The area immediately north of San Bruno's downtown could get boost from a new November ballot measure to modify an ordinance that limits building heights, potentially raising them from the current maximum of 50 feet to 90 feet.
The council voted 3-0 at its Tuesday night meeting to proceed with a measure, referred to as the Downtown and Transit Corridors Economic Enhancement Initiative, to modify Ordinance 1284. The ordinance was the result of a 1977 voter initiative, which was intended to preserve the existing character of San Bruno by requiring voter approval for high-rise developments, increased density in existing neighborhoods and projects encroaching upon scenic corridors and open spaces. Mayor Jim Ruane noted it’s outdated since it’s from 1977 based on 1974 facts. This most recent measure aims to allow growth and development.
“I’m very excited about it (the measure),” Ruane said. “It’s a huge step for the future of San Bruno."
Two councilmembers, Rico Medina and Michael Salazar, recused themselves from the vote because they own properties in close proximity. Councilwoman Irene O’Connell also owns property in the vicinity, but voted for the measure to get the third vote needed for it to pass.
Currently, permits and approvals can’t be issued to allow construction of building taller than 50 feet or that exceed three stories unless approved by a majority of voters at a regular or special election. These outdated restrictions have contributed to severely limiting economic viability of development projects for decades and have discouraged private investment, as demonstrated by the continuing problem of deteriorating, underutilized and vacant properties in older parts of the city, a staff report states. The initiative measure would allow properties in the El Camino Real area to rise 20 feet or two stories; properties in the San Bruno Avenue area to rise 15 feet or two stories; buildings in the downtown area to rise five feet or one story; and buildings in the Caltrain station area to rise 40 feet or four stories.
“As a resident, I can state an opinion — the consensus of the council is that raising the height limits is really going to attract more growth,” Salazar said. “Most people are in favor of having downtown redeveloped and this seems to be an avenue to do it. Some people are concerned about the scale of projects that could come into place.”
Despite his support for the measure, Salazar believes the ordinance does offer some level of protection from overgrowing the area. Ruane added it will be important to be sensitive to the neighbors’ needs.
The discussion on building heights started in 2012 when the city concluded a strategic vision process with a transit corridor plan, said City Manager Connie Jackson. The transit corridor plan outlines a number of different areas in the transit corridor, including along El Camino Real, San Bruno Avenue and San Mateo Avenue — the main stretch of downtown. In the plan, proposed building heights range from three to seven stories in some areas.
“The plan is critical to the city’s achievement to transform those key areas of our city into the future,” she previously said.
Some local business leaders say the height limits need to change to give downtown a boost, with Dennis Sammut, CEO of the Artichoke Joe’s Casino on Huntington Avenue, noting that a lot of the buildings in the downtown 1600 block of San Mateo Avenue are 100 years old.
“The downtown is tired; it’s old,” he previously said. “Someday you’ve got to bite the bullet. I think they’re (the council) kind of caught. There’s a lot of resident concerns. It’s a very difficult decision for the council; it’s dynamic. If they want the town to move into the next century, it has to be an intelligently planned development. … Looking for the future of San Bruno, the way to help move it forward is increase height limits. … You can’t go crazy and put up a 90-story building though.”
During a recent City Council study session on the topic, there was very strong interest on the part of the residents surrounding the transit corridor area to improve the visual quality of the commercial areas, said Jackson. The city has done some preliminary work to evaluate what might be an important initiative to take to the voters. Keeping the character and quality is important to neighbors, she said.
For any development for which the restrictions of Ordinance 1284 apply, the ordinance also requires town hall type meetings so the public is fully informed before voting. The amendment to the ordinance would only apply to property within the approximately 155-acre San Bruno Transit Corridors Plan. The measure would also allow increased residential density on 42 parcels in the transit corridors area that were zoned residential in 1974. Above-ground multi-story parking garages would also be permitted under the measure to allow more parking in a central location.
Although a ballot measure has yet to be precisely formulated, it should be done fairly quickly, Salazar said. The final day to deliver the resolution to the San Mateo County Elections Officer for the Nov. 4 ballot is Aug. 8. Following that there is a 10-day public review period. The last day to amend or withdraw the ballot measure is Aug. 13, while ballot arguments are due Aug. 15. County elections officials have estimated it will cost about $35,000 to add this measure to the ballot.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 105