City takes next step in prepping for Moraga Canyon housing

Map of the Moraga Canyon area under consideration for development.

The City Council on Monday approved spending up to $588,000 for preparation of the Moraga Canyon Specific Plan, a key piece of the sixth cycle Housing Element for planning of future residential growth in Piedmont.

Costa Mesa-based JZMK Partners was unanimously approved to lead this effort, the city’s first specific plan ever undertaken. The end product is expected to be a “detailed development plan” for the Moraga Canyon area that shows where new housing – approximately 132 housing units – should be located, how existing uses like the city corporation yard will be reconfigured, and what infrastructure improvements will be needed to accommodate what figure to be major changes in the area off of Moraga Avenue on the city’s northwest side.

“This is new territory for us, but I think we’re going to be in good hands,” said Kevin Jackson, Piedmont’s director of planning and building. He described this step in city planning as “momentous.”

The sixth cycle Housing Element is a comprehensive document, mandated by the state, outlining how the city will accommodate 587 new residences by 2031. The state doesn’t require those housing units be built, but does require all Bay Area cities to show how they could accommodate a given number of units, specific to each city.

Jackson said the city couldn’t include Moraga Canyon in the Housing Element efforts without doing the specific plan work. In that event, the city would have to accommodate those 132 units elsewhere in the city.

Drew Watkins, a principal with JZMK Partners, said Moraga Canyon will be a “challenging site” that offers a lot of opportunity.

“And you guys have big aspirations for what you want to get out of it,” said Watkins, noting that not everything the council or city residents want is possible. What is possible or not, Watkins said, will be sorted out through a four-step process that will begin with analysis of existing conditions in Moraga Canyon, and progressing to presenting possible development alternatives and, later, preferred concepts.

City Attorney Michelle Kenyon, who has worked on general plans with other area cities, said the process for sussing alternatives, expects the process in Piedmont to be “organic and fluid.”   

As with other phases of the development of the sixth cycle Housing Element, there will be opportunities for public participation, the first of them likely to be scheduled for the fall. A San Francisco firm, Civic Edge, is working with JZMK on that public outreach effort. In fact, council members and city staff on Monday repeatedly stressed that public outreach will be crucial; though the city has used many ways to keep the public informed about the first two years of the Housing Element process, the city has still received many complaints from residents who said they weren’t aware of the plans.

Watkins said his firm hopes to “check in” with the city, and the public, at a joint City Council-Planning Commission workshop in the next few months.

Piedmont city planners got some help envisioning possibilities earlier this year from a team of graduate students from the UC Berkeley James R. Boyce Affordable Housing Studio program, who made their formal project presentation of housing development possibilities to the City Council in May. 

Claire Parisa, a member of the Piedmont Racial Equity Campaign and also a faculty lecturer with UC Berkeley’s Boyce program, commended the council Monday night for its work on Moraga Canyon, and how the affordable housing planned there should improve Piedmont’s housing equity. She noted the council has taken criticism for planning for so many new homes, and not pushing back on some aspects of that.

“You are on the right side of history,” Parisa told the council. 

As for the larger Housing Element effort, Kenyon said small tweaks and adjustments continue to be made, at the request of the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Barring unforeseen developments, she doesn’t expect the Housing Element — approved by the council in March — will come before the council again.

“We believe it is already substantially compliant,” Kenyon said. 

Contact Sam Richards at 

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