The public will have another chance to weigh in on a proposed eight-story residential development in downtown San Mateo as the Planning Commission holds a study session on the pre-application for Essex at Central Park.
Though it’s early in the public planning process, concerns have been raised about the potential 75-foot building’s impact on traffic, parking and Central Park directly to the south.
Veril Phillips, president of Gramercy on the Park Homeowners Association on Laurel Avenue east of Central Park, wants an extensive analysis of the proposal.
“What I see primarily, is there are a lot of issues that need to be examined and I worry [Essex] will make downtown San Mateo worse rather than better,” Phillips said. “Because I think there are too many risks in terms of parking and lighting and impact on Central Park itself.”
The proposed Essex would need to earn exemption from the city’s Measure P height limitations for the 117-unit building with 3,500 square feet of retail space to be approved for the 1.2-acre site at East Fifth Avenue and South San Mateo Drive, according to a city staff report.
Essex would take over a publicly accessible 95-space parking lot for the one- and two-bedroom luxury apartments with rates based on the market and expected to range from $2,000 to $3,000 per month, according to the report. The pre-application stipulates 260 parking spaces, 95 of which would be available to the public, spread between one level of underground, ground level and above ground parking, according to the report.
Measure P requires developments taller than 55 feet to provide a public benefit and affordable housing component of 10 percent below-market rate units per development. Measure P is an extension of Measure H, which was passed decades ago partly in response to a proposal for 10-story office buildings on the same set of blocks in downtown.
The City Council will ultimately determine what benefits are appropriate once Essex turns in its development proposal. Essex representatives were not available for comment.
The public and city officials have weighed in on the developer Essex Property Trust’s pre-application during a community meeting and a Parks and Recreation Commission study session Feb. 5. Because this is a substantial development, the pre-application is undergoing an extensive review to provide Essex with suggestions before submitting its final application, said Julia Klein, associate planner and project manager for the city.
“There are questions, though we still have discretion about whether we feel good about the mass, about the density and shadows; there’s a lot of things. Traffic and parking certainly are big concerns for the public,” said Planning Commissioner Rick Bonilla. “It’s going to be interesting, but very preliminary.”
Yet the pre-application already has community members apprehensive about the aesthetics of the building, increased use of the park, congested streets, parking and impacts on school districts.
For Phillips, traffic is especially dense on Fifth and Fourth avenues and Essex would exacerbate the problem and negatively impact the limited amount of parking that’s already at its threshold, Phillips said.
City officials are attentive to worried residents but, if done correctly, Essex could align with city policies such as encouraging high-density residences near transit-oriented corridors and providing affordable housing units, said Mayor Robert Ross.
Yet whether new residents would actually use public transportation and what affordable units will actually cost needs to be examined. He wants to ensure thorough surveys are conducted including commuter, traffic and parking studies as well as the impacts increased housing developments would have on the school district, Ross said.
Assuming new tenants are amenable to mass transit, Bonilla agrees high-density residences and a portion dedicated as affordable would benefit the city. But neighbors’ concerns and the impacts to Central Park, especially since Essex will be a pet-friendly establishment, need to be accounted for, Bonilla said.
“I’m concerned about shadows and I’m concerned about possible additional impact on the use of the park because it’s going to be very convenient … and we all know sometimes pet owners aren’t exactly the most in tune with the activity of their pets,” Bonilla said. “I’m very concerned about how the neighborhood, those who live right there will have to deal with traffic and pedestrian safety, how they really feel about it.”
Living in downtown is a joy but the city will need to think carefully if it plans to keep it that way, said Nancy Matthews, a 17-year downtown resident.
“I don’t want to be one of those people that says I love it here and I don’t want anybody to come, but the things that make downtown a great place to live need to be maintained,” Matthews said. “I can walk to the movie theater, to the drug store, to restaurants. It’s fun and a very healthy kind of space, if feels safe, pleasant. Most people say hello, it feels like small town, small city U.S.A. and I’m glad to be here,” Matthews said. “ But the site is not suitable, it’d just sort of [be] an out-of-place, ponderous structure.”
Based on the current draft, Essex residents would find themselves frustrated trying to turn onto Fifth Avenue to get to El Camino Real and with senior events at Central Park and pedestrian traffic, it would be hazardous as well, Matthews said.
The city is working on its Downtown Parking Management Plan and Matthews suggests building parking structures close to the downtown core and spreading residences further out to make it a more walkable, less congested and pleasurable place to visit.
But with the dispersing of redevelopment agencies, the city cannot afford to purchase the costly site, Klein said.
“It’s definitely prime real estate. There’s a lot of benefit given the location, not just because it’s in the downtown core, but also because the proximity to transit and to Central Park. It’s definitely a very unique location,” Klein said.
The Planning Commission will hear Essex’s proposal for the first time and along with public input, will comment and make suggestions to the developer, Klein said. It will likely take Essex between one to two months to submit a final application after which it will undergo multiple studies and be channeled back through the Parks and Recreation and Planning commissions before reaching the City Council, Klein said.
The concerns over Essex will be studied and the impacts weighed against the benefits, Ross said. For a city that’s already working on parking, economic development and transit oriented developments in downtown, this project touches upon it all, Ross said.
“It’s trying to work with everybody and come up with a project that works for everybody,” Ross said. “We need to get all of the facts so we can adequately study those impacts. That allows us to make good policy decisions.”
The Essex at Central Park study session is 7:30 p.m. tonight at City Hall, 330 W. 20th Ave. San Mateo.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106