As communities across the Bay Area strive to balance disparate viewpoints while navigating the effects of growth, the impassioned debate over height and density restrictions in San Mateo may reach a critical point sooner than some anticipated.

Joe Goethals

Joe Goethals 

Maxine Terner

Maxine Terner

A citizens group that originally spurred San Mateo’s voter-approved limits more than 25 years ago has returned. Members are now urging the City Council to place a measure on the ballot that would keep in place 5-story height limits in most parts of the city, and restrict how dense housing and commercial developers can build.

While the city is about to initiate an extensive community outreach effort for its General Plan update — the most comprehensive land use and zoning document in San Mateo — concerns have arise about Measure P sunsetting at the end of 2020.

City officials indicated they anticipate the General Plan update could be finalized prior to the measure’s expiration, but those concerned about the impacts of redevelopment want a chance to act preemptively.

On Tuesday, the citizens group San Mateans for Responsive Government will speak during a council meeting to request the city put a measure on the November ballot to extend limitations through 2030, said Michael Weinhauer, who lives in the Central Neighborhood.

“We saw the need to extend this measure that has protected San Mateo for nearly a quarter century,” Weinhauer said. “We can put in a lot of housing and a lot of office with the limits we have in place, it doesn’t stop us from growing.”

If the council doesn’t place it on the ballot, they’ll begin collecting signatures for a citizens initiative, he said.

Measure P caps heights at 55 feet throughout the city, and allows for heights up to 75 feet in certain places with a public benefit. It caps high-density housing at 68 units per acre, after factoring in state density bonuses. It also requires housing developers provide 10 percent of the units as affordable, and restricts floor area ratios for commercial buildings. The City Council put Measure P on a 2004 ballot, which extended many provisions of the 1991 citizens’ initiative Measure H.

With it slated to expire and a housing crisis looming, discussions have begun about whether allowing increased density in certain areas, such as around transit, might be appropriate.

Maxine Terner, who helped organize the original measure in 1991, said the city is facing similar economic pressures that warrant continuing limits.

“History does tend to repeat itself,” Terner said. “The city is under enormous economic pressure and the rest of the community doesn’t feel like it’s being listened to.”

She and Weinhauer said there is still room for development even with the restrictions in place. They were open to discussing moderate changes to the measure, but are first suggesting a straight extension of current limits. Weinhauer noted some would even prefer stricter limits. At the crux of their effort is concern that, after the measure expires, the council could vote on a General Plan that allows rampant development.

While the group and many neighborhood representatives have expressed frustration with the impacts of growth such as to traffic, others have suggested increasing allowable densities around transit could be a benefit to addressing housing demands and alleviating congestion.

The General Plan update process will involve extensive community outreach and consider issues such as heights as well as density, and set a blueprint for the future.

Chief of Planning Ron Munekawa said it’s important public participation is inclusive of all segments of the community, particularly those who don’t typically get involved in land use discussions.

Terner said she was eager to participate in the update process and suggested extending Measure P another 10 years wouldn’t affect that. She said a new General Plan, informed by public input, could be presented to voters who would decide whether to amend height and density restrictions.

Munekawa said the goal is to conduct extensive public outreach on a schedule that would allow enough time for something to be placed on the ballot before Measure P expires. However, he emphasized he couldn’t presuppose that decision, which is up to the council.

Councilman Joe Goethals said the council will be meeting soon to discuss its priorities for the year and he plans to suggest the city consider placing something on the ballot. 

“I think the community’s concerns that the City Council would allow height limits to expire and exploit that, … is completely unfounded,” Goethals said. “If there’s one thing that all of the councilmembers for San Mateo care about, it is process and allowing all residents to have their voice heard.”

