Envisioning the future of San Mateo’s Central Park is underway as the City Council, the Parks and Recreation Commission and the public discussed building a new recreation center, relocating amenities, constructing a plaza and potentially expanding the park to promote open space as transit-oriented development continues to boom.

The proposal to update the San Mateo Central Park Master Plan was reviewed at a meeting Monday night.

“The park’s been there for such a long time, it really hasn’t been updated or upgraded and as we build, almost a new city, with the TOD, transit development stuff, I think we need to upgrade our plans so it matches the rest of the city,” Mayor Robert Ross said.

Central Park is at the southern end of downtown at El Camino Real and Fifth Avenue and its current Master Plan was adopted in 1982. Updating the plan is one step in a line of many before any price tags are attached or physical changes are made. The city has conducted a four-month-long public participation and outreach session that garnered lots of interest.

“[Central Park] is the most historic park the city has and … it’s adjacent to downtown, so those for us really stand out as the two features about Central Park that really can’t be replicated anywhere else,” said Parks and Recreation Director Sheila Canzian.

The park will retain its historical attributes like the Kohl Pumphouse and Japanese Tea Garden, but the city may consider removing its children’s train.

Vice Mayor Maureen Freschet, however, said she’d like to keep the train she remembers riding as a child.

“I think a lot of people bring their children to the park for the train,” Freschet said. “There aren’t any amusement parks around here and short of kids going to the carnival and the fair, it’s sort of a unique thing.”

Sporting ideas for the park include rotating the baseball field, reducing the size of the current 2,000-seat bleachers, relocating the tennis courts and building a skate park. Enhancements could include creating a focal point like a fountain, constructing a performance area or stage to host events and adding a dog park. The city will consider altering the parking layout wants to create more inviting entrances, particularly along Fifth Avenue and into downtown.

“I don’t know many cities that have 16 acres of park right in their town’s center. We really have a special amenity here and we really want to do the right thing. And I agree, we’re way overdue for this,” said Councilman Jack Matthews.

Many ideas were discussed yet no decisions have been made. The council did agree updating the recreation center would be a priority. However, whether to relocate it elsewhere in the park, build it multiple stories tall and large enough to allow for a variety of activities, is still up for debate.

Central Park’s current recreation center is managed by Self Help for the Elderly, which draws hundreds of members from San Francisco to Santa Clara. The council remained thankful for the work and resources the program offers to seniors in the area and wants to continue its relationship with the organization, but the city will consider either offering it another location or space in a new recreation center.

Unlike Central Park’s recreation center, modern ones are used differently, Canzian said.

“In today’s world of community centers, they are much larger, they have many more amenities that can work together so a whole family can come down,” Canzian said. “Many of these larger facilities that have a variety of facilities, a gymnasium and a pool and those kinds of things, many around the country are really operating at 95 percent recovery [of expenses].”

However, city officials said Central Park might not be large enough to accommodate a recreation center of that size while still retaining a lot of open space.

Freschet asked staff to look into where it could build a large recreation center and whether locations like the park at Bay Meadows would be viable alternatives.

Running and staffing a large-scale recreation center is an undertaking and Ross said it might need to be a few stories tall with potentially relocating the tennis courts on top.

Ross said he wants to make sure focusing on Central Park won’t detract from other parks that also need healthy recreation centers.

“Build it to enable families to get full usage. So mom could be doing Pilates while one of the kids is [baby-sat] or in another class. The real challenge is how do we make it a center that allows so many uses that it does help pay for itself,” Ross said. “I think it’s really important that we don’t lose any of these other parks, especially on our east side of town, because the socioeconomics are a little less there and some of the children are a little less privileged and really need these rec centers.”

With the population booming alongside the growth of transit-oriented developments along the Peninsula, the council and public stressed the need to maintain open spaces.

“As the density of housing is bound to increase in San Mateo and therefore the population grows, it’s going to be all the more important to have more open space to sort of counterbalance some of that,” said John Hershberger, a resident at the Gramercy on the Park apartments next to Central Park.

Councilman Joe Goethals said the park is an asset and although it may be difficult, if at all feasible, he’d like to look at expanding the park.

Freschet said crafting Central Park’s Master Plan is an exciting venture that is critical for the city’s future.

“As we’re getting more and more dense in population and doing more transit-oriented development, more and more people are going to start to look at our parks as an oasis to go to relax and enjoy nature. So we want to maintain it,” Freschet said. “We want to keep as much open space as we can, but be very deliberate in how we design these things, so there’s something for everybody.”

City staff will continue to prepare ideas for the Central Park Master Plan and present it to council near the year’s end. For more information visit www.cityofsanmateo.org.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

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