San Mateo City Council OKs alternative height plan

The San Mateo City Council this week unanimously agreed to place on the November ballot a measure allowing for taller and denser buildings around train stations — to the consternation of the supporters of a competing ballot measure.

“It is not fair. It is wrong,” said Michael Weinhauer, spokesman for San Mateans for Responsive Government, at a meeting Monday.

SMRG has already gathered more than the requisite number of signatures to place on the ballot a 10-year extension of Measure P, which caps building height at 55 feet and density at 50 units per acre in most areas of the city while also requiring that at least 10% of new units be at affordable rates. Originally passed in 1991 as Measure H, Measure P was reupped in 2004 and expires at the end of this year. The extension of Measure P was officially approved by the council for placement on the November ballot last month.

An alternative measure — the one approved by the council Monday for inclusion in the November ballot — also seeks to extend Measure P for 10 years, but exempt the areas around the city’s three Caltrain stations from its restrictions.

Supporters of that measure began a signature gathering effort earlier this year that was suspended in March due to COVID-19. That’s because knocking on doors for signatures would not comply with social distancing rules.

Believing that group would have gathered the required number of signatures were it not for the unusual circumstances brought on by the pandemic, the council agreed to place the measure on the ballot without signatures.

“Proponents of the alternative measure were well on their way to collecting the requisite number of signatures until COVID-19 stopped them in their tracks,” said Deputy Mayor Eric Rodriguez. “While many would disagree, I have little reason to doubt this group would’ve been able to collect the requisite number of signatures.

“If COVID-19 never materialized we would not be here discussing this at all this evening,” he added.

Councilmembers also argued providing voters with the option to exempt train stations from Measure P restrictions is responsive to the widespread desire for more affordable housing in the city.

 ”We know from our polling people are very focused on affordable housing and how we make that happen,” said Councilwoman Diane Papan. “I think it’s important we allow discourse to handle how we handle that affordable housing quotient. And how we continue to maintain the character of our city and still allow that affordable housing quotient.”

The move also has precedent: The council in 2004 placed Measure P on the ballot without signatures, confirmed City Attorney Sean Mason.

Prior to the council’s vote, Weinhauer said placing the competing measure on the ballot without signatures and at the “last minute” is unfair, inconsistent and damaging to trust between many voters and the council.

“We believe that agreeing to do what you’re being asked to do tonight is just wrong. This is an ethical line that should not be crossed,” he said. “Asking the council to do what this developer real estate group couldn’t do for themselves and what this council refused to do for the Measure P supporters is exactly why measures H and P were written and approved twice by the voters.

“What kind of trust are your constituents and the 7,000 plus voters who signed our petition supposed to have when they follow the rules and, at the last minute, this council decides to put a competing measure despite our opponents’ having ample time since council voted to put our measure on the ballot in September 2019,” Weinhauer added.

Weinhauer also repeatedly said the council is being asked to place the competing measure on the ballot because “money talks.”

The proponents of the alternative measure seeking to exempt areas around transit from Measure P restrictions include Nicole Fernandez, San Mateo County Democratic Party chair; longtime union leader and community activist Rich Hedges; and developer Alan Talansky.

The signatories of the Measure P extension include residents Lisa Taner and Maxine Terner in addition to Weinhauer.

During the meeting, there was also discussion about whether to amend the map in the alternative measure of where Measure P restrictions would not apply. There was discussion about including Bridgepointe Shopping Center in the map to provide more flexibility for a future redevelopment project, but councilmembers ultimately agreed not to change the map because then it would become “the council’s measure.”

“I have serious reservations with this council changing the measure significantly. If we start changing it then it becomes our measure,” Rodriguez said. “We haven’t done any prior public outreach, we haven’t done any impact studies, we haven’t done anything. … I would be in favor of putting [the alternative measure on the ballot] on as is, but if we start changing the maps I won’t be able to support it.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, those in support of placing the alternative measure on the ballot outnumbered the objectors. 

“As a San Mateo homeowner who’s aware of the need for more housing and more importantly affordable housing, I think we need to consider rolling back the height limit in some way to make it easier to welcome more people into San Mateo and to provide more opportunities for affordable housing,” said a man who identified himself only as Martin.

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