Proposed 8-story apartment building in downtown San Mateo – can the city use its new tools to limit traffic?

On Tuesday the San Mateo Planning Commission held a study session about a proposed apartment building at 5th and El Camino downtown, on a site currently used as a surface parking lot. The developer is proposing ~117 units in an 8 story building. They are proposing 165 parking spaces for residents, plus an additional 95 spaces to replace the spaces on the surface lot.

The place has a 94 walkscore, with groceries, downtown amenities, and Caltrain in walking distance, and the Hillsdale mall is a 15 minute bus ride. It is a great place to live without a car or with less driving, especially if the place provided carshare to complement the transit access.

But many of the community comments have focused on providing *more parking* (and then fearing the traffic generated as a self-fulfilling prophesy when everybody drives).

The City of San Mateo has been developing and implementing tools and policies to help reduce driving in transit-rich, pedestrian-friendly areas, including a Transportation Management Association for downtown. One key question is whether the City will be willing to use the new tools to reduce driving, alleviate traffic and parking fears, and help bring needed housing to the downtown area.

At the Commission meeting, there were about 15 public comments, half for and half against. Most supported the additional housing, with some concerns about having enough affordability, as well as traffic and parking.

Commission members made suggestions including real-time parking signs to indicate available space in the garages (a strategy that is part of the city’s proposed new parking plan), and creating safer street crossings to Central Park.

Reducing vehicle trips

The City of San Mateo has a Transportation Management Association for the downtown, to help reduce vehicle trips and parking demand. By requiring the development to join the TMA, with funding, reporting, and required trip reduction, the city could ensure that this development generates lower traffic and helps the neighborhood drive less. Measures could include unbundled parking helping residents rent as much parking as they need, giving out transit passes to residents, provided carshare spaces for residents and neighbors, and improving bike and pedestrian connections.

A blank wall facing the street

The pedestrian-friendliness of the building is marred by a blank wall proposed to face the street on 5th, covering parking spaces for residents and to replace the 95 spaces currently in the private surface lot. Even if there is architectural detail and landscaping, blank walls facing the street are ugly and would make the street less appealing for walking.

Paseo view, proposed Essex apartments in downtown San Mateo. Note parking area in the first 3 stories on the left.

Paseo view, proposed Essex apartments in downtown San Mateo. Note parking area in the first 3 stories on the left.

There are several ways the developers could solve the problem.
They could “wrap” the parking and put apartments on the outside (a design called a “Texas Donut.”) They could even seek to buy one of the two neighboring properties – a Sleep Train store facing El Camino, or a small strip retail center facing 4th. This would provide more space to accommodate parking without having the parking facing the street. In Mountain View, Planning Commission made a similar recommendation to a developer building on El Camino Real with a similar issue. That developer was successfully able to buy the adjacent property and improve the design. With unbundled parking and vehicle trip limits, the could provide less parking. They could use stacking technology to compress the amount of space taken up by the parking. A blank wall facing the street should be unacceptable in a pedestrian-friendly downtown area and the developer should come up with an alternative solution with a more active street face.

Height for housing

The developer is asking for permission to exceed the city’s 55 foot hight limit, to 75 feet. According Measure P, a ballot measure passed in 2004 extending Measure H passed in 1995, the building is required to provide 10% affordable housing units as well as other public benefits in order to exceed the height limit. Whether to grant permission, and what public benefits, will be the subject of debate.

San Mateo downtown is an increasingly popular place for startup companies. Job growth is exceeding housing growth, pushing up housing prices. The developer has applied for a State density bonus of 30% more units than allowed in exchange for including 10% low-income units. Beyond the dedicated low-income units, adding housing supply helps to relieve pressure on existing housing stock, and helps more people get to work without long drives. It is feasible to have a walkable, transit-friendly place within the City’s current height limit. How much should the city trade off improvement to the jobs/housing balance to alleviate rising prices and long commutes?

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4 Responses to Proposed 8-story apartment building in downtown San Mateo – can the city use its new tools to limit traffic?

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  2. Jame says:

    I went to the meeting because I happen to work 2 blocks away. I agree that if you build more parking, more people will bring their cars. It is about the best place for a walkable development, although bike infrastructure in San Mateo is lacking.

    I did start to wonder how much of th new development in San Mateo is actually going to be moderate in cost. I.e from like $1200-2000. I worry too many people are making $2k apartments.

    • Adina Levin says:

      Yes. Even if so, if the new housing isn’t built, the existing supply keeps getting bid up and up. A combination of protected affordable, and enough new supply to keep up with job growth. It’s tough because the area hasn’t kept up with job growth in a long time.

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