As part of an effort to improve San Bruno’s main retail corridor, the City Council is proposing an ad hoc downtown improvement committee to support business owners.

San Bruno’s downtown has long been sleepy and often heralded as a rare refuge from the forces of gentrification prevalent on much of the Peninsula — but with the delta variant resparking coronavirus concerns, some business owners are struggling to stay afloat as they report foot traffic has reached new lows.

“Our community has been interested in improving our downtown for many years,” said Vice Mayor Marty Medina, who introduced plans for the committee during Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting. “Our downtown has been in its current state for a long time.”

Medina pointed out that nearly half of initiatives the council is focusing on are already related to downtown — things that include hiring an economic development manager, allotting $300,000 for landscaping and greenery, pursuing a $200,000 grant for Posey Park improvements, establishing loading zones and shorter timed parking to assist with retail, and installing new garbage cans and news racks.

But, he said, improvements still need to be made in areas relating to communication and outreach to business owners. The committee, he says, would be tasked with identifying needs based on meetings and surveys.

“We’re going to build relationships, and in these relationships you start developing trust,” said Medina, adding that “we aren’t there for our downtown.”

There are currently 25 vacancies downtown, Medina said. 

The committee would also aid businesses in applying for grants, something Medina said some businesses haven’t done despite their availability.

Some concerns raised during the meeting had to do with the already limited time of staff, and the potential that the committee would be too broad when focus could be aimed on some already identified needs.

Councilmember Linda Mason suggested the council should focus on known projects with support — namely the city’s streetscape plan, a plan to improve San Mateo Avenue with proposed enhancements including wider sidewalks, pedestrian and bicycle safety upgrades, and street furniture. That plan is estimated to cost $19 millions, according to Medina’s presentation.

She further suggested members of the committee attend Chamber of Commerce meetings, something she said a neighboring city already does.

The committee, if adopted, would include seats for two councilmembers, one of which Medina said he hopes to occupy.

Restaurateurs struggle

Restaurants, which dominate downtown San Bruno’s San Mateo Avenue, have been among the hardest hit businesses during COVID.

Jeannie Ho and her fiance Phong Nguyen opened Pho-De-Nguyen 3 1/2 ago on San Mateo Avenue but, with COVID slowing business to a crawl, they’ve had to reduce business hours and cut staffing by more than half.

“Before COVID, we were open every day” said Jeannie Ho, standing in the restaurant’s empty dining room just before lunchtime. “We’re just trying to manage now, because of the new variant, because people are going out less, it sucks.”

Though restaurateurs like herself were delivered a brief reprieve in the form of the county’s Great Plates Delivered program, which provided local-restaurant-prepared meals to older adults who may have been food insecure while sheltering in place due to COVID, that program expired last month.

“Now that’s over, because they said everyone’s getting vaccinated,” Ho said. “But then they didn’t take into account the new variant. It was cool while it lasted but now it’s a struggle still.”

San Mateo County replaced the program with a similar restaurant meals program, but not all restaurants have been able to participate.

Ho says her restaurant was just starting to turn a profit before COVID, but now it’s “back to square one, if not worse.”

Down the street at West Coast Cafe, co-owner Jose Marquez reports his business has slowed, forcing him to cut hours as well. 

“Over here, it’s an older crowd, so they’re maybe afraid of going out,” he said, noting it’s the slowest he’s seen the restaurant in its nearly 20 years of business.

Normally he said he would see a lunchtime rush, but today only a few people are dining in.

“We’re getting there, we have to be patient, I think we’re all in the same boat,” he said. “We’ll hang in there and see what happens.”

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