As San Carlos prepares for a boom of development in the city’s East Side Innovation District, some councilmembers signaled a reluctance to approve a final vision plan for the growing area if housing potentials are not better addressed in the document. 

“I personally don’t see how we can approve this plan without calling out our Housing Element and having a status check,” Vice Mayor Sara McDowell said during a special study session Wednesday, Sept. 8. 

With strong development interests in the city’s East Side growing to include 10 commercial projects, the San Carlos City Council opted to postpone reviews of the proposals until a holistic vision plan could be developed. 

Nine months later and after multiple community workshops led in partnership with consultant firm Perkins&Will, the $500,000 plan was presented to the council that praised the thorough process but questioned why housing went unaddressed in the document. 

As currently drafted, the document focuses on a collection of community benefits called the “10 Big Moves” that developers would be charged with helping bring to life. District improvements would include creating more open space, establishing a Green Boulevard down Industrial Road, restoring Pulgas Creek, integrating recycled water infrastructure, supporting distinct district subareas, developing activity hubs, growing an inclusive business environment, investing in multi-modal streets, reducing traffic congestion and adopting a shared district parking plan. 

But with new development anticipated to bring roughly 7,000 new jobs into the area and the state projected to require the city to build 2,700 new homes by 2030, Councilmember John Dugan and McDowell both pushed back on a staff and consultant decision to remain “silent” on the issue.  

Dugan shared strong support for developing a “vibrant mixed-use neighborhood,” which he said should include commercial and residential uses. Responding to assertions by other councilmembers that some areas are not fit for residential units, Dugan noted a large swath of the city is being redeveloped, 20 acres by one developer alone, which presents the city with a rare opportunity to require developers to contribute to housing solutions. 

“It’s a bit of an elephant in the room for me,” Dugan said. “I don’t really understand how we’ve come through this vision plan and housing isn’t even one of the big moves.” 

McDowell also requested that staff include language within the plan’s vision statement that directly references the jobs to housing imbalance given how the new largely life science developments will contribute to the ratio. 

Recognizing that the need for affordable housing was a key concern raised by many workshop participants and the council, Geeti Silwal, principal of urban design with Perkins&Will, said the team chose to not directly reference housing because separate work was being conducted on the city’s Housing Element, a guiding document for how the city intends to build additional housing. 

When addressing similar concerns for the vision plan raised by members of the Planning and Transportation and Circulation commissions earlier this month, Planning Manager Lisa Porras said staff is currently focused on identifying areas already zoned for residential use that could be prime for new housing and would only look at nonresidential areas if necessary.

Most of the Innovation District is zoned for industrial uses with only a few narrow parcels zoned for residential proposals. To feasibly consider residential uses in the East Side, Silwal said the city would likely have to consider “wiping out industrial uses” along the north side of Terminal Way. 

Mayor Laura Parmer-Lohan shared her own concerns for doing away with the city’s “rich portfolio” of industrial businesses in the area which could negatively affect the county as a whole by forcing Peninsula residents to travel farther out for services only located within San Carlos. 

“My advice … would be that we proceed with caution on that,” Parmer-Lohan said. 

In support of staff’s tactic to not primarily focus on housing, Councilmember Ron Collins noted the plan was meant to address a wide range of community benefits.

“We need to not lose focus here,” Collins said. “We’ll get to the housing issues. They are coming up, but I don’t want us to take our eye off the ball.” 

Staff have identified a list of community benefits shared during vision plan workshops and plan to isolate amenities that the city believes should be included with other baseline requests of developers such as child care fees, improvements and protections to Pulgas Creek and high quality improvements of contaminated soils. 

With council direction, staff will conduct a community survey to develop a priority list for other non-essential amenities. The survey would likely take months to complete and could be included in the plan at a later date, City Manager Jeff Maltbie said. 

Still, McDowell requested that staff present the council with a Housing Element update before the vision plan is adopted, a recommendation supported by the rest of the council. Staff intended to review both documents during the next council meeting, when the vision plan was expected to also be approved but, following councilmember concern for a long and strained meeting, the documents will be considered on separate dates. 

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