An artist’s rendering of the approved five-story Hillsdale Terrace housing project along El Camino Real in San Mateo.
Considering the balance between the impacts associated with new developments against the regional need for more housing, the San Mateo City Council voted to pave the way for a new controversial high-density residential building on El Camino Real.
Hillsdale Terrace will transform an underutilized blocklong stretch of El Camino Real at 28th Avenue near the site of the future relocated Caltrain station. The 1-acre site is slated to have a five-story mixed-use structure with 68 condominiums and ground-floor retail space.
The City Council reconvened Monday to formally vote on the project that has drawn criticism from neighbors who sought a less-dense project arguing the building was too tall and would exacerbate traffic and parking issues.
It’s been just a few months since the contentious election over whether the city should enact rent control and tenant protection measures as a way to deal with the affordable housing crisis. Now, the ongoing challenge of convincing neighbors to accept the impacts of new high-density housing remains apparent.
Ultimately, the council voted 4-1 to approve the transit-oriented development citing that it complied with multiple planning documents and would provide six homes to very low-income families.
Still, the project essentially epitomized the struggle communities across the Peninsula are battling — how to address the housing crisis while trying to preserve the quality of life for existing residents.
The Hillsdale Terrace project “drives home the dilemma we face as city councilmembers — the competing and compelling demands for housing, traffic and parking mitigation, neighborhood preservation and meeting the demands of a changing economic and social environment,” said Councilwoman Maureen Freschet, according to a live video of the meeting.
Noting the city in which she grew up has changed significantly over the years, Freschet said it wasn’t an easy decision to approve the project while acknowledging the regional jobs to housing imbalance.
“We are all overwhelmed with the amount and pace of change in our city and the entire Peninsula and we must manage it to the best of our ability because we can’t prevent the future from happening,” she said.
The majority of councilmembers agreed an ongoing conversation about growth is needed; but most emphasized this particular parcel, close to mass transit and the site of the future relocated Caltrain station, is an opportunity.
“Given our prime location located between San Francisco and San Jose and on the other side of the bridge from the East Bay, clearly opportunity exists here,” Deputy Mayor Rick Bonilla said. “I too feel that this is the right project in the right place. I know there will be some growing pains, but San Mateo is changing, it has changed.”
The public already weighed in on the project during an earlier meeting and the council opted to carry over a vote on the matter as the mayor had previously been out sick.
One of the council’s few proponents of tenant protection measures that failed on the November ballot, Mayor David Lim offered the dissenting vote against Hillsdale Terrace.
“I’ve gone out on a limb, no pun intended, to advocate for affordable housing, to advocate for fair housing in our community. That ship has sailed, we had a referendum on it, we had a voter initiative on it, but that is done. But one of the things that came loud and clear from the opponents of Measure Q was that the only way to get out of this was to build, build, build — but I’ve never subscribed to that,” he said.
Noting his concerns about the lack of community engagement in the planning process, Lim said he couldn’t support the project he worried may be a bellwether for what’s to come.
“If we allow developers to build to the max, these are the types of projects you will see and this is the type of community engagement you will see,” Lim said. “I think there’s room for compromises, one of the things I’ve heard is people are supportive, but they don’t like a project that’s rammed down their throats with no public input.”
The redevelopment, that at one point sought a 51-percent density bonus — one of the denser proposals the city has seen in years — was scaled back after staff determined it didn’t comply with the voter-approved Measure P that limits heights to 55 feet.
The mass of the building’s exterior remains the same, but the number of units was reduced from 74 for-sale townhomes, with the size and number of bedrooms now increased.
The developer will contribute $400,000 as a community benefit, and the council will later determine whether to spend it on pedestrian enhancements, road improvements or child care services.
Currently, the blocklong site has vacant lots and the former Taxi’s Hamburgers building now serving as a used-car lot. With nearly seven city and regional planning documents outlining goals and requirements, councilmembers noted it was difficult to deny a project that complied with long-planned visions for the area near mass transit.
“In those plans, we take into account things like how we’re going to manage our growth, what kind of density we want, where we’re going to allow open space,” Councilwoman Diane Papan said. “It’s very difficult to say no to a project like this. This is kind of what the city was looking for when it adopted these plans.”
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