Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham

If you’ve driven past the Burlingame/San Mateo border on Highway 101 recently, you’ve likely noticed the four large office buildings currently under construction on the Burlingame Bayfront. Next year, they will become home to Facebook’s Oculus virtual reality division and hold 3,500 mostly highly-paid tech workers. If you’ve wondered why during a housing crisis, with severe traffic and parking impacts, we continue to build enormous office parks that are pretty much only accessible by car, you wouldn’t be alone.

Oddly, less than 2 miles away in Burlingame’s Broadway area, the City Council recently decided to fund a $50,000 pilot program to help businesses pay for fixes to their facades. How is it that in one part of Burlingame, the private sector finds it worthwhile to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in new construction, and 2 miles away, businesses are unable to justify a few thousand dollars worth of facade improvements?

The answer is that Burlingame and most cities on the Peninsula have unwisely restricted the development of their downtowns for decades. Combined with a penchant for allowing giant office parks on their outskirts, this is a recipe for all the things that Peninsula residents hate: rising rents that are pushing out vulnerable residents and middle-class families; traffic that chokes our streets and highways; and parking shortages in residential and commercial areas. Fortunately, we can ease all of these problems — and cut our carbon emissions — by allowing our downtowns to grow along with the broader economy.

When my wife and I moved to Burlingame four years ago, we intentionally looked for apartments within walking distance of Caltrain. I was taking a job with an education nonprofit in Redwood City, and my wife was working for a startup in San Francisco. Burlingame was the perfect place in the middle, and our proximity to public transit meant we could easily live owning just one car. For our neighbors, competing with one fewer automobile for parking and at rush hour is a win.

But finding such an apartment wasn’t easy, since housing in the downtowns of most Peninsula cities is limited. This contradicts what experts on city planning would suggest, which is to develop “complete neighborhoods” where a resident’s daily needs can be met without having to get in a car. For a growing number of Peninsula residents — from millennials who’ve lived in dorms and apartments since age 18 to seniors who would like to downsize — we would happily live in the middle of thriving, walkable downtowns and rid ourselves of full-time car ownership.

And doing so creates a virtuous cycle of economic growth: more downtown residents means more daily customers for local businesses; more dollars spent locally means more investment in infrastructure and amenities, which attracts even more residents and businesses, raising property values and continuing the cycle. This is a far more sustainable, resilient economy than one premised on luring major projects from the tech giants.

Indeed, since we’ve already added more than 80,000 jobs in San Mateo County since 2010, with tens of thousands more on the way, the only way to improve our quality of life on the Peninsula is to grow our downtowns. In most cities, this means allowing more apartments and condos in our commercial districts that are well-served by public transit (The new Burlingame general plan does a fair bit of this. We’ll see if that’s enough to spur significant development). All those new workers could then live closer to work, and more of them could walk, bike, or take public transit, removing cars that are already commuting on our roads.

And when we do add new office space, it should be in our downtowns, not in self-contained office parks far from homes. Those thousands of new Facebook employees in Burlingame are going to eat lunch, get coffee and go to happy hour all within the comfortable confines of the Bayfront campus, with little spillover benefit to local businesses. And the city’s incremental property tax revenue — likely somewhere in the ballpark of $600,000 per year, or $20 per resident — will not come close to mitigating the traffic impacts of that campus, to say nothing of the rising rents that will inevitably push out more and more longtime Burlingame residents.

Given the continuing tech boom, we have the choice between growing our downtowns or watching quality of life on the Peninsula deteriorate further. For the families, young people, seniors, local businesses and environment all suffering now, that’s an easy choice.

Mike Dunham is an education data consultant and affordable housing advocate who lives in Burlingame.

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(10) comments


Once again, this discussion results in a number of vocal YIMBYs (the same few again and again) trying to take over the discussion. Everyone has a right to their opinion without insults. Maybe we can all agree that something desperately needs to be done about housing and infrastructure. It needs to be done thoughtfully, however, with careful consideration for BOTH current and future residents.


Interesting Christopher Conway admits that he moved to Burlingame many years ago and is thus more entitled to tell others what needs to be done in their town. I don't know if he realizes how arrogant that sounds. Looking at the demand for housing, so do a lot of other people outside the city of Burlingame. Yet, Chris tells others who call Burlingame home how it should be. I guess we can be polite and thank him for his opinion and then just ignore it all together.

Christopher Conway

Go ahead, I will ignore you and you can ignore me. Just the way I like it. I don't tell others how it should be, I just vote.


This article is ridiculous. How much bigger do you want to build your downtowns? A lot of people live here for the small town feel of San Carlos, Belmont and Burlingame. How about making the high tech companies, that created this mess in the first place, build housing on their campuses, and charge them to create one unit of residential for every job they have created. How about incentivizing cities to build smart, mixed used development instead of rewarding them with more tax pass through revenue from commercial development. How about creating and incentivizing "Satellite Silicon Valleys" in other places of the state and country as the SF peninsula is already overbuilt, cities are impacted and are straining municipal, financial, and natural resources for public and private use. Your argument is completely unfounded, and doesn't take into account how cities have been funded, loss of RDA funding and the need for realistic incentives for a jobs housing imbalance. "Build baby build" needs to go away! Stop SB 50 and 330!!!

Christopher Conway

Interesting the author admits that he moved to Burlingame just four years ago but is more than confident telling others what needs to be done in their town. I don’t know if he realizes how arrogant that sounds. People have lived and voted here for decades and like the community they live in. Looking at the demand for housing, so does a lot of other people outside the city of Burlingame. Yet, the author comes to a new town and tells longtime residents how it should be. I guess we can be polite and thank him for his opinion and then just ignore it all together.


I was amazed Burlingame would approve such an enormous FB endeavor no way unto 101 nor exit off 101..I feel sorry for North Shoreview with all the cutthroughs Third avenue to highway 92..It never made sense to fill up that property with a gi normous business park.I even wondered who was on the Planning Commission. I had met the Mayor at a CCFD Pancake Breakfast..How on earth do they reason such outrageous in such a bedroom community? on the border of San Mateo absorbing the traffic congestion impossibility of getting unto the freeway..They all exit Poplar and follow the golf course through North Shoreview. .Everyone going south 101 to the bridge add 5000 FB employees to the mix..It will be interesting to see how the downtown Broadway Burlingame Avenue survives the new employees. .FB took all the beachfront property..


Improvements to public transportation and infrastructure development (roads, sewers, etc.) need to take place in order for the peninsula to be a place where people want to live. Building thousands of apartments without improvements to transportation isn't going to alleviate the housing crisis nor the traffic mess that has become the Bay Area. If you speak to someone who has lived in the bay area for most of his or her life, you will likely get a much different opinion than the author.


Then I guess it's a good thing that we're electrifying Caltrain (and as such extensively expanding its capacity) and funding increased Samtrans service via last year's Measure W! And for what it's worth, I was born and raised (and still live) in San Mateo, and agree with the author completely. Many of us do, especially younger generations.


Thank goodness San Mateo & Co are building a major infrastructure wastewater treatment plant that has ... checks notes... 600% the surge capacity of the current plant. Let me repeat that 600%. Infrastructure!


Excellent article. All the cities on the Peninsula should learn from Redwood City that raising height limits and adding lots of housing downtown and close to a Caltrain station reduces traffic and creates an exciting and interesting downtown.

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