Peninsula Health Care District officials need to do a better job reaching out to the public regarding plans to build affordable housing in the proposed wellness community surrounding Mills-Peninsula Medical Center, according to a recent grand jury report.

The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury determined that the district administration and board should provide more clear information about plans to build new homes in the Burlingame project, while also granting the community a greater opportunity to provide feedback on the campus vision.

The report is the latest round of pressure placed on the health care district overseeing the proposal, following input from local officials, federal and state representatives as well as affordable housing advocates and other community members.

Yet despite the repeated requests for more information and additional transparency, the grand jury report encourages the health care district to further engage the community on the proposal.

Larry Cappel

Larry Cappel

“A more forthcoming communication strategy moving forward could result in a higher level of satisfaction on the part of housing advocates and other stakeholders,” said the report issued Thursday, Oct. 15.

Calling the report largely innocuous, health care board Chair Larry Cappel said he appreciated most of the findings and added they aligned with the plans previously adopted by district officials.

“We are already doing some of this, and I think we just need to articulate what we are doing,” he said.

Officials announced a vision last fall to build 477 units for seniors in a sweeping wellness community proposed on land owned by the health care district adjacent to the medical facility it once operated. Of those units, 184 are expected to be affordable and the remaining 293 are expected to be listed at market rate.

The affordable component of the development will be for seniors who are in the extremely low-income, low-income and moderate-income brackets, and is a shift from the district’s original plan of 375 senior housing units, 250,000 square feet of professional office and medical research space, plus additional amenities on what is now 6.42 acres of land the district owns in Burlingame near the Mills-Peninsula Medical Center on Trousdale Drive. Of those 375 units, about 10% were planned to be below market rate.

Cappel said he was proud of the district’s decision to increase the affordable housing included in the development, noting the amount of units standing to be developed could be one of the largest below-market rate projects on the Peninsula.

Karyl Eldridge, a representative for advocacy group One San Mateo, said her group plans to continue pushing for affordable housing on the district’s land, which she feels furthers the district’s commitment to assuring community wellness.

“Our interest is in a transparent process that assures us, and the overall public, that plans for the [Peninsula Health Care District] land meet the community’s priority needs,” said Eldridge in an email.

Eldridge’s organization joined U.S. Rep Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, among those who have already called on the district to address affordability concerns in the development.

Concept

The Peninsula Wellness Center concept also includes a 100,000-square-foot Center for Community Health which will be a multi-purpose hub with many community-serving amenities. The final plan will be informed by additional community feedback but will likely include some of the following: art studios, urban community gardens, medical offices, cafes, a health club, a library, open spaces for gathering and meeting rooms open to all.

The report acknowledged housing advocates and others appreciated the district’s commitment to building housing to accommodate the anticipated uptick in demand for senior living over the coming years, it also notes prevailing confusion over the district’s calculus for designating only about 40% of the units at an affordable rate.

To eliminate the uncertainty and address community concern, the district should revise its public meeting format to yield greater discussion with residents. Additionally, it should show more financial transparency to detail the formula determining how many units are affordable, according to the report.

“Although these issues are complex, they can and should be presented to the public in an understandable format. Multiple aspects of this development and future developments, would benefit from greater transparency on the part of the district,” said the report.

Communication

Cappel said the district could have amended outreach methods earlier, but noted the district’s communication efforts were impeded by coronavirus, which made standard meetings and discussions impossible.

By Sunday, Nov. 1, the district should provide opportunities during meetings for officials to answer questions and address concerns raised by the community. Officials should also share any financial restraints which limit the district’s capacity to build affordable housing. And, the district should launch a website solely dedicated to the project, where updates and critical information such as financial documents can be found, according to the report.

Admitting the district has been unclear on some financial elements of its plan, Cappel said that is because critical pieces of the project are still in the planning stages. Once designs are final, he said officials plan to be more clear regarding the project’s economics.

“We should be in a position to share some of that information to the public,” he said, further committing to the district’s willingness to upload critical financial and planning documents to the its website.

According to the report, the commitment to transparency and community collaboration could yield greater trust, which may be an essential tool for the district in its attempt to bring the vision for the wellness community to fruition,

“Transparency about their financial analysis can go a long way towards convincing the community that the district is being a responsible steward of an extremely valuable piece of public land,” said the report.

The district was formed to operate the medical center but that was taken over by Sutter Health which constructed a new medical center. District officials then pivoted to assuring district properties and resources through taxes it collects serve the health needs of residents in San Bruno, Millbrae, Burlingame, Hillsborough, San Mateo and Foster City.

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