If the city of San Mateo is considered the heart of the Peninsula then downtown is truly the heartbeat.
It is where the city began and all that came after developed from there. It is where the city holds its most history, and for some, its most promise.
City officials are in the midst of its Downtown Specific Plan Update, which will provide a template for what downtown will look like and what is acceptable for decades to come. I can think of no more important document for those who care deeply for the city and its core like I do.
On Monday, city officials are holding a Taste and Talk Forum for the update at Draper University’s Hero City at 55 E. Third Ave. from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The discussion will center on shifting demographic, economic and environmental trends locally and throughout the region. A recent community workshop on the plan was held March 29 in which residents played a game with Legos to show where they might like to see future development downtown. There will be further outreach efforts and those discussions will be folded into the plan for consideration by planners and the City Council.
The current downtown plan was adopted in 2009 and changing factors, including the dissolution of redevelopment agencies, the economic recovery and its impacts and growing concerns about housing affordability, led city staff to revisit the plan sooner rather than later.
Some of the perceived opportunities are more density and the redevelopment of two city-owned sites at Fifth and Railroad avenues. One buzz term in recent years is transit-oriented development and there could be more development activity near the train station at First Avenue.
So even though downtown is already one of the most dense areas of the city, there is an idea that there is room for growth near the train line to help our traffic congestion and lack of housing affordability. I urge a bit of caution. Many areas of San Francisco are transit-oriented, near BART, Caltrain, Muni, ferries and buses and that has done little to ameliorate the traffic congestion in the city though one could argue it could be much worse if it weren’t for public transit offerings. Housing is a definite need but it should be put into a larger context of both the downtown’s history and its future. Though there is a current need, it doesn’t mean it will be as acute as it is now, and the downtown is too important to be looked at to solve that issue completely right now. This document will set the stage for what downtown will look like in decades to come and it is important to look at it for what it is — a historic retail, restaurant and business hub with some housing that serves both the immediate neighborhoods but also the entire city and region.
Having said that, there is some opportunity to add housing where appropriate. The redevelopment sites at the southeast end of downtown offer that opportunity since the city owns the land and below-market rate units could be provided. However, some in the Central Neighborhood have expressed concern about additional impact so anything developed there should provide something for them whether it be traffic calming or perhaps some sort of new community use incorporated into the new site. There is also an opportunity right next to the Caltrain station for housing since it would be most convenient for train commuters. True, but that area is also ripe for reinvigoration as a city plaza for which officials have long sought. Perhaps there could be both. The alley separating B Street businesses and the transit center is awkward and underutilized now and could be incorporated into a new plaza along with the space near La Cumbre, and that business could also be incorporated into it well. The new plaza could also have historical markers so those unfamiliar with the city’s history could learn more. And one of the worst kept secrets in San Mateo is that Trag’s may soon be redeveloped — though no one is confirming it — and that site also offers an opportunity for housing and a plaza, or at least contribute to the new energy of the area. If The Melting Pot were ever to move, its huge space in the transit center offers opportunity for a community use or a true transit-oriented business like a coffee stand and book store for commuters. Perhaps our used book store on B Street might like to take advantage of a new and larger space at lower rents. And having a tech business in the train station has always been a poor use for city-owned property though such businesses are important to the area’s vigor.
There is opportunity on B Street for occasional closures for farmers’ markets and other community events but it is used to often by drivers looking for the Main Street parking garage to be permanently closed, although that would be lovely.
As far as additional parking, whoever thought of the Central Parking Garage was brilliant, because it is hardly noticed and provides lots of spaces. How about adding another level or two and use the other redevelopment sites for more housing and other community uses such as a more permanent worker resource center or other social services facing away from the nearby neighborhood? Or if no one likes my train station plaza idea, perhaps this is the right spot for a public gathering space.
Also, if one is talking about greater density, El Camino Real seems to be a no-brainer since it already has the tallest buildings. It is also relatively close to the train station and bus lines. And I know the Central Park Master Plan is ancillary, but the park should be left relatively alone. It’s nice as it is but could use some sprucing up. There has been talk of putting a plaza where the tennis courts are but the courts add a bit of life into the night, and that is nice.
And while there has been some recent effort put into downtown’s cleanliness, more can be done. After all, you only get one chance to make a good impression.
You may hate these ideas, or love them, though I’d prefer you love them. Whatever your thoughts are, now is the time to share them, and your next chance is at the forum Monday. To learn more about the plan’s process, go to engagedowntownsanmateo.org.
Jon Mays is the editor in chief of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Jon on Twitter @jonmays.