November 14, 2009

Guest Commentary asks whether Walnut Creek staff, leaders really listen to neighborhood concerns regarding projects

This guest commentary comes from Tom O’Brien, a resident of the Almond/Shuey neighborhood, right next to downtown.

His commentary comes in advance of Tuesday night’s City Council meeting at which members will be asked to approve the construction of nine new homes, on a half-acre lot, at the Oakland Boulevard edge of this charming, historic neighborhood.

The homes, to be built on the oddly shaped lot at the corner of Oakland Boulevard and Almond Avenue, will be detached, and on their own lots, including one that will consist of a duplex. Most of the homes are two-bedroom, ranging from two to three stories, and between 1,400 and 1,900 square feet.

The project has been debated and discussed since 2004. The Planning Commission approved it, but not unanimously. Four commissioners praised the the developer for making several concessions and revisions to reduce its density (from 12 units to nine). Two commissioners said “no,” based on continuing concerns about insufficient onsite parking, access to the homes, and traffic issues.

With regard to concerns about density and parking, O’Brien, on his website about the project, says these “tightly-packed” homes are of a higher density than zoning permits in that neighborhood. He adds that each of these homes would feature a double-master bedroom design. “The developer has stated that one target market he has identified for the homes is young professionals who need to take in a roommate to afford their first home. Since it is reasonable to assume that a number of these homes will be occupied by unrelated adults, each of whom is likely to own a car - the neighbors believe that at least two parking spaces should be provided per unit. Throughout the hearings, staff has indicated that only 1.5 spaces per unit are called for, per the BART Proximate Parking Ordinance. "

You can read more about the pros and cons of this project at O’Brien’s website and in the staff report prepared by the city’s Community Development department in advance of the City Council meeting. The Contra Costa Times also covered the issue back in early October.

Meanwhile, O’Brien believes this issue raises larger questions about city responsiveness to neighborhood concerns about projects and whether the city shows favoritism to developers—over those of residents. Read his commentary, and see what you think, whether you agree with O’Brien or not.

Thanks Tom for raising this question. I know it’s something that’s on the minds of residents, in the wake of the Neiman Marcus controversy. It has also come up as a topic in the series of Community Conversations the city has been holding to prioritize its goals for the future.

Anti-neighborhood bias in Walnut Creek
The questionnaire given to all applicants for the Walnut Creek Planning Commission points out that “frequently, at a public hearing, you will hear testimony only from those opposed to the project," and asks how the applicant would respond. (I sometimes suspect that the preferred answer is that you will listen politely, but not let the ravings of those whining malcontents influence your decision to approve the project.) If the City of Walnut Creek included the neighborhoods in the planning process, public hearings might not be so confrontational. But the City has chosen a different path.

When a developer comes to the City with a new project, the developer and the City Planning staff sit down in private and craft a proposal amenable to both. Staff then works to push the project through the public hearing process. All the neighborhoods can do is to try (often futilely) to voice our concerns over staff-level decisions we never had a say in. The Parkmead neighborhood was put in this position with the Mark Scott homes. Homestead had their battle over the Homestead Hilton. Now it’s the Almond/Shuey’s turn with the “Almond Bungalows."

Without consulting the neighborhood, the City staff decided that the zoning on the lot at the corner of Almond Avenue and Oakland Boulevard could be raised, the parking didn’t need to meet current standards, and the driveway for what is essentially an Oakland Boulevard infill project could be sited on our quiet neighborhood street. From the very first public hearing, these decisions have been presented as settled, and the neighbors’ attempts to have the impacts on our neighborhood mitigated have been rebuffed. Staff has even reinterpreted City codes and ordinances in support of their position. The Design Review and Planning Commissioners have followed along with the Staff’s recommendations – after all, Staff has more credibility than those whining neighborhood malcontents – don’t they? The project has been forwarded to the City Council for final approval.

You can see what we’ve been up against to date at Our neighborhood’s final stand will be this Tuesday, November 17th at the City Council meeting. If you agree that neighborhood issues aren’t given a fair hearing in Walnut Creek, please come support us.

Thank you,
Tom O’Brien
Almond/Shuey neighborhood resident.


Anonymous said...

Mr O'Brien is correct in his assessment of city staff working closely with developers prior to public review, at which point the involved commissions and city council follow along, ignoring any opposing input from the public. Can you hear the sound of a rubber stamp in the city council chambers?

Anonymous said...

Another neighborhood gets the shaft. The next chapter of the CC following the GP which states that the priority is to 'protect neighborhoods'. They don't care about who actually lives in those neighborhoods, and Almond Shuey is even spelled out in the GP as a neighborhood of note.

What an inconvenient document that is, the CC has to now listen to each complaint, but only three minuets at a time. (Large out of town planning director rolls eyes.......)

Anonymous said...

O'Brien is right on the mark when it comes to his remarks about staff, commissions and the council bowing to developers.

The General Plan may indeed refer to "protecting neighborhoods" but so far the council has not adhered to that particular part of the plan.

Do you suppose it would be different if these mega complexes were being proposed for their neighborhoods? You betcha......

Another case of council members not living in or near the core area of town. They are not being forced to feel the pain of the lousy
in-fill projects that they seem to love so much and foist off on others.

Good luck Mr. O'Brien. Don't get your hopes up for a favorable decision from this current council who never has met a development of developer they didn't like.

Anonymous said...

We feel your pain over here in the Buena Vista/Larkey area, and wish you all the luck in the world dealing with the City. They seem to sell the residents down the river when the developers come a callin.

As for the council members not living in the heart of town I agree thats a problem, they seem to make a lot of decisions for everyone else's neighborhood. I think 2 of the council members were actually neighbors and 2 of the others were nearby in the same neighborhood. Maybe its time to actually have districts to get actual representation rather than the current "at large" method...

Anonymous said...

I tried to read and understand the concerns of Mr O'Brian and his neighborhood, but other than a rant against city counsel and planing commission I could not get an understanding what their concerns are. I even followed Mr O'Brian's link but have to admit that once I got to the discussion of 27 garbage cans on Thursday (or maybe 18 garbage cans) I could only shake my head.

I consider myself one of these people who are to busy to make a living that I don't have enough time to worry about the numbers of garbage cans on Thursday morning in my neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

7:06 pm.

I'm so glad you tried to 'read and understand', but at the end of the comment it was apparent you didn't.

It's council, not counsel. It's planning, not planing. It's too, not to. And his name is O'Brien, not O'Brian.

Read the General Plan, or to you, the genereal plen.

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:27 I appreciate the grammatical edits. I have been up for 36 hours traveling back to WC and was reading up on my favorite blog, to stay awake so I can force myself back into this time zone.

But maybe at some point you can take also some time to tell us what your specific issues are in this case.

I know you are pointing to the General Plan, but if want the support of the people living in other neighborhoods why not tell how your neighborhood is impacted by this development.

Anonymous said...

It is so frustrating for neighborhoods who struggle to maintain their character. I remember driving down Homestead and seeing the "story poles" that depicted the height of the Homestead Hilton. I was sure the planning commission would send the developer back to the drawing board but nothing changed.

Staff caters to developers because their jobs depend on them. Council courts developers because they depend on their campaign contributions to get themselves elected. I suspect it's the same in many's just that Walnut Creek has so much to lose with unchecked development.

Good luck to Tom O'Brian and his neighbors.

Anonymous said...

When Tom O'Brien or his selected representative runs for City Council, I will be listening more carefully.