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

Twitter: @samantha_weigel

Recommended for you

(10) comments

Mr Eddy

Height limits helps retain the quality of life, and prevents towns from becoming overcrowded with traffic congestion and ugly skyscrapers. There's a reason why measures of height limits kept residential neighborhoods less dense and more open to clear skies. It keeps single family houses from impacts. We're already fed up with the gentrification of this town, building too much high density projects too much at the same time, we need to keep out the dozen story buildings from our neighborhood.

John Morris

Quality of life for who, exactly? Certainly not for renters, who are being displaced in greater numbers every day. High density? We only allow up to 5 stories! I'd suggest taking a trip into the city, where you'll be able to better understand what high density ACTUALLY looks like. Good lord.

Mr Eddy

I been on trips to metropolitan cities to NY and LA, high density buildings are shared by noisy neighbors, no backyards, no trees, no open skies. I like the living single family house, it's more calm, sunlight, private backyard, and no big underground garage with too many cars. Quality of life is a better environment with less density. We want to protect our suburban neighborhood in SM, the whole rent control vote have spoken, and they voted against it. Lots of residents want SM county to control the overpopulation.

John Morris

You seem to have missed my point, Eddy, which was that 5-10 stories is FAR from being considered high-density. That's great that you like living in an SFH, but not everyone wants that. San Mateo has underbuilt it's housing supply for decades; now people are being pushed out. That needs to stop, and the only way to do so is to build more housing.

Mr Eddy

Gentrification is the cause of displacement and pushing out local residents and replacing them with rich people from corporate tech giants, the cost of living is going up thanks to overbuilding offices and condos. We have already build hundreds if not thousands of new housing units in this town and the peninsula, it's already enough for local residents to take that much long term impact, we are paying high property taxes, my cousin is also paying for HOA on top of the high costs. The developers would just abuse the housing market, if they don't have limits and they get more bucks to themselves.


Growth is the life blood of any city in our Western that is the basis for our way of life. Unless we go back to a subsistence way of life where change is NOT needed

Forgotten is the Great Session of just a few years ago (2007) where cities throughout the country/world were going bankrupt. San Mateo was no different and lucky to have the likes of YouTube downtown that drew in many other startups...therefore workers who spent time/money in our moving closer so as to NOT have to drive

During the change clawing up from that Great Recession, noticed that the Caltrain stations (Burlingame and San Mateo) became more and more crowded with both folks walking/driving/cycling to and from the stations in the morning and evening during my bicycling rides in the morning and evening

Talked to many and found most were coming to Burlingame & San Mateo to work. Leaving their bedrooms in SF and South of Burlingame & San Mateo. Mix of tech/brick & mortar/etc workers and service sector workers. Most were Millennials

Examples abound in the western world cities needing to ‘grow’ in order to sustain themselves ("developing" countries were just fine without our 'modern' way...but 'we' felt it proper to change their ways of life to be just like us...corruption was the norm...from the beginning of world exploration to now) and will use a few cities on the Peninsula as examples...and of course generalization
San Bruno, SSF, Menlo Park, Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Milpitas are just a few that were considered backwater, agriculture/farming, poor cities compared to other cities on the Peninsula. Regulated to lower income citizens for the majority of those living in those cities.
Mainly because they had little to no growth due to stagnant economy for retail, commercial, offices, etc....until the Defense, Silicone & era put startups/med/large companies in those 'cheap rent' cities.
Now they are power houses and mainly due to those startups, which grew to multi national corporations
We need to wake folks up to these facts and to the future with smart growth. Key to that is leaving our R1's (suburbia...AKA bedroom community areas) as much alone and use the designated high density & corridor areas as our growth. Since landlocked...height becomes the main area of growth...
IMHO, let the height limit ordinance expire to allow our Planning & PW commissioners, Council and citizens review new developments and any variances requested…we need to change our 20th Century codes/ordinances/etc by moving to a “Form Based Code” system.
We live in a "Holistic System" and not just anyone component thereof. Not just bedrooms. Not just traffic mitigation. Not just Jobs....etc, etc, etc but all of them as a system
Note that the "Form Based Code" stuff below is from The EPA...never would have thought that they were so forward thinking...and is towards one of my pet peeves...our city ordinances are old and need revision/updating. Not just Planning, but Public Works and the rest of the city, as they are joined at the hip...

