Draper University’s plan to convert its top three floors from dormitories to offices and add an elevator and staircase is facing pushback from the San Mateo Planning Commission. While most of the Planning Commission was OK with changing dorms to offices, it requested significant revisions to the elevator and staircase portion of the project over concerns the changes would alter the building’s historic nature.
Draper University’s building at 44 E. Third Ave. is part of the San Mateo Downtown Historic District and is considered a local historical building. It was built in 1926 and operated as the Benjamin Franklin Hotel until 2003. Changing the building architecture could permanently change its historical aspects, something the Planning Commission is against. Certain materials proposed for the elevator, like a glaze, could be harmful to the building’s Spanish Colonial Revival style, according to a city report. Most commissioners didn’t see how the project could keep the building’s historical aspects with all the changes.
“I look at historic buildings as gifts from the past. I do not support modifications to historic buildings, no matter how minor they are. I think it takes away from the property, and I don’t think it can ever be gained back,” Commissioner John Ebneter said.
Ebneter was supportive of the proposed change from dorms to office space but against constructing an elevator in the building because it wasn’t appropriate for its overall design. He approved of the concept design of the elevator but didn’t like it for a historic structure. He hopes Draper University can make changes within the existing building’s confines without permanently changing its unique aspects.
Commission Chair Ellen Mallory was also fine with changing floors in the building to offices unless it changes the building’s historical nature. She was against an elevator at the back of the building because it would make the building look unbalanced from a decorative perspective and be visible for everyone to see.
“I do think of the Benjamin Franklin Hotel as an iconic downtown building,” Mallory said.
Draper University is a for-profit university offering entrepreneurship programs to students to develop startup skills needed in business. Founded in 2012 by well-known venture capitalist Tim Draper, the school offers a five-week Hero Training at its downtown campus, giving students the chance to hear speakers from Silicon Valley, work with a mentor and workshop business ideas with other classmates. It also offers online virtual programs to students to build their entrepreneurship skills, according to its website.
Draper University is asking for an elevator and staircase enclosure addition and a change of use for its top floors. The addition of the elevator and staircase enclosure would be accessible from Benjamin Franklin Court, a publicly accessible alleyway between Third and Fourth avenues, and would be a secondary entrance for employees, according to city staff. The elevator and staircase would be in the back of the building and run from the ground floor to the penthouse floor. The elevator would be around 429 square feet. The staircase would be made of stucco, while the elevator and penthouse floor would have glazing. An existing elevator only reaches the eighth floor. The project also would change the seventh, eighth, and penthouse floor from dormitories to offices. The remaining floors, which are used for its entrepreneur programs, would stay the same.
Draper said the university wanted the elevator to be glass so people can see the views of the city. He hopes the changes will help improve Draper University and student’s experiences.
“We are thinking that having those top three floors available for commercial use can really help encourage these young entrepreneurs,” Draper said.
Some commissioners wanted more information and clarity about the elevator and stairs. Commission Vice Chair Ramiro Maldonado favored converting the dorms to offices because people from the university would still use the offices. However, he asked for more clarification on the site design of the elevator.
“I’m still trying to figure out what’s the best use and where can an elevator be placed,” Maldonado said.
Commissioner Margaret Williams said she was supportive of the proposed change of the dorms to offices and the overall site design, but wanted Draper University to replace the proposed glazing of the elevator with stucco. The project is calling for glazing the elevator, while a city of city staff report recommended Draper University use stucco instead.
“If we have a building that’s eligible for historic preservation, I think we need to maintain that,” Williams said.
Commissioner Mike Etheridge was skeptical about the elevator and stairs changes and the proposed conversion of the top three floors.
Keith Weber of San Mateo provided a public letter expressing concern about the proposed alterations to the two Draper University buildings. Weber said the changes would redefine the building’s character and that converting three floors of housing to offices would be inappropriate given the lack of housing in the area. At the meeting, other residents asked the Planning Commission to protect the building’s historical nature and the overall downtown historic district.
Draper University presented its plans to the Planning Commission at its Tuesday meeting to ensure it meets requirements when finally submitted to the Planning Commission for approval in the future. The Planning Commission will likely hold another study meeting to discuss the project.
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