The San Bruno City Council rejected a sweeping development featuring more than 400 housing units and a new grocery store, fueling frustrations and fears of repercussions among those supporting the proposal.
The San Bruno City Council voted 2-1, with Mayor Rico Medina and Councilwoman Laura Davis in favor and Councilman Marty Medina opposing, on the Mills Park Plaza development proposal. Vice Mayor Irene O’Connell and Councilman Michael Salazar recused themselves from the vote because they owned property nearby, so city policy mandated unanimous consent for approval.
The vote, which took place in the early hours of Wednesday, July 10, killed the proposal after years of planning and deliberations and a unanimous recommendation to approve from the San Bruno Planning Commission last month.
Citing the considerable investment by city officials, staff, residents and applicant Signature Development to refine the plans at El Camino Real and San Bruno Avenue, Rico Medina was dissatisfied the project could not get over the goal line.
“I’m disappointed that with the work of staff and everyone that we couldn’t come to something that moves the city forward and that benefits the community,” he said. “And I understand that no project is ever going to be 100% appealing to everyone and I understand that it was tough for a lot of neighbors to try to visualize and see, but I think we’ve lost an opportunity.”
Davis agreed, noting the project adhered to the city’s development regulations including those specifically addressing the El Camino Real corridor and increased building heights. Recognizing the hard work required to craft the development, she questioned what the decision may signal to those trying to build in San Bruno.
“It concerns me with future development because what developer wants to check all the boxes, do all the right things, then get denied?” said Davis.
Project plans featured one five-story building with 182 units over a nearly 42,000-square-foot grocery store and another five-story building with 243 units and 4,000 square feet of commercial space. Of the units, 64 would have been set aside at an affordable rate and the project would have featured 879 parking spaces to accommodate residents as well as shoppers.
The development aimed to replace the commercial center and parking lots at Mills Park Center, only a short distance from downtown as well as the city’s Caltrain and BART stations. Twenty-seven parcels were stitched together by Signature Development to facilitate construction of the project which was designed to span about 5 acres. The site is also close to the headquarters of YouTube, which is requesting to build millions more square feet for accommodating additional workers.
The developer offered a substantial community benefits package, including a commitment to prevent the parking from spilling onto surrounding streets, allowing exclusive access to the city’s cable network to service the project and a sizable amount of development impact fees and other financial contributions worth about $10 million.
Yet despite the variety of payments and amenities offered, many residents opposed the project with claims that it was too large and threatened to reduce their quality of life.
In recognition of those perspectives from residents, dozens of whom spoke at the meeting, Marty Medina too felt the project was too large to support. At the eleventh hour, the developer offered to take 16 units off the project in an attempt to make it smaller, but the conciliation ultimately was insufficiently persuaded.
“We have unfortunately a project that is located in the midst of a lot of traffic and the size of the project with this additional traffic will just make it amazingly difficult,” said Marty Medina.
Marty Medina said he wished an agreement could have been reached which would have allowed the development to advance but he was unable to detail the specific size and scope of a project that he would have supported.
“I don’t regret my decision because I have to live with it,” he said. “But I just wished for a different outcome.”
For his part, City Manager Jovan Grogan shared his dismay but said the decision will not dissuade officials from seeking further development opportunities in San Bruno.
“It wasn’t accepted by one councilmember and unfortunately it needed a unanimous vote and so it can’t go forward,” he said. “But we will regroup, we will continue to move forward and continue to work with developers that want to do business in the city to achieve the goals that have been set by this community.”
San Bruno voters in 2014 approved Measure N, which loosened development regulations and made way for taller buildings near the Caltrain station. The proposed project site is also in the area bounded by the city’s transit corridor plan, which promotes dense, transit-oriented development under an effort to establish new jobs and homes in close proximity to the station.
Signature Development President Mike Ghielmetti said he was caught off guard by the inability to reach consensus after such a significant amount of time was sunk into planning the project.
“We were working with everyone for three years and we were blindsided there was no way to move forward,” he said.
Ghielmetti said there is no path forward for the development. City regulations specify at least a year must pass before another project iteration can be offered at the site, but significant planning and investment is required to finalize a development application.
“We were very excited about it and very sad the project isn’t going to happen,” said Ghielmetti, who suggested such decisions by local officials across the Bay Area have significantly contributed to the state and region’s housing crisis.
Davis shared a similar perspective, noting the outcome could bring San Bruno into the crosshairs of lawmakers and development advocates who blame local officials for the housing shortage and affordability crisis. Davis also said she felt the decision obscured her responsibility to meet the needs of her community, pointing to the limited availability of both rental units and for sale homes in San Bruno.
“I feel like I have an obligation as a councilmember in San Bruno to provide housing,” said Davis.
Rico Medina meanwhile said he does not believe San Bruno should be a poster child for the shortcomings of local control, but acknowledged the perception will be hard to shake.
“I think some in Sacramento will say ‘see they can’t do it, so we need to usurp local control.’ I don’t agree with that, but actions speak louder than words,” he said.
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