Redwood City is exceeding its new housing goals. What is it doing that other Bay Area cities are not?

“They went from nothing affordable to having a really great approach. The city is super eager to get things built,” said MidPen CEO Matt Franklin. “While they have a fee option, the city’s attitude is really, ‘We don’t want your money, we want you to find a partner and build some housing.’ ”
May 10, 2021

Arroyo Green, a 117-unit low-income senior building opened last month in downtown Redwood City. One of the first residents to get his keys was retired commercial printer Bryant Vanbeckun.

A 64-year-old San Mateo native in need of knee replacement, Van Beckun has watched with consternation as rents and housing prices in his native county have more than doubled over the last nine years. His new place looks down into the community garden and barbecue area of the building’s central courtyard. It has a day care center and running along the side of the building is Redwood Creek. It is affordable to seniors earning less than 50% of area median income — $60,900 for a single person.

Van Beckun said he likes the proximity to the concerts on Courthouse Square, downtown shopping and nearby affordable dining options on Veterans Boulevard.

“It’s close to a lot of fast food, which I quite like,” he said.

Redwood City is famous for the welcome sign that greets visitors cruising into downtown on Broadway: “Climate Best By Government Test.” But in a Peninsula region known for its tech campuses and high cost of living, it turns out Redwood City is also pretty good in another category: housing production.

The neo-classical Arroyo Green, designed by Lauri Moffet-Fehlberg of Dahlin Group, is the latest of more than a dozen major apartment buildings that have popped up over the last six years in downtown Redwood City. Because of this the city is on track to be the only municipality in the mid-Peninsula to beat its state-mandated housing production goals, known as the Regional Needs Housing Allocation, or RHNA. For the current period, which started in 2015 and extends to next year, Redwood City is on course to build 4,143 housing units, about 33% more than the RHNA goal of 2,789.

The proliferation of new apartments in downtown Redwood City is a stark contrast to other Peninsula cities, where single-family home zoning and anti-development politics have combined to exacerbate a housing shortage that existed well before the last decade when tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook added tens of thousands of jobs to the area.

Palo Alto, where the average home price is above $3 million, was allocated 1,998 units in the current RHNA cycle, but has issued building permits for just 554 homes, about 28% of its goal. San Mateo did a little better, approving 58% of its goal, 1,824 out of 3,100. San Bruno issued building permits for 203 units out of a goal of 1,155, less than 20%, while South San Francisco is on course to create 778 units, about 42% of its goal of 1,864.

“We have seen Redwood City grow in a manner that is far more sustainable than its peer cities across the region,” said Matt Regan, senior vice president of the pro-business group Bay Area Council.

The surge of development in downtown Redwood City has its origins in a precise plan that was passed in 2011 and then delayed for four years because of a lawsuit from a neighbor. The plan, most of which lies within a quarter mile of the Caltrain station, covers 183 acres within the city’s historic center. It’s about a ten-minute walk end-to-end. The plan authorizes up to 2,500 additional market rate and 375 affordable housing units for households earning no more than 80% of the area median income. That has all been built.

Mark Muenzer, the city’s director of community development and transportation, said staff is pushing to put Redwood City in position to exceed its goal for the 2022-2030 cycle, which is 4,588 units. Already, the city is rezoning the 28-acre transit district around the Caltrain stop, known as Sequoia Station, which will likely include about 1,000 units. Another 1,000 units are proposed in six so-called “Gatekeeper” developments in the downtown areas. But the city is also looking at upzoning other areas, particularly the Woodside corridor, which connects Highway 280 and 101 and runs next to downtown.

Muenzer said the pandemic crisis of the last year doesn’t seem to have dampened developer interest in downtown Redwood City. “If anything it has increased,” he said.

But while the housing production is better than in other cities on the Peninsula, some Redwood City residents worry that it’s still not keeping up with the amount of new office space planned. One proposed project, an 84-acre site between Belmont Slough and Marine Parkway, would add 2.39 million square feet of office space without including any housing. This year the city expects to issue building permits for Broadway Plaza, which will include 520 housing units and 420,000 square feet of office space, and 1601 El Camino, which is set to include 530,000 square feet of office space and 540 units.

Misha Silin, an entrepreneur who lives with his wife and daughter in an apartment building about a 15 minute walk from downtown, expects housing costs to continue to rise if planned housing units continue to be outstripped by office space. Prior to the pandemic his rent went up about 10% a year. He fears that trend will continue once workers start returning to the office and new commercial space is brought online.

“There is an insane amount of office space being built or proposed – more than the housing units can accommodate,” Silin said. “It’s like trying to drain the bathtub when you have a giant water hose filling it back up. You are trying to fix it on one side while making it worse on the other.”

While Redwood City’s downtown plan has been a success by most measures, it had a slow start in terms of affordable housing. The original plan didn’t require developers to include any affordable units or pay a fee to be used for low-income housing. By the end of 2015 the city had approved 1,700 units, of which only four were affordable. Finally in 2016 the city adopted a 15% inclusionary requirement and in 2018 that increased to 20%. Developers can chose to put the affordable units onsite, pay a fee or partner with a nonprofit to build them off site.

“They went from nothing affordable to having a really great approach. The city is super eager to get things built,” said MidPen CEO Matt Franklin. “While they have a fee option, the city’s attitude is really, ‘We don’t want your money, we want you to find a partner and build some housing.’ ”

MidPen is working on Broadway Plaza, which would include 300 market rate units and 120 affordable units. For another project, Tishman Speyer’s redevelopment of a Chase Bank building downtown, MidPen plans to construct 80 affordable units on a separate parcel nearby.

“They have more affordable housing in the pipeline than any other city on the Peninsula,” said Leora Tanjuatco Ross, associate director of the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo. “Their development is far more equitable than other cities because of the that.”

Meanwhile, downtown Redwood City is bustling — it’s parklet restaurants are full of diners and there are few vacancies despite the pandemic.

When Gebhard Ebenhoech opened Veloro Bicycle shop downtown “Main Street used to be a little depressing,” he said. Fox Theater was boarded up. There were not many people walking around. “Now there is a lot more foot traffic. I see young families, seniors, couples walking. You get people saying, ‘Oh we just moved in down the street.’ I’m definitely getting some new clients from the housing.”

At Bobby D.’s Sports Bar on Winslow Street, owner Bobby DeMarco said the wave of development has been a mixed bag. On the one hand rising prices and rents have pushed “eight to 10” regulars to move up to Oregon and Washington State. On the other hand when the construction crews knock off for the day his bar stools fill up with carpenters, pipefitters and iron workers.

“The city wants everything to be upscale but that’s not what I’m about,” he said. “I cater to the working class people. I don’t know how much longer they are going to want me around.”