In an effort to revamp its downtown, San Bruno officials are considering putting a measure on the November ballot to modify its ordinance that limits building heights, potentially raising them from 50 to 90 feet.

Established in 1977 as a result of a voter initiative, Ordinance 1284 was intended to preserve the existing character of San Bruno by requiring voter approval for high-rise developments, increased density in existing neighborhoods and projects encroaching upon scenic corridors and open spaces. Permits and approvals can’t be issued to allow construction of building taller than 50 feet or that exceed three stories unless approved by a majority of voters at a regular or special election.

“I’m definitely in favor of putting it on the ballot,” said Mayor Jim Ruane. “It’s going to be a complement to downtown. It’s from 1977 based on 1974 facts. Now is the time with the economy doing well to build upon what we’ve worked on for many years.”

The discussion on building heights started in 2012 when the city concluded a strategic vision process with a transit corridor plan, said City Manager Connie Jackson. The transit corridor plan outlines a number of different areas in the transit corridor, including along El Camino Real, San Bruno Avenue and San Mateo Avenue. In the plan, proposed building heights range from three to seven stories in some areas.

“The plan is critical to the city’s achievement to transform those key areas of our city into the future,” she said.

At the same time, it will be important to be sensitive to the neighbors’ needs, Ruane said. Still, some local business leaders say the height limits need to change to give downtown a boost, with Dennis Sammut, CEO of the Artichoke Joe’s Casino on Huntington Avenue, noting that a lot of the buildings in the downtown 1600 block of San Mateo Avenue are 100 years old.

“The downtown is tired; it’s old,” he said. “Someday you’ve got to bite the bullet. I think they’re (the council) kind of caught. There’s a lot of resident concerns. It’s a very difficult decision for the council; it’s dynamic. If they want the town to move into the next century, it has to be an intelligently planned development. … Looking for the future of San Bruno, the way to help move it forward is increase height limits. … You can’t go crazy and put up a 90-story building though.”

During a recent City Council study session on the topic, there was very strong interest on the part of the residents surrounding the transit corridor area to improve the visual quality of the commercial areas, said Jackson. The city has done some preliminary work to evaluate what might be an important initiative to take to the voters.

“There was a strong interest to make sure there was thoughtful integration of new development areas with existing residential neighborhoods,” she said. “Keeping the character and quality and to make sure taller, more densely populated buildings didn’t create a negative impact for neighbors.”

For any development for which the restrictions of Ordinance 1284 apply, the ordinance also requires town hall type meetings so the public is fully informed before voting.

Although a ballot measure has yet to be precisely formulated, it’s anticipated a measure will be presented for action at its July 22 meeting.

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