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Published May 27th, 2020
State housing pressure drives Orinda to adopt objective standards

In response to a great deal of public comment, the Orinda City Council on May 19 removed from its consent calendar the award of a contract to draft objective design standards for the Downtown Precise Plan, but passed the item unanimously nevertheless. The contract was awarded to Opticos Design, Inc. The proposed cost for the work is $90,000, with a contingency for change orders of 15%, resulting in a maximum expenditure not to exceed $103,500.
The city council received over a dozen comments urging that the city not commit to spend that amount of money during a fiscal crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The staff report was presented to the council by Planning Director Drummond Buckley and Senior Planner Mayank Patel. They explained that there were two factors that made the expenditure advisable: first, a great deal of the cost is being funded by a source provided by Senate Bill 2 for streamlined housing approval. That $70,000 cannot be used for any other purpose; if not used for this, the money would have to be returned and could not be used for any other city projects.
Second, the pandemic has made the housing crisis in California even more urgent, and the state legislature will continue to try to impose more housing on localities. Buckley pointed out that despite the changes in California's economic outlook, housing streamlining remains in the Governor's revised budget. The only control that localities have in streamlined applications may be their adopted objective design standards, which will apply to new construction even where the city lacks any discretion over the application.
Objective standards include criteria such as housing density and building heights. Objective standards can also include requirements about "shaping the box," for example, breaking up rooflines, upper story setbacks, horizontal articulation, vertical orientation of windows, and roof mount requirements. If the city doesn't decide how to regulate mixed-use and residential buildings, the state will step in and decide, the staff said.
Council Member Inga Miller asked if interim objective standards could be put in place to protect the city. However, Buckley said that to do so would use additional resources when the city is already pushed to its limits. Trying for interim standards would be a big distraction, he added, noting it is not warranted and could cause a delay in staff's other responsibilities. Miller agreed that it would be inadvisable to try for interim standards.
Nick Waranoff in public comments compared Orinda to the Titanic heading for an iceberg. He argued that every city in the state is "going to be thrown into the SB 35 bucket" and that there isn't going to be time in the streamline standards process. "From Walnut Creek to Berkeley to Oakland," he said, "we've all seen the really ugly buildings that have been built under objective standards."
Council Member Dennis Fay concluded, "We need to move forward with this; if we don't, we'd have to give the money back." Mayor Darlene Gee agreed that there is no logic in handing money back to the state. She noted that while many commenters don't want to see housing in downtown Orinda, many state legislators "would love to see lots of housing in downtown Orinda, and they are not backing off." The mayor said that the city is on the right course of setting its own destiny. "By not doing so," she said, "we would be at extraordinary risk of the state coming in and saying what downtown Orinda should look like." Vice Mayor Amy Worth was impressed by the proposal that results in the highest level of public input into the standards.
The process is scheduled to take about nine months, and to involve a great deal of public input. Upon award of the contract, staff will hold a kickoff meeting with the consultant to refine the scope and schedule (as necessary), go over data needs, and discuss potential collaboration opportunities with other consultants the city has engaged for the downtown precise plan. At a minimum, Opticos will conduct a microanalysis and visual inventory of existing site conditions design; draft new zones, permitting procedures, and regulating plan; and develop objective design standards for building types, frontages, thoroughfares, civic/public space, and parking.

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