Eighteen months ago, before coronavirus paused San Mateo’s general plan update, the community was promised an extensive and “robust” public process. One that would be transparent, inclusive, and where the concerns and input from all residents would be heard. Outreach efforts were broadened to include those who may not have participated in planning efforts before. Now is a good time to look back and assess where we are.
Of the more than 250 public comments posted on the city’s Strive San Mateo website, there are indeed many from concerned San Mateo residents. Reading through the comments, it becomes apparent that there are both pro-growth and measured-growth proponents among the local residents. This is as it should be. Differences of opinion can result in a productive debate and hopefully reconciliation.
But there are also a significant number of comments from people who reside in other cities. These out-of-towners are regular participants in the general plan meetings, workshops and online. They include paid YIMBYs from San Francisco; paid lobbyists and organizers who live in Oakland, Palo Alto and San Bruno; paid attorneys from San Francisco and consultants from Berkeley; activists from San Carlos, Belmont, Burlingame, East Palo Alto, Foster City and Woodside. These voices are exclusively very pro-development. It seems fair to ask, why in the world would the city of San Mateo put comments from residents of Oakland or Belmont on equal footing with those of San Mateo residents? After all, this is San Mateo’s general plan, isn’t it? Affording residents of other cities the same level of influence as local residents has a way of tilting the scales and unfairly influencing the process.
San Mateo has traditionally been very attentive to including its residents in public policy decisions. Community advisory committees were the preferred form of engaging residents when the general plan needed revision, to generate a plan for a new transit center, and many other civic projects. Residents were brought into the conversation early, given a seat at the table and made valuable contributions. That all changed in the early months of 2015.
Real estate development interests convinced City Hall that there needed to be big changes in land use, warning that the community might not agree. Some at City Hall began to dream of grand-scale redevelopment. Neighborhood charm and small-town character were suddenly considered dispensable. Community advisory committees were shelved. Those who pushed for “higher and denser” were courted, regardless of their city of residence. In some influential circles it seemed, San Mateo residents were regarded as more of an impediment than an asset.
It is in this political context that the general plan revision is taking place. But, not to worry, residents are still included in the process. It wouldn’t look good otherwise. But local residents’ input is now heavily diluted by growth lobbyists and paid operatives from all parts of the Bay Area. I suppose it’s one way to define broad and inclusive outreach — bring the foxes into the chicken coop and watch the feathers fly.
San Mateo residents entered into the general plan revision process in good faith. We engaged in the conversation believing it would be the inclusive and fair exchange of ideas between San Mateans about the future of San Mateo. Apparently we were wrong.
We all agree that there’s a dire need for more affordable housing at all income levels. But the manner in which housing and other matters are responsibly addressed in San Mateo is up to San Mateans, not residents of other communities. I for one, am very happy to live with the outcome of a fair and open discussion about height, density and land use in San Mateo, whether or not I agree with that outcome. As long as it is the result of broad participation of local residents and not of those with singular agendas who live elsewhere.
So when the process eventually resumes, the question becomes whose interests is this general plan update intended to serve? If the outsized influence of special interest organizations and paid operatives living in other cities is permitted to continue, the promised “robust” general plan update process will turn out to be a ruse, giving us the best general plan money can buy.
As the November election nears, there is ample opportunity for members of the City Council to step up and show leadership — to take active steps to prioritize the concerns, interests and viewpoints of San Mateo residents — and backbench the out-of-towners. After all, whose general plan is this anyway?
Keith Weber is a participant in San Mateo’s general plan update. He has made San Mateo his home for 37 years.