San Mateo OKs plans for housing

1,200 housing units spread across two developments moving ahead.
August 19, 2020

The San Mateo City Council unanimously approved nearly 1,200 housing units spread across two separate developments after declining a last-minute proposal to significantly reduce the density of one project.

A 225-unit 100% affordable housing project designed by nonprofit MidPen Housing and the 961-unit Concar Passage mixed-use development were both approved as proposed Monday.

But an alternative to the latter project with 200 fewer units was considered by the council and vigorously debated during the meeting before it was rejected. The new proposal also would have made 74 units for-sale townhomes rather than rental apartments.

The reduced 761-unit proposal was applauded by many in the surrounding neighborhoods who have long been concerned about what they described as overdevelopment in the area and associated traffic impacts.

“I believe this new plan to decrease the size, to incorporate ownership and maintain the affordable housing allowances — and that’s really important here — is a fantastic compromise that will decrease the impact on the local area, especially with traffic, yet still provide a huge number of homes in the area,” said Richard Neve representing the Fiesta Gardens Neighborhood Association.

But numerous housing advocates were furious that such a unit reduction was even being considered amidst a housing crisis.

“I think it is absurd that we’re considering dropping 200 homes. … Renters are struggling. Families are struggling. We need homes,” said Burlingame resident Mike Dunham. “State law is now forcing cities to stop doing maneuvers like this. You need to follow state law. If this happens I hope you get sued.”

Other like-minded speakers admonished officials for proposing such a significant change to the project so late in the game. While the project alternative with 200 fewer units was not mentioned in the staff report published days before the meeting, it was included in the project’s environmental impact report and has been under consideration for some time, according to the applicant.

That said, City Attorney Sean Mason said the council that night could only vote on the original 961-unit proposal because only that version of the project was mentioned in the notices for the meeting. Voting on the reduced project alternative would expose the city to litigation, he said.

Mason said the council could approve the original 961-unit proposal and then the applicant could submit new plans for a reduced project alternative, which would have to go through the entitlement process again. But the applicant during the meeting said he had no desire to restart the entitlement process and would build whatever was approved Monday night.

Deputy Mayor Eric Rodriguez was amenable to the reduced project alternative and felt there had to be some way of voting on it at a later date with proper noticing.

“I can’t imagine we don’t have any options to postpone this — not deny it — but postpone it for two weeks and think about it a little more,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t understand why we can’t take a little time to get this right so it’s less last minute.”

But Mason insisted there was no such path forward.

Councilman Rick Bonilla, on the other hand, was never interested in reducing the number of units.

“We’re still in the middle of a crisis level housing shortage. I’m very concerned about the prospect of losing a couple hundred units,” he said. His concern did not ultimately come to pass.

The project will redevelop the Concar Shopping Center with 880 market-rate units and 73 very-low income ones, 40,000 square feet of commercial space and 4.67 acres of publicly accessible open space.

The project site is about 14.5 acres on Concar Drive between South Grant and South Delaware streets, currently occupied by Concar Shopping Center. The plan is to tear down all the retail buildings and rebuild the Trader Joe’s, 7-Eleven, child care center and Peninsula Ballet Theatre as well as a food hall.

The project also includes traffic improvements along the congested 19th Avenue/Fashion Island Boulevard corridor as well as class 4 bike lanes, which are separated from cars, on Delaware and Grants streets and Concar Drive.

The MidPen project was seamlessly approved after the council opted to reserve eight studio apartments for people with developmental disabilities after a member of that demographic spoke during public comment.

“I live with my mom in our family home. I love my mom, but I don’t want to live with her. She can be a little controlling and I want to be independent and make my own choices,” said resident Nicole Adler. “I know I will benefit from the deeply affordable housing. … If I move into these homes it will change my life.”

The council’s decision was roundly applauded during the meeting and council members agreed more units should be reserved for those with disabilities in future projects.

Located at 480 E. Fourth Ave. and 400 E. Fifth Ave., the project includes 121 extremely-low and low-income units as well as 102 units reserved for households earning between 60% and 80% area median income. The apartments are in a seven-story building connected to a five-level parking structure via a pedestrian bridge over East Fifth Avenue.

A preference will be provided to households that live or work in the city and a quarter of the units will be for public employees. The project includes 65 studio, 48 one-bedroom, 53 two-bedroom and 59 three-bedroom units.

The project site, which includes two parcels, is currently used as a surface parking lot. It is also home to the Worker’s Resource Center, which will be relocated off site to make way for the development.

MidPen initially proposed 164 units in a five-story building. But when Assembly Bill 1763, which allows for greater height and density near transit regardless of local restrictions, took effect Jan. 1, the City Council directed MidPen to increase the size of the project, making San Mateo the first city in the state to leverage the new law.

The city contributed a total of $12.5 million in the form of no-interest loans to the project and continues to own the land.

“There will be 200 new San Mateo residents who otherwise couldn’t afford living here,” Rodriguez said.
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