WALNUT CREEK -- Unwanted publicity over downtown entertainment district violence ... solid proof that the city's standing as an arts and entertainment hub means big bucks for city and business' coffers ... a neighborhood battle over a large, unusually shaped worship center ... and preparing for substantial expansion of both residential and commercial development in the downtown area.

In 2012, Walnut Creek had a wide variety of things going on, and some of the city's bigger stories of the year are revisited here in this year-end edition of the Journal.

Downtown growth

The city and the local school district worked hard this year on downtown development -- ushering new residential development through the planning process and preparing parts of the downtown area for future development.

The city's West Downtown Specific Plan, designed to develop commercial and residential opportunities for the area between California Boulevard and Interstate 680, was expanded southward this year to include the area between Mt. Diablo Boulevard and Olympic Boulevard.

Separately, the city initiated its Locust Street/Mt. Diablo Boulevard Specific Plan, focusing on stretches of those two thoroughfares to make them for suitable for a hotel and new retail, office and residential space.

Among the major residential projects either already approved or in the planning pipeline are the 300-unit Paragon Apartments, to be built on the former CVS headquarters on Civic Drive; the 126-unit North Main Apartments complex on the former Walnut Creek Motor Lodge land at Main Street and Ygnacio Valley Road; the 07-unit Arroyo Apartment project on Arroyo Way; the 1500 California project, 141 apartments and nearly 18,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space on the ground floor,

The Walnut Creek School District board this year raised the developer fee from $1.20 per square foot for residential construction to $3.20 per square foot, the maximum allowed by the state. Those fees must be used to build school facilities tied to increased enrollment caused by new development.

This past year offered a bit of a rebound for a downtown business community rattled by the recession. The long-awaited -- and to some, controversial -- Neiman Marcus department store opened in early 2012, as did Anthropologie (women's clothing), and a major expansion of the Tuesday Morning store also was completed. And plans for a long-term expansion of the Broadway Plaza shopping center were rolled out.

Sufi Reoriented

The Walnut Creek-based Sufism Reoriented faith group received the blessing of the county board of supervisors in February to build a 66,000-square-foot sanctuary on seven lots in Saranap, unincorporated county land between Walnut Creek and Lafayette (hence the county supervisors' vote).

The proposal, unveiled a few years ago, set off a battle; opponents claimed it would have inadequate parking, violate fire codes, present concerns about flooding and a hazardous intersection nearby. Some even claimed the project was the embodiment of a secret Sufi agenda. Supporters said the Sufis would be extraordinary neighbors, and would set a great example of how to get along with those around them (some live in the neighborhood already).

The sanctuary will be built on land that had been the site of single-family homes. Sufis champion the fact that two-thirds of the building -- set to include classrooms, a bookstore, a cafe and skylights -- would be underground and therefore not visible.

City Council changes

In this 2012 election year, three seats on the Walnut Creek City Council were up for grabs, and only one incumbent was re-elected. Bob Simmons won a second four-year term in November's election, while newcomers Loella Haskew and Justin Wedel in December were sworn in for their first terms.

Gary Skrel departed the council in December after serving three terms, having opted to not seek re-election. Kish Rajan left before that; he had been campaigning for a second term, and if successful was in line to become thee next mayor. But in September, Rajan was tapped by Gov. Jerry Brown to become director of GO-Biz, the Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development.

Wedel, a small-businessman and outspoken proponent of police, had run unsuccessfully in 2010 for a council seat, but this year beat out Barry Grove, a Contra Costa County deputy district attorney in a four-candidate race.

Haskew, a certified public accountant, said she will put those skills to use as the council will face more difficult financial decisions in the coming year, including attracting more businesses to the city, providing for expected residential growth in the downtown area, library funding and ...

Police protection

The Walnut Creek Police Department made news again in 2012, especially in the early part of the year, primarily with the continuing problems with fights and general rowdyism in and near some downtown nightspots, but also in regard to staffing levels.

Joel Bryden, hired as Walnut Creek's chief in June 2008, said he will retire from the department in mid-2013, and the department has had, or will have, several other departures. The department is looking for new officers.

The downtown fights, which got the attention of media beyond Contra Costa County, have been addressed both by placing more officers on downtown patrol and by the May passage of the "Deemed Approved Ordinance" requiring all businesses serving alcohol -- not just those that come under a 2004 ordinance -- to adhere to the city's regulations regulating such businesses.

Though the downtown problems had largely subsided by midyear, one enforcement available to the city -- a mandatory "last call" time for alcoholic drinks -- was used in October, when the Vice Ultra Lounge had its last-call time moved up to 11 p.m. after problems there.

The Walnut Creek Police Association was active on its Facebook page this year, posting regularly about the impending departure of Bryden and other veteran officers, and about the need to help keep veterans on the force.

