Following an eleventh-hour rejection of a sweeping mixed-use project in San Bruno, the developer is threatening to leverage a new state housing law to build an even bigger, more ambitious residential development.
In a recent letter to city officials, Signature Development expressed interest in resurrecting a bolder version of the Mills Park project following the San Bruno City Council narrowly denying an initial proposal in July.
Leaning on streamlined development regulations loosened under Senate Bill 35, the Oakland builder is citing its newfound authority to construct 600 units spread across four buildings at the corner of San Bruno Avenue and El Camino Real.
The alternative version would offer an additional 175 units from the original proposal which imagined one five-story building with 182 units over a 42,000-square-foot store and another five-story building with 243 units and 4,000 square feet of commercial space.
No formal development application has been submitted, but the developer’s letter said the alternative project could feature taller buildings than the original version and offer fewer parking spaces as well.
For her part, Councilwoman Laura Davis said the developer’s new vision for the site is the confirmation of her worst fears when councilmembers voted 2-1 in favor of the original project, falling short of the three votes needed for approval.
“I’m frustrated because it was a good project that we should have approved and now we are dealing with the aftermath of that,” said Davis, who initially voted with Mayor Rico Medina to approve the project, while Councilman Marty Medina opposed it. Since Vice Mayor Irene O’Connell and Councilman Michael Salazar recused themselves from voting because they own property nearby, unanimous consensus was required for approval.
For his part, Rico Medina shared a similar sentiment.
“I don’t think it’s good for San Bruno,” he said, regarding the alternative design. “I obviously wish on the night of, it would have passed. And I was aware of the potential consequences had it not, and so we find ourselves here.”
The decision came after years of planning and examination and extensive deliberation by councilmembers which spanned into the early hours of the following morning before the fateful vote was cast.
As an appeal at the last moment, the developer offered to take 16 units off the project in an attempt to address some concerns raised by critics, but the compromise was insufficiently persuasive. The original project also offered 64 affordable units, 879 parking spaces and nearly $10 million in community benefit contributions to the city.
The new version offers taller buildings, fewer parking spaces and no grocery store, as the developer’s letter leans on state construction standards facilitating dense housing near transportation hubs, such as the Mills Park site, which is a short distance from the city’s downtown Caltrain stop.
“We remain in favor of and committed to the original project. However, given the council’s action, we would like to discuss this alternative,” said the letter signed by Jamie Choy, project manager with Signature.
The alternative project would include 1,500 square feet of commercial space and buildings would span up to seven stories. It also does away with traffic congestion mitigation measures offered in the previous proposal designed to address concerns raised by residents who felt the project would compound existing problems. Though the estimation is incomplete, a city report suggests about $13 million in community benefit contributions could be required.
A newsletter from city officials largely reserves judgment on the proposal until a formal application is submitted.
“While providing more housing units, the alternative SB 35 project appears to create a greater impact on the existing Mills Park neighborhood than the original project proposal,” said the letter. “Should the developer formally submit a SB 35 project for review, city staff will take all legally allowable steps to limit the project’s impact on the existing community.”
SB 35 allows for ministerial approvals of housing developments in communities which have not been building a sufficient amount of residential units to accommodate demand. The law authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, streamlines processes making it harder for local governments to put up environmental or other regulatory roadblocks.
Critics of the original project denial claimed the decision violated state housing law and threatened to sue the city to compel approval, but the city’s letter said an agreement earlier this month was reached to hold off on taking legal action for 60 days.
Davis noted the time elapsed would include a San Bruno City Council election Tuesday, Nov. 5, in which both Marty Medina and O’Connell are seeking another term.
“One change in those positions might change the project,” she said.
Marty Medina said in an email he hoped the issue could be resolved after Election Day as well.
“The developer has expressed pursuing the SB 35 is not their preferred alternative,” he said. “Hopefully it can all be worked out after the election.”
Further regarding the issue of change, Davis said the builder’s most recent position speaks to the obligation of officials to try to manage development interests in San Bruno. Because if officials don’t seek to shape the inevitable in a fashion which best suits the community, someone else will attempt to do it for them — with less sensitivity.
“Although we don’t want to change in San Bruno, change is coming. And we need to do it for the right reasons,” she said.
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