Grass-roots group supports downtown revitalization, respecting city history and rural feel
By Lou Fancher
When too-much-talk collides with not-enough-time in a community, confusion reigns. Seeking to mitigate the problem for busy people who care about their city but can't keep up with the politics or are impatient with what seems to be slow urban change, What's Up Downtown Orinda is turning grumbling into group action.
Formed by a collective of young families, the grass-roots organization is headed by a seven-person, all-women steering committee. Some What's Up participants are natives of the bucolic city, but primarily, they are transplants who have become enamored of Orinda's good schools, rural-feel neighborhoods and downtown-with-potential. And it's this last feature to which What's Up has directed its attention.
What's Up's visibility is largest online, where they post updates about key downtown issues, advocate for respecting Orinda's history while supporting opportunities to modernize and improve the downtown core, and send out condensed messages to the roughly 400 supporters signed up to receive emails.
Education and behind-the-scenes investigation are the features they promote. Freedom from political side-taking is a core principle: ".... just in case you're wondering, we are not affiliated with any particular developer or political group," the website announces.
"We're out there to put out information," says Ali Drasin, 40, a steering committee member. "We have ideas about what will benefit Orinda. We'll do the homework. We're asking, what belongs here, what will move us forward?"
Laura McDowell, 41, raised in Orinda and returning in 2008, says, "We might not know exactly what retail will be in the future, but the city should be talking about that and people should know what they're saying."
The city's two main shopping areas, they say, are disconnected: "A sea where nothing flows together, separated by parking lots," says McDowell.
Even more concerning are city codes restricting Sunday hours, the lack of a commercial hub like Oakland's The Hive and Market Hall; the absence of alternatives to Safeway that would include specialty food markets, cooperative farmers market mini-stalls that operate more than one day a week, or mixed-use options similar to Mulberry's Market in Piedmont.
Some on the list of desirable goals: adding to the downtown core a shared work space and wider range of restaurants; advocating for city ordinances that prevent real estate offices from occupying first-floor, prime retail locations; seeking architecture that connects "lifestyle" boutiques with work/studios on second floors; a dance or music school.
But by far the group's greatest concern is that they not let Orinda's resources go to waste just because its residents are uninformed or playing a catch-up game. Time, the two women suggest, is the 21st century family's scarcest resource in affluent communities like Orinda.
"Our age group doesn't have the time to screen the city meetings," McDowell says. "Smaller bits of information mean people can stay current, make educated decisions instead of being scared and hiding away."
"I'm a big believer in kernels of news," Drasin agrees. "You don't have to sit in City Council meetings or search through meeting notes. We do that for you."
The women acknowledge that selecting and advocating for solutions to Orinda's problems as city leaders pursue development will inevitably lead to compromise and choosing between competing interests.
"Our goal is not to be a political organization, it is to revitalize our downtown. We are, however, willing to be political to achieve our goal," says Drasin. "We'll also be educational, philanthropic and active in engaging our community."
McDowell says holding council members and other community leaders accountable by being involved -- not just vocal -- will distinguish their activism.
"To me, that means that when the City Council makes changes to the general plan, we want to weigh in on a task force. We've been contacted by council members and the mayor and will meet with them. We're talking to the chamber of commerce, we're attending meetings whenever there's a downtown specific topic involved."