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Walnut Creek Balances Downtown Density with Suburban Character

Josh Stephens on
Mar 2, 2020

If the Bay Area is to survive its housing crisis, it’s going to have to count on places like Walnut Creek. Though Walnut Creek, with 19 square miles and an estimated population of 69,825, is fundamentally an upscale, outer-ring suburb, it is blessed with one asset that many suburbs are not: a heavy rail station that connects directly to one of the most economically vibrant cities in the world. The ability to move many people into the city equates with the potential to house many people—sustainably—far from the city.

While many suburbs, especially in the Bay Area, have resisted growth and density, Walnut Creek embraces it – within limits. CP&DR spoke with Community Development Director Sandra Meyer, a 30-year veteran of planning in Walnut Creek, about how the city is planning for growth.

Sandra Meyer
Sandra Meyer

What is most pressing on your agenda right now?

Conforming to housing law and ensuring that we're creating housing opportunities for all income levels.

What is your housing stock currently? How will the city respond to the new laws?

The City of Walnut Creek has always supported opportunities for higher density housing around the BART station, which is located in our downtown area. Back in 1989, we created land use categories that would intensify housing development around the station. It wasn't until probably 15 years after that higher density housing started coming into the downtown. Then, of course, the market shifted and there was little money for housing. But Walnut Creek is a desirable place to be. We didn't go decline as much as other communities in the recession, and we came back much faster. We have seen a huge increase in residential, higher density residential development in our downtown.

In terms of some of the laws that are coming into place, we're kind of ahead of the game. Our council has always been very proactive in terms of providing funding for affordable housing. We adopted an inclusionary ordinance probably 15 years ago and a commercial linkage fee for housing. They also put money from the general fund into our housing program.

The one thing that is a bit problematic in terms of higher density housing is, back in 1985, the community voted for a measure that tied height limits to the zoning that was in place at the time. The maximum number of stories that can be built under the measure is six. Now, under the state density bonus law, our attorneys have opined that the height limit even under a voter-approved initiative is just a development standard, so it can be breached with density bonus units.

How do residents of Walnut Creek feel? Are suburban homeowners eager and willing for the city to grow and to become more dense?

I think the community as a whole has supported higher density housing in our downtown. It also continues to support the goals and policies in our general plan that protect single family neighborhoods. With the downturn, there were a lot of approved applications that were not being built. When the upswing happened a lot of projects went forward at the same time. Some of the community was like, "Oh, you're letting all these new people in." There was a little bit of concern. But once these projects are built and the traffic impacts and construction subside, the community is, "oh, it isn't that bad."

Our population increase was a pretty minimal, steady increase. Over ten years, it's at 0.5 percent or so, even with the increased density. So I think that it's not that much of a concern.

Do you anticipate much higher numbers for your next RHNA allocation?

They are looking at how they're going to allocate that right now. We are designated as a community that is “desirable” in terms of having higher education demographics, higher incomes, stronger schools. We're hearing that those are the communities that are going to be getting higher numbers. We're staying in tune with that and we do kind of expect that there'll be higher numbers, but, again, we plan for it.

We can make opportunities available, but we don't build them. Construction costs are really high, materials are really high. There's a shortage of labor, and all of these housing laws are not really addressing that. Both sides of the equation have to be addressed.

What's on the commercial side? As traffic gets heavier in the Bay Area, is there more of an appetite to increase the office supply in Walnut Creek?

This past year we adopted two downtown specific plans. One was in the West Downtown Specific Plan, which focused on increasing housing opportunities on the west side of our downtown. The North Downtown Specific Plan focuses on connections from the Iron Horse Trail to our BART station. It focuses on east-west connections, coming down from our single family residential neighborhoods through alternative means of transportation. The plans increase office potential pretty significantly. The council and the community, I think, see the need to start balancing. Right now the market is still such that we don't have a lot of vacant land, but we have underutilized sites.

You've been in Walnut Creek for quite a while. How do you describe current planning trends in California and what do you think of those trends compared to a decade or two ago?

I wouldn't say that the trends are significantly different. I think planning is always looking forward in terms of how we create sustainable communities in terms of creating downtown centers that are walkable and can be accessed by transit. I don't see that changing a lot.

I think the biggest influence that is happening is climate action plans and sustainability. We adopted a climate action plan in 2012. We're now updating it because of state targets have changed. They've gotten a lot more stringent. We're creating also an adaptability plan. We're surrounded by open space, but it's not like a wildlands, with a wildfire threat like some of the other communities in the North Bay are. But it's still, I think that's probably the biggest change in planning is thinking about climate change.

We have what was originally called a transportation demand management plan and is now called "rethinking mobility." Like I said, the North Downtown Specific Plan was looking at opportunities for east-west connections like pedestrian paths, bicycle paths, increase in bus services, and things like that. I would say that definitely is a big change in terms of how we look at making sustainable communities or, in the past, which was smart growth. Now it's tied to sustainable growth.

Since we are starting the new legislative year is there anything that you would love to see from Sacramento this year?

Something that replaces redevelopment money for housing. Because we adopted an inclusionary ordinance and allow fees in lieu of providing housing, we have built a lot, but we've funded a lot of 100 percent affordable projects and Walnut Creek for the size of the community. That was an ongoing source, 20 percent set-aside that we don't have anymore.

Contacts & Resources

Walnut Creek General Plan 2025

North Downtown Specific Plan

West Downtown Specific Plan

Sandra Meyer, Community Development Director, City of Walnut Creek, Meyer@walnut-creek.org

Conducted in February, this interview has been edited and condensed.

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