The innovative Draper University of Heroes in downtown San Mateo has been running on a temporary permit and city officials and citizens want to see the school follow through with its terms of approval by completing the agreed upon campus improvements.
“There’s not a lot of things, but we’re a little frustrated that they’re not completed,” Councilman Jack Matthews said. “I think these things are all solvable and it’s our desire as a city and as a council to partner with Draper and to make them successful and be an addition to our downtown. And working together, I think we can make everything better.”
For the second time this year, city officials will sit down with Draper staff Tuesday to discuss the landscape improvements in the alleyway between Third and Fourth avenues and the need for pop-up retail space at the Collective building.
The city’s Downtown Plan originated during the dot-com boom and calls for ground floor retail space, City Manager Larry Patterson said.
Draper’s trending pop-up retail concept was intended to satisfy the city’s zoning code, yet it hasn’t come to fruition and the university appears to be using the Collective building as office space, Patterson said.
Venture capitalist Tim Draper bought the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, Collective building and a former bank building in downtown San Mateo in 2011 to open a boarding school for young entrepreneurs.
In April and August of last year, the city issued temporary occupancy permits to allow the school to host its grand opening prior to finishing landscape enhancements. The permits expired months ago and the university has done little to follow through with its terms of approval, Matthews said.
Regardless, the university requested an encroachment permit to allow the school to install fiber optic cables across Third Avenue between the Draper University buildings to allot for its data and voice networking needs, according to a city staff report.
The council voted March 17 to approve an encroachment license and potentially waive the $6,000 annual fee if the school resolves its landscaping and retail requirements.
Members of the public spoke at the meeting in frustration about the school’s outstanding obligations and claimed the city was overlooking its original vision for downtown.
The council always talks about the city’s need for tax revenue, however, it’s allowed the university to misuse what should be ground floor retail space, said Maxine Terner, a former planning commissioner who was actively involved in the city’s Downtown Plan revisions.
“He could not even fulfill his conditions for approval for the few things that would have improved the area for citizens; the ordinary citizens,” Terner said. “It’s just hard to know that we’re still bending over backwards; especially to know that Draper is on to something else. This is what venture capitalists do; they throw money at lots of ideas and they hope that something sticks. That’s not what you do in the heart of your community and that’s where we are.”
Yet the concept is sticking and the school has graduated 250 students from about 30 different countries, Tim Draper wrote in an email. It has also started 40 new companies and is home to Boost, a leading Bitcoin accelerator through which about 60 companies have been processed, Draper wrote in an email to the Daily Journal.
He’s surprised that residents are complaining about small ticket items like landscaping when the university is proving to be a benefit to the city.
“I am sure the elected officials can understand the significance of what we are doing for their city, so I don’t understand why we are being held up on mission critical items like getting fiber line placed between the buildings because some citizen complained that she didn’t like the plants we put in the alley — which were incidentally dictated by the historic society,” Draper wrote.
Some of the university’s proposed ideas, such as its promise to construct a living wall, have fallen short for one reason or another, Patterson said.
In the case of landscaping, the historic society recommended against mounting the elaborate and expensive plant wall against a historic building, Patterson said.
Landscaping is the most significant outstanding property enhancement and hopefully solutions will be generated during Tuesday’s meeting, Patterson said.
The university wants to continue to collaborate with the city and prove its value to San Mateo, Draper wrote.
“The people of the city have been very welcoming and we hope that we have a very positive long-term benefit to their businesses,” Draper wrote. “I will be relieved when the city finally gives us the certificates of occupancy we richly deserve so we can actually get more permanent tenants.”
It’s a unique project and the city is happy to have the university call San Mateo home, but it’s time for Draper to wrap up its loose ends, Matthews said.
“We tried to cooperate, we tried to be flexible and we understand that what they’re trying to do is a little different, a little new,” Matthews said. “Maybe that will take more time to get going, but we need a commitment from them on when they’re going to finish the project and get a final certificate of occupancy. I think they’re anxious to do that and we have to decide on how they’re going to get there.”
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