THE DAYS ARE usually packed for City Council members, including those from small cities and towns. When Julie Pierce of Clayton steps down from her post of 28 years at the end of this month, she will step away not only from the twice-a-month council meetings and other local responsibilities, but from several regional public agencies, where she’s renowned for her expertise on transportation-related issues.
“Withdrawal? Yes, probably — it’s a scary prospect, because I’m still interested in all these things,” said Pierce, 70, who was first elected to the Clayton City Council in 1992.
Officials who have worked with her over the years said Pierce has long since mastered the ability to consider the needs of a small town as well as those of the entire region, and how the two can inform and improve each other.
Amy Worth, an Orinda City Councilwoman who also has had her share of work on regional governmental bodies, said Pierce’s love of Clayton is, in many ways, a love for the entire East Bay.
“She’s always been an advocate for her cities, the suburban community,” said Worth, who first met Pierce while they worked alongside a group of other local leaders to make Contra Costa County’s libraries work more effectively for the cities and the county. “The interests she was promoting regionally were really in line with the interests of the local communities.”
Pierce has served, or still serves, on regional bodies including the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, Transpac (the regional transportation planning committee for central Contra Costa County) and committees of the Association of Bay Area Governments and the California Council of Governments.
Connecting Contra Costa to the Bay Area
Pierce had a hand in helping a number of important transportation projects get done, including extending BART from downtown Concord east to Pittsburg/Bay Point, construction of the Caldecott Tunnel’s fourth bore, connecting the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and Interstate 80 via Richmond Parkway, bringing diesel-powered “eBART” train service from Bay Point east to Antioch and major improvements to state Highway 4 between Hercules and Antioch (which also enabled BART to reach east Contra Costa).
“I love the countywide, regional work,” said Pierce, a Clayton Planning Commissioner before her council run. “When I’m (working) at the regional level, I try to envision the needs of big cities and small towns, to step out of our parochial perspective and look at the bigger picture.”
A key element of that bigger picture, Pierce said, is Plan Bay Area 2050, a long-range blueprint for development in the nine-county Bay Area encompassing the economy, environment, housing and transportation, and their interrelationships.
As part of Plan Bay Area, cities will be notified — sometime next year, Pierce said — how many new housing units each city will be expected to accommodate in the name of responsible growth.
Pierce believes housing should be built close to transportation, including BART and major freeways. Smaller cities with freeways and other transit connections — Lafayette, Orinda and Danville among them in the East Bay — have sometimes resisted plans to place more housing there. The houses, she said, should go in places that help cut commutes, and help make it easier for businesses to stay in the Bay Area.
“I am very concerned whether we have what our children can afford,” she said. “It’s a statewide concern. “Continuing to throw up walls that block affordable housing opportunities will drive the economy out of California.”
Thinking practically about growth
Pierce said she, as have others, has been criticized for the belief that housing should be concentrated near transit — a key Plan Bay Area tenet — and that cities along those corridors should play their part. She also acknowledges she doesn’t believe Clayton would be an ideal location for significant new housing development. Though exact numbers aren’t ready yet, Pierce said it is unreasonable for Clayton to host, say, 600 new housing units over the next several years to help meet expected regional demand.
“We don’t have the capacity in our schools for that, or transportation access closer than seven miles” to BART or a major freeway, she said. The latter point, especially, is a key metric for new housing anywhere in the Bay Area, Pierce said; that means that some cities and areas are less appropriate, geographically, for adding significant housing stocks.
“I’m proud of helping create a place that people think of as the perfect small town, and feel their blood pressure drop when they cross the city line.”Julie Pierce
As for Pierce’s small city, wedged between Concord and the foot of Mount Diablo, it has changed a lot from when she joined the city’s planning commission in 1987. Most of the residential neighborhoods at that point didn’t have sewers, much less sidewalks or storm drains. She had a direct role in planning or approving most of Clayton’s residential tracts, not to mention the city’s library and some key thoroughfare improvements.
About 7,000 people lived in Clayton in 1987; about 12,000 do now. Pierce is happy with how her city has grown, a bit, and kept its semi-rural character.
“I’m proud of helping create a place that people think of as the perfect small town, and feel their blood pressure drop when they cross the city line,” Pierce said. “I hear that all the time.”
Praised among peers
Item no. C-13 on the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors’ Nov. 17 meeting agenda was an item that read simply, “Honoring Julie Pierce for Her 33 Years of Public Service on the Occasion of Her Retirement.” Such consent calendar items rarely even rate a mention, but County Supervisor Karen Mitchoff made sure Pierce got her public due.
“Her institutional memory will be sorely missed,” Mitchoff said. And all four other supervisors followed suit praising Pierce’s leadership and ability to get things done. Supervisor Diane Burgis called Pierce “an amazing expert in transportation and a great role model.”
Said Supervisor Federal Glover, “We will not be able to replace the knowledge you have.”
In large part for that reason, Mitchoff said she has no intention of letting Pierce simply walk away. “Julie, this does not mean that we can’t pick your brain.”
Pierce hopes to spend more time with her husband Steve, her two grown sons and her four grandchildren. But she also hopes to stay involved with transportation, perhaps with one of the agencies she’s been working with.
And getting phone calls from county supervisors, City Council members and regional transportation officials is OK with Pierce, who was watching Tuesday’s supervisors’ meeting. She has already noted she expects to be dealing with some withdrawal symptoms.
“I can’t go completely cold turkey,” she said.