There are many moving parts in downtown San Mateo right now and how those moving parts are handled will be a challenging and delicate process that may leave the city better, or possibly worse.
First of all, the public planning process for a an eight-story, 117-unit apartment building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and San Mateo Drive is just beginning. With a regional pull for more housing, particularly near public transit, it was only a matter of time before such a proposal was introduced in downtown San Mateo.
Second, the city is discussing its parking management plan and several ideas include the possibility of raising parking rates and extending hours past 6 p.m. to raise revenue and ease gridlock that takes place in the city’s core so often.
Third, the city has begun a long community input process to determine what changes to Central Park would be needed and acceptable. The process is beginning with a master plan to create long-standing goals. The trouble is, the city does not have extra money to make any of those future goals a reality.
With the proposed Essex at Central Park now firmly in the initial stages of the planning process, there will be the need to determine what the public benefit will be. As proposed, it will be 75 feet tall, which, according to the city’s Measure P guidelines, is a height that is allowed in certain areas if there is a public benefit. There are several options for that public benefit, whether it be money for more downtown parking, more below-market rate units in the development itself or money for improvements to Central Park. There will be a cost for such a development, however, that cannot be mitigated. And that is the visual impact of such a large structure in the corner of downtown at the edge of Central Park. Ultimately, it is up to the people of San Mateo to determine if such a structure fits in with their current values. Since it is the beginning of the public planning process, there will be plenty of time for input and ideas.
With the downtown parking management plan, the City Council must determine its goals. Is it seeking to raise revenue, or change behavior? Anyone who drives in the downtown core, along Third and Fourth avenues and B Street and Ellsworth Avenue, particularly on a Friday night, knows there is a tremendous amount of congestion that leaves the streets virtually deadlocked. Finding a way to shift that traffic elsewhere could be taken on in small bites, first with electronic signs that indicate where there is available parking and more effort in finding underutilized parking lots. In Burlingame, city officials had been seriously contemplating a new parking structure but are now thinking of smarter alternatives such as wayfinding signs and creating free parking in certain outlying lots for employees. San Mateo has affordable parking rates, and that is a draw for its downtown. Increasing rates or extending hours may help solve some initial congestion, or it could prove to be an irritant to an already fickle consumer that may be the tipping point that sends potential visitors elsewhere.
Downtown San Mateo is a draw, but could always be better — especially if it is to remain competitive with other retail cores along the Peninsula. Change to the mix is welcome, as long as it is something that meets everyone’s goals.