The city council in October added a lower-tier retirement plan for newly hired police officers. Existing officers under the old agreement, get a 3 percent raise in pension benefits at age 50. These officers could retire at age 50 with 25 years of service and get 75 percent of their salary. If they wait until 55, with 30 years of service, officers in the "first tier" would get the maximum, 90 percent of their final year's salary.

Police responded to a number of significant happenings in 2012, including these:

  • A woman was killed and a younger woman injured Aug. 8 when four members of a family walking on a sidewalk along North Main Street near the Marriott hotel were hit by a speeding pickup truck. The younger woman, the daughter-in-law of the fatally injured woman, is still recovering from her physical injuries. Police arrested Hossein Tabrizi, 53, of Walnut Creek, on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter. He was extricated from the truck and transported to a hospital after suffering injuries. He was later arrested at the hospital but as of late December had yet to be charged in this accident.

  • On Nov. 7, a 57-year-old woman was kidnapped as she left work last week in the Shadelands Business Park; the kidnappers used her bank information to withdraw cash from ATMs and then left the woman in the Oakland hills. No arrests had been made as of late December.

  • A 32-year-old man was sentenced on Dec. 17 to two years in state prison for trying to rape a Las Lomas High School teacher in Civic Park in June. Francisco Hernandez-Murrieta, of Walnut Creek, pleaded guilty Monday to one count of assault with intent to commit rape.

    City budget

    The Walnut Creek City Council passed a two-year, $135 million budget in June that included fee increases for city services, reduced staffing and program cuts to put a dent in a $2.1 million shortfall.

    And that didn't even include provisions for securing the estimated $50 million needed over the next 10 years both for new capital facilities and maintenance of existing buildings, roads and other city-owned facilities.

    During the budget discussions, council members said repeatedly that there are far more needs than resources -- a key reason the Blue Ribbon Task Force, a 15-member group, was formed last year. The group examined all of the city's finances and needs and came up with recommendations on how the city should manage in the future. But its recommendations -- including instituting a half-cent sales tax, outsourcing some city services and getting employees to pay more toward their retirement and health care -- haven't necessarily been politically popular.

    BART transit village moves forward

    After almost eight years of reviews, revisions, negotiations, economic slowdowns and disagreements, the BART Transit Village apartment-and-retail project took a big step toward its first construction phase, with key environmental impact report, general plan and zoning approvals needed for construction to begin.

    Developers plan to build 596 apartments and 38,000 square feet of commercial space near the Walnut Creek BART station, along with a separate underground parking structure for apartment residents and patrons of the businesses.

    Walnut Creek Transit Lifestyles Associates, a joint venture of developer Transit Village Associates and BRE Properties, hopes to begin construction this coming year.

    The effect of the arts, in dollars and cents

    This city's culture and arts scene pumps at least $32.5 million a year into the local economy, according a Americans for the Arts study released in November.

    The results of local survey-based research was used in the national Arts and Economic Prosperity IV report, which shows nonprofit arts and culture organizations netted the City of Walnut Creek $32,483,480 in direct expenditures, 865 full-time equivalent jobs, $19,621,000 in household income, $1,184,000 in local government revenue and $1,641,000 in state revenue in 2011, according to the report.

    "We can look at the arts as an investment in Walnut Creek. It helps demonstrate that the arts industry is resilient in difficult economic times," said Barry Gordon, the city's director of Arts, Recreation and Community Services.

    Rossmoor's Stanley Dollar Clubhouse conflict

    In their effort to protect Rossmoor's Stanley Dollar Clubhouse and the trees and grounds that surround it, a group of residents of this seniors community are trying to get the clubhouse placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

    Those residents who belong to a group called "Save Our Stanley" may be too late, as plans for new arts and performance center adjacent to the Dollar clubhouse are moving forward.

    The new 20,000-square-foot events center, set to be built across a driveway and in front of the historic Stanley Dollar Clubhouse, would be used for the community's performing arts and host about 400 people.

    The events center was approved by the city in 2009 as part of a master plan that included other new buildings in Rossmoor.

    In addition to preserving the character of the old clubhouse, "Save Our Stanley" supporters cite parking, traffic, safety, danger to trees and cost as reasons to not build the new center. But city officials and Rossmoor administrators have no plans to stop progress on plans for the new center.

    The National Register of Historic Places vetting process can take months, and this situation has yet to play itself out.

    And an artistic look 'a head'

    The oversized golden head sculpture in the fountain basin outside Mechanics Bank near the intersection of Main and Duncan Streets attracted attention from locals and out-of-towners alike,

    Created by Bay Area artist Seyed Alavi, "Fountain Head" is one of two fountain renovations done in a public-private partnership involving the city, the Downtown Business Association and Wells Fargo and Mechanics Banks.

    The city used $60,000 from "in-lieu" public art funds from developers to jazz up the two 1970s-era fountains, plus $30,000 came from the Downtown Business Association and the two banks.

    ---