Below is the link to The EPA “smartgrowth” site and a partial copy of the first section

Codes That Support Smart Growth Development
On this page
• Background
• Unified Development Code
• Form-Based Code/SmartCode — Area Plans
• Form-Based Code/SmartCode — City Wide
• Transit-Oriented Development
• Design Guidelines
• Street Design Standards
• Zoning Overlay
Good codes are the foundation upon which great communities are built. They are the framework that regulates where and what type of development can occur. Codes guide everything from permissible land uses to building densities, locations, and setbacks to street widths and parking requirements.
When done well, codes make it easier for a community to implement its vision. However, when they are out of date or do not line up with the community's vision, codes can actually keep communities from getting the development they want.
For example, conventional zoning practice of the past several decades has separated residential, retail, and office uses. Today, however, this zoning stands in the way of communities that want to create vibrant, walkable neighborhoods that mix these uses and give residents the option to walk to the store, walk to work, or own a home business.
Many applicants to EPA's Smart Growth Implementation Assistance Program request help with updating or revising their codes. In response to this demand, EPA compiled these examples of adopted codes and guidelines from around the United States that support smart growth development. This list is not exhaustive but is a sampling of good, smart growth-supportive codes that communities could use as models to make similar updates to their zoning.
The examples are grouped into seven categories:
• Unified Development Code — A single document that includes all development-related regulations, including zoning and subdivision regulation.
• Form-Based Code or SmartCode — A code that outlines a specific urban form rather than zoning by use. Categories are included for form-based codes for area plans and for citywide codes.
• Transit-Oriented Development — Moderate- to high-density, mixed-use neighborhoods built around transit stops and designed to maximize access to and use of public transportation.
• Design Guidelines — A set of standards that aims to maintain a certain level of quality and architectural or historic character, addressing features such as building façades, public spaces, or landscaping.
• Street Design Standards — Guidelines and standards related to travel-lane width, bicycle lanes, on-street parking, medians, sidewalks, landscaping, lighting, crosswalks, pedestrian refuge islands, bulbouts, and accessibility ramps.
• Zoning Overlay — A set of zoning ordinances, optional or required, specifying land use and/or design standards for a designated portion of the underlying zoning within a defined district; typically used to keep architectural character and urban form consistent, make adjacent uses compatible, or accelerate the conversion of non-conforming land uses.
Other useful resources are Essential Smart Growth Fixes for Urban and Suburban Zoning Codes, which suggests specific code and ordinance fixes that local governments can consider to make development in their communities more environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable, and Essential Smart Growth Fixes for Rural Planning, Zoning, and Development Codes, which offers 10 essential fixes to help rural communities amend their codes, ordinances, and development requirements to promote more sustainable growth.


vincent wei

Ben...Not all growth is good...growth often leads to pollution, over-consumption and stress.... ALSO factually, the only bankruptcies (other than the $43M lawsuit in Mamouth Lakes) in California, Stockton and San Bernadino, were the result of growth and overbuilding, along with unfunded pension liabilities....


... and when overbuilding becomes a problem, we'll let you know!!

vincent wei

Thank you Maxine Terner and Michael Weinhauer,..... Based on past experience, I don't trust this Council's platitudes of "extensive public outreach" as actually being meaningful..... The Essex at Central Park 5 story project has had little to no input from the public as aball52 mentions...And the City's traffic management association committee (TMA) is filled by self interested developers.


They care about voices heard? How about that meeting clandestinely with only one resident the rest developers present about downtown 5th Avenue development?

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

Thank you for reading the Daily Journal.

Please purchase an Enhanced Subscription to continue reading.Please log in, or sign up for a new account and purchase an Enhanced Subscription to continue reading.