Last week, Millbrae and Belmont City Councils made key decisions to advance new development on the Caltrain corridor. Meanwhile, Redwood City City Council leaned against putting the brakes on growth in the downtown area, despite some community anxiety about the pace of change under the city’s downtown plan.
Millbrae City Council approved a station area specific plan allowing mixed use development with office, housing, and retail in 116 acres of land around the Millbrae transit center with Caltrain, BART, bus and shuttle service. The first two proposed developments proposed for the Millbrae Station area would bring 400,000 square feet of office space, about 79,000 square feet of retail and more than 800 residential units on land currently occupied by a parking lot and some underutilized commercial buildings near El Camino Real.
The next step will be reviewing developments for approval, with Republic Urban first in the queue, proposing 164,000 sqft of office space, over 300 units of housing including about 60 below market rate units, nearly 47,000 square feet of retail, and possibly a hotel.
In the Council’s review of the plan, concerns from the school district surfaced as an important issue; in the end the Council was satisfied with a plan to work with the school district to enable resources for schools.
Advocates had successfully made a case for inclusion of below market rate housing in the Republic Urban development, and for affordable housing to be considered for community benefits. The approved version of the plan also included the option for stronger vehicle trip reduction – but only as an option, not as a requirement. The parking requirements are still higher than supporters of sustainable transportation urged. These specifics are going to need to be worked out on a case by case basis for individual developments.
Unfortunately, in its review of the plan, the City Council included additional turn lanes for El Camino Real and Millbrae Avenue, in the hopes that this would alleviate traffic, although these lanes would add even more hazards for pedestrians and cyclists in an already dangerous area.
The City Council does plan to review multi-modal transportation on El Camino Real, but not until the city takes up its General Plan update several years into the future.
The Council vote was split 3:2, with Council Members Papan and Lee unable to persuade their colleagues to turn down this plan, and to hold out for alternatives that would have more hotel, retail, and entertainment, and less office and housing. This alternative vision hoped that the Millbrae Station would be a major destination like Grand Central Station in New York, or the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco, but without the dense jobs and housing in Manhattan and downtown San Francisco.
Belmont approves transit corridor housing
On a smaller scale, Belmont City Council approved a proposal to redevelop aging commercial space on El Camino Real near Caltrain into a 73-unit apartment complex with nearly 5,000 square feet of retail space. Residents and Council members talked about the need for more housing to address a shortage in San Mateo County, which has added over 40,000 jobs and only 3,000 housing units in the last few years. The development won’t include below market rate housing, but Sares Regis will contribute $1.6 million in fees for the construction of below market rate housing elsewhere in the city.
To alleviate resident anxieties, the development includes more than two parking spaces per unit, even though it is a half-mile from Caltrain, a Safeway, two coffee shops, and other services, and just one minute from a bus line that’s a quick ride from the Hillsdale mall and downtown Redwood City.
Millbrae and Belmont both took notable steps to advance infill development on the transit corridor, although the cities haven’t yet adjusted to the different mix of transportation needs for developments in transit-rich areas. The residents and workers in those areas are likely to drive less, need less parking, and want safer walking and bicycling environments for their day to day trips.
Redwood City Council discussions growth management, refrains from hitting brakes
Meanwhile, Redwood City City Council members leaned against calls to pause growth in the city at a study session on managing the effects of growth. While a good number of residents expressed concern about the pace of building under the downtown plan, a large number were enthusiastic about the much livelier downtown, and wanted the city to continue on its current trajectory.
In response to high levels of resident concerns about housing affordability, council members supported the need to continue to add housing, and seek more opportunities to create below market rate housing for a broad range of income levels. In the words of Council member Alicia Aguirre, “ housing affordability is important so that residents can stay, so children who grew up here can stay.” Council Member Diane Howard talked about ensuring that the city remains welcoming for longtime residents and for newcomers.
Responding to residents concern about transportation and traffic, council members showed high interest in transportation solutions, especially ways to help people get around with less driving. There was interest in renewed shuttle service, for helping seniors get downtown, and for ensuring new developments are staying within their vehicle trip allowances; for a strategy with short and long-term measures. Council members supported the creation of a transportation demand management association to pool funds and invest in supporting alternatives to driving, including for existing businesses and developments, not just new buildings. Council members and supported conducted a traffic study for the city that looks at multi-modal transportation, not just driving.
Council members expressed different ideas about parking; Borgens talked about the underutilized Caltrain parking under Sequoia Station; whereas Seybert wanted a new garage. Council Member Gee was interested in expanding the residential parking permit program to protect existing residents from potential impacts.
Council members were strongly supportive of ongoing community engagement, so the study session is expected to lead to more opportunities for community members to participate. City council did lean toward accepting a recommendation for more Planning Commission review of development proposals, which could create opportunities to improve sustainable transportation and affordable housing, or for those who dislike denser development to make buildings smaller.
The Caltrain corridor is original “transit oriented development”, with cities growing as walkable places around the rail stations, but in the mid-20th century development changed to a car-centric pattern, with single family homes away from downtown, and larger office buildings further from the train. This pattern is now shifting. All along the Peninsula corridor, communities are evolving with infill development on the transit corridor, with a mix of housing, offices and stores closer to transit. Participation will continue to be essential in helping this change to move forward, especially in addressing the region’s housing crisis, and helping cities take the next steps in supporting more sustainable transportation.