A lengthy discussion of building heights Monday night that left the San Mateo City Council postponing a decision has led to what could be an intense two-week period in which city officials try to hammer out a deal with the citizens group trying to place a measure on the ballot to keep current limits in place for another 10 years.

Members of the citizens group San Mateans for Responsive Government have until Aug. 6 to reach an agreement with individual councilmembers regarding the terms of an extension of Measure P, which established 55-foot height limits in most parts of the city and restricted how densely housing and commercial developers can build. City Manager Larry Patterson and City Attorney Shawn Mason are also authorized to participate in the meetings.

Though the council can exercise its independent authority and place the group’s petition to extend Measure P 10 years past its sunset in 2020 on the November ballot by the Aug. 10 deadline, several councilmembers Monday night expressed interest in allowing the city’s General Plan update process determine whether the building restrictions address the city’s changing needs. Councilmembers also considered waiting until the next regular election in November 2020 to put an extension of Measure P on the ballot, after conversations about the city’s vision, changing needs and land use policy have taken place as part of the General Plan update.

Acknowledging the response the issue elicited from dozens of community members on both sides of the Measure P extension, Councilwoman Maureen Freschet weighed Measure P’s merits and the dramatic changes in the economy and housing demands that have taken shape since its inception. First approved by voters in 1991 as Measure H, 2004’s Measure P also required residential developments to provide at least 10 percent of below-market-rate units on site, and was seen as establishing the city’s first inclusionary zoning policy.

Noting she had been amenable to extending the measure five years in previous conversations with members of the residents’ group, Freschet said she felt both the effort to extend the measure 10 years, as well as another option councilmembers have considered to exempt areas near the city’s train stations from the building height limits, may impede the city’s General Plan process. The planning effort was initiated last year and is expected to last through 2020.

“The General Plan revision should be a true citizens initiative drawn on input from every element of San Mateo and reflect a collaborative stakeholders concept of what San Mateo we want to leave for future generations,” said Freschet.

Freschet said she would like to see future discussions of what a council-sponsored ballot measure could look like to include conversations about the sunset date and specific height limits that could be implemented in the areas considered for exemptions from the building heights.

In a phone call after the meeting, resident Maxine Terner, who helped organize the original measure in 1991, said members of the citizens group looked to future conversations with the council to bring the community together in working toward the same goals. Terner said the group is committed to getting the measure on the ballot this year, and is open to discussing different ways to achieve that goal.

“Our commitment is to give San Mateo residents the opportunity to vote on the initiative in 2018,” she said. “We just want the democratic process to be fulfilled.”

Several options

Before the council Monday night were several options on how to move forward with potential ballot measures for the November election. Though the citizens group obtained more than the required 5,185 signatures — or support from at least 10 percent of the registered voters in San Mateo — needed to get on the ballot, the initiative has been stalled by Mason’s determination that the group’s petition is defective because it violates a section of the state Elections Code requiring voter initiatives to state the substance of the law that would be enacted if the measure is successful.

Since council-sponsored measures do not involve a signature-gathering campaign, the council could have voted to place the citizens petition on the ballot at Monday’s meeting, but it would have done so at significant cost, explained Mason at the meeting. Because elections law requires the city hold an election between 88 days and 103 days after an election is called, the election would have had to be held in October at a cost of more than $400,000 if the council had voted for it Monday night. Councilmembers and members of the citizens group both voiced concern about the cost of holding a special election in October.

But if councilmembers opt to place a measure on the ballot at their Aug. 6 meeting, a vote could be held as part of a consolidated election alongside the state gubernatorial races at a much lower cost, explained Mason in a phone call after the meeting.

City Clerk Patrice Olds said in an email the county Elections Office estimated the cost of placing one initiative with full printed text on the ballot for the Nov. 6 election to be between $140,000 and $168,000. 

Still on the table for the council’s Aug. 6 meeting is an option to place the measure on the ballot and direct Mason to file a declaratory relief action with the San Mateo County Superior Court so a judgment can be made on whether the petition is defective. Whether or not they are able to reach an agreement with the citizens’ group, councilmembers may also opt to support a ballot measure aimed at increasing the required below-market-rate units in residential projects from 10 percent to 15 percent and authorizing the City Council to establish different building height, density and intensity standards from those enacted by Measure P within the Downtown and the Hillsdale Station area plans.

Resident input

Councilman Joe Goethals proposed exploring such an option in June with the hope of developing an option that could concentrate growth near transit centers, an alternative that garnered the support of resident Cliff Moon and several others who weighed in at Monday’s meeting. Moon was joined by many in urging councilmembers to lift the height limits near the city’s train stations, which he believed could open much-needed opportunities for renters and low-income residents to find an affordable place to live near transit.

Acknowledging concerns the city’s growth is affecting the quality of life of residents, Moon argued the stakes are much higher for those who don’t have a secure place to live.

“For renters and for people on the margins, quality of life comes down to am I going to be able to survive the next month?” he said.

But for resident Susan Shankle, concerns about how the city’s infrastructure, schools and water supply could keep up with the pace of development in recent years loomed large. Shankle said she strongly supported maintaining the city’s diversity, but wasn’t convinced the building restrictions stood in the way of achieving that goal and wondered what role developers have played in the growth in developments to date.

“Continued growth is unsustainable and building taller buildings is not the answer,” she said.

Other concerns

Councilman Eric Rodriguez voiced concerns about putting a measure with “carve-outs” for the building height limits near the city’s train stations, which could compete with the citizens-driven effort. Noting the high standard set for citizens initiatives to be put on the ballot, he said councilmembers should respect their effort and allow citizens to vote on the measure no matter how they may feel personally about the issue.

“I think it’s really very important to respect our citizens right to put measures on the ballot,” he said.

