To help give the B Street pedestrian mall in downtown San Mateo a more permanent feel and increase use, the council has directed city staff to continue short-term infrastructure and design improvements.
“We are at a crossroads, a lot of community members are seeing B Street as dormant, and it’s lost momentum, and that is concerning. I think we need to make an investment,” Councilmember Amourence Lee said.
While still in the schematic phase, the proposed design improvements on B Street between First and Third avenues will improve aesthetics, meet the logistical needs of businesses and test functionality before expensive long-term improvements. The city presented several options to the council at its July 18 special meeting, with the council supporting design improvements to remove the temporary water-filled barricades and install bollards, planters and trees to block off the closed street.
Other improvements include expanding the emergency vehicle access lane from 12 feet wide to 16 feet, new loading zones at each intersection in both the east and west directions and changing parking and traffic signals. The city will add removable ADA ramps, bike racks and garbage cans on each block. The street design will be a mixture of commercial business use, public seating areas and the emergency lane in the middle. Public areas will include children’s play areas and seating options for eating.
Pedestrian malls are areas closed to all vehicle traffic but open to the public to increase pedestrian use. San Mateo approved permanent street closures in October on South B Street after being temporarily open during the pandemic to help struggling restaurants hold outdoor dining. The closures were so successful that the council made them permanent to increase interaction and walkability and improve downtown’s long-term future.
Business owners and the public have been largely supportive, but the makeshift feel and the lengthy time it takes to research permanent improvements has slowed progress.
The city is also exploring what street painting to include, with various geometric patterns of different colors suggested. The council diverged on how much to spend on painting the street area and its importance. Maintenance costs mean repainting the streets will likely occur every five years and carries reoccurring costs. The council also wants a racial equity community art project to be a permanent feature of the downtown area.
Mayor Rick Bonilla felt the area did not need an extensive geographical street design but should prioritize traffic circulation around bicycles. He wanted to make biking safer downtown and honor the city’s bicycle master plan to improve bicycle infrastructure. Bonilla suggested more bicycle lockers near the Main Street Garage and signs to ensure bicyclists go at a slowed pace near pedestrians.
“It’s more important to make sure bicycles and bicyclists are able to traverse the downtown safely,” Bonilla said.
Councilmember Eric Rodriguez agreed with the rest of the council the current temporary situation was not optimal and it needed physical progress to transform the area from its current temporary infrastructure. He wanted at least some street painting design to enliven the area and create a different street culture than surrounding areas. He was against expanding the pedestrian mall beyond the two streets until the city could figure out how to build permanent infrastructure on the two current ones.
“I don’t think we need as much street painting as was on some of the [designs], but I do think it makes a big statement that this is a different space than every other one downtown,” Rodriguez said.
According to a staff report, design improvements cost estimates are between $600,000 and $1 million, and San Mateo has allocated $600,000 for the project. Around 40% of expenses are for infrastructure improvements, with the rest for design and public use costs and maintenance. These short-term costs are just a portion of expenses. Long-term costs estimated at several million dollars per block are needed to raise the street level to sidewalk height and reconfigure the storm drainage.
“It’s surprisingly expensive to do things like adjust the traffic signal timing and take down the unnecessary traffic arms and build the loading zones and the ADA parking spaces,” Assistant City Manager Kathy Kleinbaum said. “Those are taking up a big chunk of the money, almost 50%.”
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