Who needs to read about Crimea when our very own Putin-ization of San Mateo is occurring in our own downtown? The invasion of street-level offices into our retail core has begun, forcing our city leaders into a position where they have limited leverage to enforce the project plans they approved. During the Draper University project approvals, the city “in good faith” made agonizing compromises to facilitate this applicant’s grandiose university experiment by modifying long-standing regulations that protected downtown retail businesses. Yet even given extraordinary concessions, the applicant has not fulfilled the requirements of their original approval and defiantly refuses to do so.
Let’s not forget that the city planning documents that protect retail uses in the downtown were developed with thousands of hours of citizen participation and represent the community’s goals for their downtown. Residents rightly expect that these plans will be followed and not ignored just because the economic pendulum has swung to tech offices and property owners see an opportunity to be greedy. Our trust in government depends on our representatives following their own laws.
Remember that it was the developer who evangelically promoted the trendy concept of pop-up retail being a suitable replacement for the stores that were evicted from the Collective Buildings. It was the developer who proposed the wonderful landscape plan that would upgrade the underutilized alley between Third and Fourth avenues and screen the disgusting restaurant garbage area with a lush “living wall” of plants.
The city now finds itself in a development “bait and switch” where project promises and commitments are ignored or changed for developer convenience. The contentious change of zoning, from required ground-floor retail use to office use, was based on the Collective Building being an integral part of Draper University. This was to avoid creating a dangerous precedent that could result in our downtown becoming an office park. Now it seems that instead of Draper University, the Benjamin Franklin Hotel is providing housing for the office tenant in the Collective Building. Was this always the real objective?
Do we even know who the applicant is anymore? BOOST, the accelerator business in the Collective Building, advertises housing in downtown San Mateo for its customers on its website and posters. Where are they providing this housing? Does Draper University still exist or is BOOST its heir?
With the advantage of hindsight, who in San Mateo is enjoying the promised benefits of Draper University? Has the city documented any increased property or business tax revenue from that section of Third Avenue or just losses from the active retail that was evicted? Has the city documented any increased retail activity or vitality on that section of Third Avenue as anticipated? Just how many students are enrolled in Draper University?
Sadly, our city has been bamboozled by a superhero that wasn’t. In fact, Draper has moved on to his next great idea of dividing California into six states. Yet the City Council continues to talk about working in good faith with an applicant who has not reciprocated nor shown any interest in being a good neighbor himself.
No public reason has been given for why the Draper project cannot complete the walkway landscaping and open the pop-up stores which would enhance retail vitality and street life for the ordinary citizens who use and love downtown. If the Draper team spent half as much time and effort fulfilling their permit conditions as they have avoiding them the city wouldn’t have had to endure over a year of construction blight — empty or blacked-out storefronts, dead plants in window boxes and debris-strewn sidewalks.
In particular, the loss of retail space in the Collective Building cannot be tolerated. If the developer can’t or won’t manage the pop-up retail stores that they themselves proposed, they should enter into a legal contract with our own Downtown San Mateo Association to lease these spaces for them.
The City Council always knew that the Draper University project was an unproven experiment. In fact, some residents have said that this “emperor had no clothes.” Now that it has not worked out as expected, it is time for the Draper team to acknowledge that this is not just a project that affects them. The city is a major stakeholder too. San Mateans care about their downtown and it is way past time for the developer to show their “good faith” by fulfilling their project conditions of approval. The time for appeasement is over.
Maxine Terner is a former member of the San Mateo Planning Commission and former member of the committee to update the city’s General Plan. She was actively involved in three previous Downtown Plan revisions and Measure H/P Growth Management Initiatives. She has lived in San Mateo since 1983.