This is op ed was published in the Daily Post on Thursday, September 26, 2019. I’ll post a link to the online article on the Post’s website as soon as it’s available.
About ten years ago San Carlos updated its General Plan, the master document defining how the community wants to see itself evolve. That was in the depths of the Great Recession. The ensuing years saw a major economic turnaround in our community along with rapidly increasing development. About a year ago I learned major commercial projects were in the offing. We’ve been discovered by developers and there’s no turning back from that.
Given this, revisiting what we want San Carlos to look like, and what we expect developers to provide the community in exchange for the privilege of being allowed to build here, ought to be the Council’s highest priority.
But my gut tells me such a review is not going to happen. At least not unless the community speaks up.
There’s about 2 million square feet of commercial space, some already under construction, targeted for the area between the freeway and Old County Road near Brittan Avenue. The majority involves sites recently purchased by a single major biotech campus developer. To put that in perspective, we currently have 1.4 million square feet of commercial space…and that’s the product of almost a century’s worth of activity. The next few years may see us at least double that first century’s construction.
I’m not anti-development. Having companies invest in San Carlos gives us the chance to improve our community in ways which benefit our residents. But it’s a delicate balancing act: development also brings traffic, exacerbates the housing crisis and can cost the city real dollars, forcing it to forego community amenities.
The more than 6,000 new employees — an almost 50% increase from current levels — that would likely be coming to San Carlos need to live somewhere. Those that don’t live here will worsen already bad rush hour congestion on regional roads and highways. And lost amenities? The city may spend around $10 million of its financial reserves rebuilding the Holly/101 interchange, in large part to support this new development. That money could go towards other things, like expanding or upgrading parks.
Those two million square feet could well be just the beginning. There are large properties (e.g., Delta Star, the rock crushing plant, the PG&E yard) in our east side commercial zones which could easily become the subject of even more development.
From one perspective this is all going according to the General Plan adopted by the Council a decade ago. But just because things are working out the way people thought they might doesn’t mean we should just watch events unfold. We can choose to stay with our current policies…but deciding to do nothing is still a decision. What we are seeing unfold is pretty much at the upper end of what was thought possible. That alone argues we should review and update the General Plan, or at least the portions of it defining how we want to see our commercial sector evolve.
The Council is being told this is way too time-consuming to pursue and cannot be done in pieces. The latter is simply incorrect — communities tweak portions of their General Plans all the time; San Mateo is in the process of doing so right now and Redwood City is considering it — while the former is a matter of setting priorities.
Unfortunately, these arguments seem to carry a lot of weight. Which is why I believe we’re in the midst of making a non-choice choice which the community doesn’t realize is being made, and which it will come to regret in the future.
If we want to influence and guide the biggest round of commercial development we’ve ever seen, the time to act is now. In fact, I wish I had been more persuasive about getting a review started when I first brought this issue up about a year ago. But while making changes today will be harder it’s still possible.
But it won’t be for long. And I don’t believe it’ll happen unless the community steps up. So if this issue concerns you please get involved.