The founder of Draper University threatened to move it out of downtown San Mateo during a Planning Commission meeting Tuesday after officials expressed continued reservation about proposed changes to the historic Benjamin Franklin Hotel where it is located.
The Planning Commission remains unconvinced by the proposed changes to the university downtown building at 44 E. Third Ave., which calls for an additional elevator and staircase at the back of the building that the Planning Commission fears could alter the overall aesthetic of the historic downtown building, which it wants to protect. The elevator would run to the top of the building and be visible from the outside. The building is part of the downtown Historic District but is not formally listed as a historic resource under the state or national registry, according to the city. It was built in 1926 and operated as the Benjamin Franklin Hotel until 2003.
Founder Tim Draper was frustrated that after putting $3 million a year into the city and several years of planning to meet city requests and concerns, the proposed changes appear stalled at the Planning Commission.
“We’ve been four years trying to make this thing work. Two years since we applied, and now you guys are just shutting us down. What is this? What are you thinking? Are you thinking, San Mateo, it’s a wonderful place, everybody is going to just keep coming? Let’s just keep part of these buildings the way they are. They’re not. They’re gonna leave. I’m gonna leave. I am going to sell the [building],” Draper said.
Draper University is a for-profit university offering entrepreneurship programs to students to develop startup skills needed in business. Founded in 2012 by Draper, the school offers a five-week Hero Training at its downtown campus. It gives students the chance to hear speakers from Silicon Valley and workshop business ideas with other classmates. It also offers online virtual programs to students.
Draper said if the Planning Commission didn’t allow him to run his business and make it successful, he would have to move to Redwood City or Austin, Texas. He also claimed the regulation attempts to minimize changes to historic downtown buildings from the Planning Commission would lead to a “ghost town.”
“I don’t think you are looking at this the right way. I get it; you are on the Planning Commission. You’ve got to focus on these details; you’ve got to make them work. Everything has got to make sense,” Draper said.
According to a city report, certain materials proposed for the elevator, like a glaze, could be harmful to the building’s Spanish Colonial Revival style. Some on the Planning Commission were more open to proposed changes to the top three floors of the university from dormitories to offices.
The Planning Commission expressed initial hesitation about the same potential building changes at its December meeting due to similar concerns. It asked the university to note its changes for any following presentations. Following the December meeting, the applicant team told the city it would not significantly redesign its proposal, which promoted the January meeting so the applicant’s team could explain its design process and thinking, according to the city.
Commissioner Mike Etheridge did not support the change in use proposal and felt parts of the project were inconsistent with the proposed project design. He also felt the glass elevator would take attention away and contradict the building’s Spanish architecture style.
“I don’t believe that putting offices on the top is justification for making the kind of extreme changes to the exterior,” Etheridge said.
Commissioner John Ebneter did not feel putting a dedicated exterior elevator with views was important enough to the downtown area to deviate from the building’s historical nature.
“I do not support the changes that I see tonight,” Ebneter said.
Commissioner Margaret Williams said she was supportive of the change of use for the top three floors but was concerned about the elevator as designed. Commission Vice Chair Ramiro Maldonado said he couldn’t approve the design structure as currently proposed. He asked the applicant to reconsider an elevator design that keeps the historical style.
Commission Chair Ellen Mallory said the proposal did not go with the building’s general style and feel.
“I place great value on the historic resources in the city, and I feel that iconic buildings such as this should be respected and not changed radically so that they are not iconic buildings anymore,” Mallory said.
Draper said by email after the meeting he wants to make the building shine again and attract venture capitalists to come mentor and fund students at the university. The project process has been four years in the making, with two years spent working with the city before the university could apply for review by the Planning Commission. Draper said various San Mateo councilmembers over the past few years were enthusiastic about the university renovation. He also disputed that the building is historic and said he has no intentions of making it historical.
“Draper University and Hero City are a labor of love for me. They are loss leaders that cost me about $3 million each year, but I love what they have done for the city, creating thousands of great jobs, diversity and notoriety for the city. I understand that the Planning Commission is a thankless job, but I think they are throwing away a very good thing. I hear Redwood City is much more willing to work with businesses. And Austin, Texas, is downright business-friendly,” Draper said.
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