Acknowledging thousands of residents have voiced support for maintaining the city’s characteristics and keeping the building height limits, Goethals said he also weighs how to ensure it is an inclusive city with a diverse population. Goethals expressed his disappointment the building restrictions kept an additional 50 units from being built on two redevelopment sites in downtown San Mateo expected to make some 164 residential units available at a variety of affordability levels, an outcome that could prevent some 50 firefighters or police officers from living where they work.

“That’s something that we should talk about,” he said. “We’re not the same place we were in 1990.”

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(11) comments

Eaadams

I am looking for the contact info for the lady sitting about 5th row, on the isle, with the yellow shirt.

I had a wonderful conversation with her at the meeting during the break. We didn't see eye to eye on the issues. But we were able to talk and be civil; I so appreciated that conversation.

Her point to me was one of water & us not having enough water for more housing. I pointed out to her how larger taller buildings use a fraction of the water a Single Family home uses.

But I wanted to let her know about the meeting after the meeting. Everyone left after the P event. However, later on the council met on the wastewater treatment plant. This is what I thought people would find interesting,the new wastewater plant will have more than. 60,000,000 gallons of capasity per day. The current plant has less than 15,000,000 capasity. Sewage is kind of a thing that is very much what goes in must come out... if you know what I mean. But I think that capasity increase would inform the above mentioned lady about her concern about water. We are already planning on a 400% capasity increase for sewage, certainly we then will have the water for more housing. [smile]

Lou

Mr. Wei has the astute answer. Perhaps housing that lower income people can truly afford will be unattainable.

vincent wei

Elephant in the room...how many of the units in these new developments that Bohannon and Windy City and Goethals and Bonilla and the Yimby's want will actually be AFFORDABLE?

5%...? Certainly not much more...5 units affordable out of 100 (and the units are deed restricted) and the remaining 95 units will be sold by the real estate developers at MARKET RATE....good deal for Bohannon and Windy Hill....

BUT the number of affordable units (even including the market rate numbers) are actually so small, in the overall marketplace, that it will do nothing to alleviate the high cost of housing in San Mateo...and that's a FACT.

JordanG

Affordable in what sense, Vincent? 10%-15% are mandated to be affordable by City law. While you might believe it doesn't alleviate the high cost of housing, I'd bet the recipients of those units would disagree. Every single lower-cost unit helps.

vincent wei

Of course but that's not the real issue, out of the 2000 units built in San Mateo between 2010 and 2014, say 200 (10% as in the City's inclusionary housing docs)were affordable (with resale restrictions on them for 45 years)...90% were market rate (as are the recently approved and upcoming proposed developments) so how much has that 10% lowered the cost of housing in San Mateo in the years from 2015-2018? ....Nothing to do with Measure P....the affordable numbers just aren't there to support your mantra of build, build, build...the market rate developers will love you though...

JordanG

Mr. Wei misses the mark here. Market-rate developments are helpful to renters and lower-income people in several ways. New units add to the existing housing supply, creating competition in the marketplace and driving overall rents down. They also house wealthier tech workers who have come here to participate in our booming economy. When there aren’t enough market-rate units, tech workers don’t just stop coming to our area; they bid up the prices of older housing stock, resulting in the displacement of current renters and families. Every new unit added preserves an older unit for those people. Virtually every development in San Mateo is required to provide a certain number of units at below market rate. While that might seem trivial Mr. Wei, who is clearly already housing-secure, it's often a life-changer (or saver) for those who would otherwise be forced to leave the area. What Mr. Wei refers to as 'facts' are entirely his (demonstrably wrongly) opinions, and nothing more.

Thomas Morgan

75 % of the parcels in San Mateo are housing.We can add some housing, but should not be the primary focus. Balance is needed ideally you you would split TOD buildings between office/retail and housing so there is utilization during the day when everyone leaves for work. Need to relax retail FAR 0.3 (give up 70%), where as office and housing both have FAR of 3 (get 3x ), if we want more housing reduce the office FAR to 1.5 and raise housing FAR to 4. If retail FAR is not relaxed there is no incentive for developers to add retail need to support the development and people who live/work there and some form of transit to obtain goods and services. Also need to cap square footage on the housing unit in the TOD areas seem like larger units are being built. At $1,000 per sq ft the difference between a 1,000 sq ft unit and a 1,300 sq ft unit is $300K.

kevinburke

Thomas thanks for your comment. We're already seeing smaller units because they're cheaper to build, as you mention. Another good step along this direction would be to reduce minimum parking requirements, which can add 300 square feet per unit and cost $60,000 per space.

The ballot measure text also contains rules about maximum unit density per acre, which mitigates in favor of larger, not smaller units, so it would be good to defeat it and/or have an alternative ballot measure that allows more flexibility there.

JordanG

Listening to the dozens of people who came forward to share their stories about how San Mateo's housing crisis has affected them was both heartbreaking and inspiring. Can't wait to join those wonderful humans in speaking against Measure P again on August 6th!

Sharon

While "affordability"; "low income" and similar terms are used when discussing building developments, they are always defined or defended by explaining that these are for public servants (i.e., police, firemen, teachers, etc.). While I do believe public and civic employees should live in the community they serve, this is a different issue that just income. Their incomes are still considerably higher than many other incomes that people earn here, and yet that differentiation is never considered. We need housing for people here that make LESS income than city employees!

kevinburke

100% agreed Sharon, we should be building housing at all income levels. The reason people bring up teachers, firefighters so much is that pretty much everyone in the community intuitively understands the essential purpose and role these people play in our community, and the impact when we make our area unaffordable for them. Baristas should be able to afford housing too but there's an emotional disconnect for some people when you talk about those groups vs. teachers.

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