Though San Mateo residents raised questions about how a 10-unit condominium project proposed for El Camino Real would fit within its surrounding neighborhood and affect traffic, the City Council’s decision to uphold the Planning Commission’s denial of the project Monday ultimately came down to distance between a one-story home adjacent to the property and the four-story building included in the plans.
In a discussion sparking concerns ranging from the preservation of the neighborhood’s character to the pressing need to increase the city and region’s housing stock, councilmembers voted 3-1 to deny the applicant’s appeal of the commission’s fall decision, with Mayor Rick Bonilla voting against the denial. Councilman Eric Rodriguez recused himself from the discussion because he served as a Planning Commissioner during the fall discussions.
In affirming the commission’s decision, councilmembers also upheld its finding that the building’s height varied more than one story from a one-story building next to it without a step, or transition between the heights, effectively issuing the final rejection of the plans in their current form.
Referring to the dozens of residents who stepped forward with concerns abut the building’s impact on homes and streets near the project site between Engle Road and West Santa Inez Avenue, Councilwoman Maureen Freschet admitted some surprise to see the controversy caused by a 10-unit building. But she also acknowledged deep regional concerns caused by the housing shortage as well as the difficulty of navigating change affecting the quality of life for nearby residents and character of a given neighborhood.
“In today’s environment where we’re experiencing massive development and more is being proposed, it’s a little surprising to see that a 10-unit building would be so controversial,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t have had a problem with a three-story project. “It’s disappointing to me that we couldn’t have found a way forward to make that happen to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders.”
Joining other residents of the San Mateo Park neighborhood in urging councilmembers to affirm the commission’s decision, nearby resident Jodie Penner noted the mass, parking congestion and traffic associated with the four-story building where two single-family residences currently stand were cause for concern for her and her neighbors.
“We are not seeking to block any and all multifamily housing from this property,” she said, adding that sensitively scaled, multi-family units could benefit neighbors of the project by providing a buffer to El Camino Real traffic and would add to the city’s housing supply. “This project is too large for its lot and in relation to the established neighborhood of small single-family cottages and bungalows directly abutting the project.”
Many neighbors of the project worried residents of the new units could affect available street parking on West Santa Inez Avenue and nearby streets, where some said parking is in short supply. Though a 23-car underground parking garage was included in the plans, some expressed doubts as to whether residents would use it, which uses a mechanized “puzzle” system allowing cars to be stored with less space than a traditional structure. Because the underground garage by Oakland-based CityLift uses on a retrieval process to store the cars and some versions of the platform don’t accommodate larger models, neighbors of the project, like Gerry Wentworth, wondered if new residents would opt to park on the street instead of using on-site parking.
“We have no more available parking,” he said. “We just don’t have any more space available.”
Jack Matthews, the project architect and former mayor, confirmed residents of the building would agree not to park on the street and a representative of CityLift said four spaces reserved for oversized cars, like SUVs and minivans, could accommodate larger vehicles that may not fit in the garage’s regular storage.
But for 20-year San Mateo resident Rafael Reyes and other housing advocates, the uphill challenge for those looking to buy a home in San Mateo weighed heavily, moving him to support the project.
“My family is very fortunate to live here,” he said. “There are many others that do not have that benefit because it is simply outrageously expensive. And we must move forward with housing to accommodate families that work here and live nearby.”
In voting against the denial, Bonilla joined voices in support of the project, noting the need for housing to support teachers and first responders in the city and commending the building’s design.
“It’s in my opinion a good building ... its time has come but obviously based on what I’m hearing maybe not now,” he said. “I do look forward to finding ways to build the housing that we need for everybody.”
In opting to issue the denial without prejudice, councilmembers agreed to allow the applicant to submit an amended version of the project within a year, which Councilman Joe Goethals said he hoped would happen soon. Noting the difficulty residents are increasingly facing with regard to street parking, Goethals suggested the developer find ways to accommodate a wider variety of vehicles to afford some flexibility to future residents of the building and to ensure residents park in the garage in future versions of the plans.
Though Goethals acknowledged residents’ concerns regarding the mass and height of the building, he said he hoped any plans submitted in the future are more amenable to its neighbors.
“It may not be everything that the neighborhood wants when it comes to what comes forward next,” he said. “But … I have to imagine that the project that comes forward next, that the neighborhood will be more in tune with it.”
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