A crowded race has taken shape around three seats on the San Carlos City Council, giving voters the choice between five candidates this November.
Incumbent councilmembers Sara McDowell and Adam Rak are running for reelection against three community members, Pranita Venkatesh, an educator, day care operator and an Economic Development Advisory commissioner; John Durkin, a retail associate and Parks, Recreation and Culture commissioner; and Alex Kent, a commercial property consultant.
Change is coming to San Carlos, which is bracing for millions of square feet of commercial development, preparing to welcome 3,200 new housing units in the next decade and reenvisioning key parts of town and all while an economic downturn looms.
Recognizing an evolution for the city is on the way, McDowell said the council has already taken steps to prepare by recently greenlighting the hiring of 17 new employees. Typically, the city has worked with a leaner staff but the expansion is needed and makes right now an interesting time to be overseeing the city’s budget, she said.
“That is a reflection of directions from the City Council to really expand our staff to meet the needs of our community. We recognize that there is a significant amount of work that lies ahead for our community,” McDowell said. “These are all very, very large projects for our city and really a transformational time so, to not overuse this phrase, I think we’re really trying to meet the moment with our community and grow our staff. It’s a significant investment but I think it will be money well spent.”
Rak shared similar optimism for the city’s future. On budgeting, he noted senior and experienced staff have helped guide the city through previous financial downturns, leading the council to outsource services such as contracting the Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement during the 2008 recession.
Most recently, Rak noted the council made a $7 million investment toward the city’s pension liabilities, which he said was a smart financial decision recommended by staff that will save the city millions in the year to come and allow the investment of those dollars back into the community.
Meanwhile, Durkin said his focus, if elected, would be on repairing the city’s aging streets, an issue that touches every resident and is expected to cost the city about $35 million over the next five years, he said.
“Everyone wants to get outside so let’s give them the opportunity to walk safely,” Durkin said.
Kent echoed Durkin’s street concerns and highlighted safer streets as one of his top campaign issues given the backlog of repairs with which the city is currently grappling. The development boom coming to the city was another top budgeting concern for Kent and Venkatesh.
Both candidates expressed hope the future projects, largely from life science developers and mostly concentrated within the East Side Innovation District. Kent suggested the projects could play a role in improving streets and cleaning up soil toxins. Venkatesh said the new development would bring in new community members who will contribute to small businesses; an argument Durkin also made.
“What a time for San Carlos. We’re going through growing pain, but let’s do it together,” Venkatesh said, noting the city will need to tackle traffic impacts head-on.
But the new development, including ambitious residential development goals, has spurred community concerns. Kent said the city could improve its communication and collaboration around development, arguing it could get in front of the discussion by experimenting with different forms of communication such as placing interactive screens downtown where the public can learn more about future projects.
Kent also questioned whether planning for about 3,200 new homes to be built in the city over the next decade is necessary, arguing such a high goal “flies in the face of what residents want.” The goal goes beyond the 2,700 units the state is demanding of the city through the Housing Element.
“I think I can uniquely deliver that independent analysis, that devil’s advocate role, and really be a true fiduciary for the current residents and businesses that I believe the current City Council appears to be lacking,” Kent said.
Both Rak and McDowell noted the higher goal acts as a buffer for two reasons — the state may throw out a site identified as buildable or a site may not be developed, requiring another to fill in for lost units. McDowell also asserted the city cares deeply about doing its “fair share” in combating the regional housing crisis, pointing to a recent investment of $7 million into an affordable housing project on Cherry Street and policy changes such as now requiring developers to include a greater number of affordable units at deeper levels of affordability.
Rak suggested the development could also benefit the city by bringing in additional tax dollars that will be funneled to schools, stabilizing the school district.
Multiple candidates also highlighted the work the city is already doing to brace for incoming development and related changes by launching three specific study plans, one on the east side that was recently completed and two others currently underway focused on the North East Side and downtown.
Speaking specifically on downtown, the candidates shared their hopes for how they’d like to see the area revitalized. Kent said he’d like to see the area cleaned up, asserting the city used “kind of an illegal eminent domain to seize parking and access from landlords and tenants” to establish their parklet program. Reflecting on improvements implemented in Burlingame, Kent said wider sidewalks and modern utilities convinced local businesses to also invest in improvements and suggested such a model could be replicated in San Carlos.
Venkatesh also spoke out about the importance of fair access and bringing all voices of the community together in the planning process. Specifically, she said the city, through its Downtown Strategic Plan, must ensure the needs of seniors and residents with disabilities are properly considered and implemented into improvements.
Touching on access, Durkin said residents should be encouraged to reconsider their parking needs to ensure spaces remain available for those who truly need them. As for future downtown planning, Durkin said reviewing parklets in the area before the pandemic could give the city a sense of how the program can operate successfully and spoke in favor of expanding improvements beyond Laurel Street.
McDowell said changes downtown and have they’ve been received have not been “black and white” but shared excitement for how the area with continue to adapt, putting faith in the Downtown Advisory Committee, a group of 19 residents, who have been tasked with leading the planning process.
And Rak, who has been on the Street Closure Subcommittee since its formation in 2020, also shared excitement for the future of downtown, calling it a “work in progress.”
“We’re a city starting to go through change,” Rak said. “I see it as an opportunity.”
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