly impressive, with "great bones" and great infrastructure. "We're starting from a good place," he added.
A subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Main Street America regards preservation as a tool for economic development. Its strategy is to look at basic fundamental economy of the town and how fundamental markets can be shaped for economic development using a point approach: 1) Design; 2) Organization; 3) Promotion; 4) Economic Vitality.
Wagner noted that development is not necessarily about a big fix, not necessarily about a big streetscape coming through. He believes in incrementalism, in being comprehensive and working across all the four areas. Main Street uses a special methodology to balance market data with good community engagement, and using qualitative and quantitative metrics, such as jobs, businesses and tax base, to determine if they are actually "moving the needle" on the development of an area.
Included in the stakeholders to be interviewed were the city council, members of the Orinda Chamber of Commerce, the Orinda Planning Commission, the city manager and finance director, and members of the Orinda Assocation, the Orinda Teen Advisory Council, Save Orinda, What's Up Downtown Orinda, Orinda Vision, Orinda Watch and Friends of Orinda Creeks.
Wagner began by asking the city council what words come to mind when thinking of downtown Orinda, its strengths, its weaknesses, and what features and businesses each city council member would like to see downtown.
Council member Dean Orr sees downtown as split, small and tired; on the positive side it is walkable (but no one walks, he noted). He sees as a weakness its lack of services.
Mayor Eve Phillips thinks of downtown as cozy, friendly, convenient, accessible, and, most importantly green - as in the color. She hopes for new grocery options, dining options, and perhaps a co-working space.
Council member Darlene Gee sees a downtown that is utilitarian, divided and out of date, but has some hidden gems. Still, it is a place for running errands, with no reason to linger. Many businesses are closed on Sundays and open short hours on other days, she added.
Vice Mayor Amy Worth thinks of connections, social, local businesses, and walkable, but with differences between the north and south sides.
Council member Inga Miller, who is on the downtown development subcommittee with Phillips, agreed with the walkability of downtown, and thinks it safe and an opportunity to gather with neighbors. She added that Orinda needs upmarket shops such as Tiffany's, not big box stores like Home Depot.
The issue of downtown housing came up as well, with some council members opining that some low density housing is sorely missing in downtown, while seeing the level of housing in Lafayette or Walnut Creek as too dense. Overall, the council members look westward to areas like Rockridge for their inspiration. Restoration of San Pablo Creek, which runs through downtown but sometimes is underground, was noted as a very popular item for downtown development.
Richard Westin spoke to Wagner both as a director of the chamber of commerce and also as a member of a group of property owners as owner of 25 Avenida De Orinda. He said that the chamber is in favor of development, but can only advocate but can't actually do much. He noted that parking is an issue that needs to be taken into account, and added that he was surprised to hear from Orinda Director of Planning Drummond Buckley that BART had mentioned that while they are not in favor of adding a parking structure, they would look favorably on a mixed use retail/office/residential building with parking rising above the current BART parking lot. Drummond also told the chamber of commerce that Main Street America would like chamber members to conduct a zip code survey of their customers.
As a business owner, Westin was interested in the issue of how to encourage private property owners to form a group to facilitate communication because if just one property is changed at a time it doesn't necessarily achieve a substantial change in the character of the town.
Orinda Chamber of Commerce President Roy Hodgkinson mentioned at some length about the study conducted for the chamber by Saint Mary's College, and he endorsed it. The study can be found at http://orindachamber.org/item/88-new-retail-survey-for-orinda. Not surprisingly, the study concluded that Orindans would like new restaurants, an independent grocer and a parking structure. The grocery preferred by Orindans is Trader Joe's. The study also concluded that most respondents are over 35 years old and own their single family residence.
Laura McDowell and Ali Drasin spoke to Wagner on behalf of What's Up Downtown Orinda. WUDO, McDowell said, wants to build Orinda's brand as an upmarket location, close to San Francisco and the cultural amenities of the Bay Area, sleepy and quaint with great schools. She added that the focus of the group is to make downtown Orinda a place to linger, where locals want to come and stay, to find a special unique treasure to buy that cannot be found online.
Another group that spoke to Main Street America was Orinda Vision. Tom Trowbridge, of that group, who for 35 years was a commercial mortgage banker, said they provided information on what they believe is responsible for downtown Orinda's underperformance, including short opening hours and a tired, shabby appearance, particularly on the Village side. The reasons for this are attributed by Orinda Vision to a lack of attention by the city and outdated regulations, leading to the conclusion, they feel, that Orinda "is not open for business." Orinda Vision's suggestions include creating a Downtown Specific Plan, appointing planning commissioners with planning and commercial development experience, creating an advisory panel of Orinda residents who are retail experts, attracting an anchor tenant, and accomplishing at least one quality project to get renewal momentum started.

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