The Great Compromise in Orinda 

The resolution to the two-decade-long dispute over development in the Gateway Valley mostly pleases everyone.

In the late '80s, newly incorporated Orinda began planning what would become one of the most ambitious and controversial housing developments the region has ever seen. Almost two decades, four developers, and countless public meetings later, the city, its residents, and its current developer cautiously reached common ground. And just east of the Caldecott Tunnel, across Highway 24 from the California Shakespeare Festival, the bulldozers descended upon the Gateway Valley.

This summer marks the third full season of grading at the location. But it's only within the last year that the terraced and reshaped development has begun to resemble home sites.

The valley, which begins just south of the freeway, and stretches into the Oakland hills near Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve and toward Moraga, is the largest privately held tract of undeveloped land in Orinda. In 1991, a developer known as Pacific New Wave filed the first application for a 1,500-acre subdivision complete with an eighteen-hole golf course designed by the legendary Jack Nicklaus. The Japanese-owned company had bought the land from the original developers, who had given up in frustration after years of stalled progress. After the arrival of Pacific New Wave, the city agreed to move forward with development.

Then in 1993, local voters led by the environmental group Save Open Space-Gateway Valley, passed a referendum repealing the plan. For several years, about 150 group members had been circulating a bi-monthly newsletter called The Golden Eagle to most of Orinda, which catapulted the Gateway Valley issue to the forefront of public discussion in the city.

These opponents worried that the subdivision would destroy habitats for federally endangered red-legged frogs and Alameda whipsnakes. Creeks and rivers in the area also faced degradation. In 1994, Pacific New Wave sued Orinda in federal and state courts for "unlawful taking of its property without just compensation." Six months after the suit was brought, the city agreed in a settlement to review the development plan and resubmit it to the Orinda Planning Commission and City Council.

SOS-Gateway Valley didn't back off. The environmental group's 74-year-old cofounder, longtime Orinda resident Amelia Wilson, continued her quest against the project. She and her group denounced the project at every possible city council or environmental agency meeting. The Golden Eagle also continued to circulate, although less frequently. When Pacific New Wave finally gave up and sold its interest in the property to another company, the next developer still had to battle with SOS-Gateway Valley. "They didn't have a clue," Wilson said of the new developer, Southwest Diversified, Inc. "They weren't around for very long."

The project's fortunes finally improved with the decision by Orinda Gateway Property to employ a company known as Brooks Street as its master developer. With a new developer at the helm, the name of the project was changed to Wilder. More significantly, the tone of the whole project began to change when the development's new project manager, Michael Olson, began cooperating with residents. "We've both learned from each other," Olson said of his company and the residents of Orinda.

A 2004 settlement between Orinda Gateway Property, SOS-Gateway Valley, the Golden Gate Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club eliminated 80 percent of the development, which included the golf course and the conference center. Development was restricted to just 231 acres of the site, preserving in perpetuity approximately 1,000 acres as part of the East Bay Regional Parks District or watershed of the East Bay Municipal Utility District. Meanwhile, environmentalists consented to 245 home sites in addition to five sports fields, and an art and garden center that will offer art classes and a space for special events. Brooks Street even agreed to build eighteen new ponds for the endangered red-legged frog.

Development could now proceed. Wilson of SOS-Gateway Valley said it could have been a lot worse. "In an ideal world we'd have had $93 million and bought the whole property," she said. Still, she believes the project is as good an effort as could have been hoped for from a big developer such as Brooks Street. "They've been very cooperative," she said.

Orindans who live near the site have had their own concerns since construction began. Bob and Kim Larsen came home one evening and discovered that approximately fifteen old-growth oak trees had been bulldozed right up to their property line without any warning. Brooks Street spokesman Jason Keadjian countered that every month the company sends an update to neighbors. "Every tree we've removed has been by approved plans," he said.

Approved or not, when the heavy earth moving machinery arrived, "the whole neighborhood would shake," said Kim Larsen, whose large, hillside home lies only a hundred feet from the construction. The Larsen's neighbor, Masaye Nakamura, lives just a few dozen feet from the construction and came to a recent Orinda City Council meeting with the Larsens. "We realize dust, noise and large machines are needed for the completion of the project," she told the council. "We've resigned ourselves to several more years of this." The houses in their neighborhood are covered with dust, and another neighbor's pool equipment is clogged with gunk from flying dirt.

Yet the Larsens say the developers have been more helpful than Orinda city government. For example, Brooks Street offered to pay for cleaning the family's house, which would cost more than $1,000. On the other hand, Kim said it took a year of continual visits to the city council to acquire the city's promise to landscape the area where the oaks had been razed.

Olson said he understands where frustrated residents are coming from. "Everyone has a high degree of concern for their neighborhood and wants someone to listen." He acknowledges that it's been a tough road for the city, as well. "The city hasn't seen [a development of this] intensity and size in a long time," he said. "What I try to do is listen to what everyone is complaining about to see if there's anything we can do that's agreeable."

There will be plenty more opportunities to be agreeable in the next several years. The houses will range in size from 2,500 to 5,000 square feet. A 2006 San Francisco Chronicle article stated that houses are expected to sell for around $2.5 million, but Keadjian declined to state a number, saying the prices would be "consistent with the upper end of the Lamorinda marketplace." Olson guesses the first residents will arrive in 2010 and that work will not be completed until five years later.

Orinda mayor Victoria Smith is pleased with the progress Wilder has made. "I think it's great," she said. "The city worked really hard over many years [to make this happen]. Most people are very pleased with the amenities the city will receive." She points to the five sports fields and the myriad of trails. Yes, there are drawbacks. The trails probably won't be available for use until construction is complete, years from now. And Wilson mentions the fields' less-than ideal location: an often foggy and windy place for Little League.

At a recent meeting of the Orinda City Council, Gateway Boulevard was changed to Wilder Road. In a full-page advertisement in the current California Shakespeare Festival program, Wilder is pitched as an open space, "neighborhood in touch with nature." Wilson finds this ironic. That label is only possible because residents fought tooth and nail for open space for twenty years, she said.

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