The San Mateo City Council is moving forward with plans for permanent year-round street closures on parts of South B Street, improving downtown and returning space to pedestrians.
“I think we need to be thinking about this long term and realize that our downtown is always evolving. We need to make sure it is evolving,” San Mateo Mayor Eric Rodriguez said.
Councilmember Amourence Lee said the decision is an investment that will come back to the city in its economy.
“We are on the cusp of really realizing a vision that so many San Mateans hold. There is so much support for this idea,” Lee said.
The council at its May 17 meeting directed the city to work toward long-term street closures on South B Street between First and Second avenues and South B Street between Second and Third avenues. The city decided against street closures for the southbound lane of South B Street between Baldwin and First avenues.
City staff recommended, and the council supported, businesses along the closed streets have a $371 annual fee for a Sidewalk Tables and Chairs Encroachment permit and be prohibited from having parklets on intersecting streets. The council also supported not allowing businesses to build permanent platforms or structures on the street so the city can move structures for special events.
The City Council in June 2020 approved temporary closures of portions of South B Street between Baldwin and Third avenues to allow for outdoor dining and other outdoor business uses during the pandemic. Since then, the city has extended the temporary closures several times, with plans to have more detailed talks about seasonal or permanent street closures. The temporary closures end Sept. 30.
Councilmember Joe Goethals said long-term street closures prioritize pedestrians instead of cars and turn the space into a public gathering place for all.
“To see this coming to fruition makes me so happy, and we cannot miss this opportunity,” Goethals said.
Councilmember Diane Papan said closing the streets allows people to gather following social restrictions to promote downtown vibrancy and help economic recovery.
It allows people to gather in a communal way, and I think people are really craving community. So we are achieving this idea of allowing people to come together on one of our streets,” Papan said.
City community surveys of over 730 responses found strong support for continued closures, with 80% supporting closures between First and Third avenues. There were 58% supporting lane closures, while 70% prefer year-round closures rather than seasonal ones. Of respondents, 57% said they would visit downtown more if there were street closures in place, and only 7.4% would visit less. Surveys also found the public preferred a year-round closure for outdoor dining, pedestrian space, festivals, a farmers’ market and other special events. Concerns included the loss of 67 street parking spaces and increasing walking distances for seniors and people with disabilities. Other challenges were difficulty with delivery and garbage services and cars occasionally driving the wrong way on single-lane closures. A business survey found most split responses on if the closures were helpful or harmful, with higher support from restaurants and cafes. Those who said closures had been harmful to operations were about 40%, while 35% said closures decreased revenue. Businesses’ support for continued closures was 40% between Baldwin and First avenues, 75% between First and Second avenues, and 53% between Second and Third avenues.
The city will have to bear increased costs for street closure improvements. The Public Works Department recommended replacing water barricades with bollards or planter boxes, adding a gate for truck access and adjusting traffic signals. Short-term improvements would cost $150,000 to $200,000 per block, while long-term improvements to fix streets would cost $1.5 million to $2 million per block.
Deputy Mayor Rick Bonilla supported long-term street improvements to raise the street to be level with the sidewalk and fix a hump on South B Street that affects dining and walking.
“I think eventually we should fix the streets to remove the crown and level it so that it’s good for the kind of uses we are favoring in the future,” Bonilla said.
If the city closed parts of South B Street but still allowed traffic for emergencies, delivery and garbage, it would have to rely on the state Pedestrian Mall Act for approval. The city would then hold a public hearing, and abutting property owners to the street closures area could submit objections and legal claims about harm to their property.
Assistant City Manager Kathy Kleinbaum said if a majority of owners offer written objections, the city cannot move forward with the street closure.
Kleinbaum said the roughly 20 property owners are diverse and not often directly involved, making outreach so far limited. No property owners have yet reached out to the city. Staff will return to the council in June to officially start the process, with a public hearing estimated for September. Kleinbaum noted that while the closures could be permanent, until long-term improvements to raise the street to sidewalk level occur, it could be reversed if problems occur.
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