Time to Speak Up About Commercial Development

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.

Meridian 25 Biotech Project (currently under construction)

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.

10 thoughts on “Time to Speak Up About Commercial Development”

  1. John McDowell

    Amen, Mark! You are right on the money. With 2% unemployment in our county, every new cubicle/open office space means that an employee is coming from outside the county. The result is even more upward pressure on rents or more traffic congestion. There is no way we can build enough housing to offset the massive increase in new employees and the negative impacts their arrival brings.

    1. Hi John,

      As I suspect you know 🙂 I don’t agree with your conclusion that no more housing can be built. Certainly adding 6,000 households to San Carlos itself would be a very, very, very huge lift. But that’s not the outcome I think we should pursue.

      Instead, I think we should demand (among other things) that commercial developers ensure their is adequate new housing available within some reasonable commuting distance (5, 10 or 15 miles?). If they can’t provide that (and again, maybe some other things, too), I’d be fine not having the commercial development go forward.

      BTW I don’t mean to imply this idea is the “only viable solution”. I’m not foolish enough to think I know all the answers :). What I want to see is a community discussion about alternatives and choices so that we end up with something that, whatever its impacts are — both positive and negative — at least we won’t be surprised by them.

    1. Hi Tom, your best bet is to set down with the Council members one-on-one and discuss the situation with them. That’s the best way to share your concerns, learn more about the situation — I don’t pretend to know all the details — and hear what they have to say.

      And encourage your friends and neighbors to do so as well.

  2. Yes – San Carlos residents, please step up and get involved. The OVER-DEVELOPMENT in San Carlos is not only bad for San Carlos, it hurts adjacent cities (like Belmont). We will end up making Ralston Ave a “toll road” for anyone who does not live in Belmont, because we are getting crushed by San Carlos development!

    1. Hi Judi, thanx for sharing a neighboring perspective. Although I’m sorry to have to say that the law doesn’t allow communities to convert roads to tolls in California. Which I learned when I looked into whether or not we could start charging people who shop in our grocery stores but who live in communities that don’t allow retail establishments for the traffic burden they cause us :). That’s not possible, either.

  3. Developers should be required to pay rebuilding the Holly/101 interchange, and adding northbound exit/entrance to Brittan Ave exchange. The new developments will increase stress on storm drains, sewer systems, police/fire depts, wear/tear of roads, litter, air quality, water demand…..I encourage the Council to negotiate an aggressive price for permits, with ongoing quarterly (annual?) contributions. If developers decline, then it will space out the new developments. They need the permits, more than the people need the expense to allow them. And another developer will begrudgingly, comply with conditions, that they want to avoid; but able to pay to make their hefty profit. And not have residents pay them.

    FasTrak can be used on every tolled bridge, lane and road in California. There are no monthly fees and frequent drivers with a prepaid account are eligible for discounted toll rates.

    1. Interesting ideas, Ken, thanx. And apologies for the delay in approving your comment — I’m struggling with getting WordPress to send me pending comment alerts.

      Btw, expanding the Brittan half interchange is quite challenging, for two reasons. The east side borders federally-protected marshlands, and CalTrans, which “owns” the road, has a policy limiting how close together they’ll allow full interchanges to be.

      Neither issue is insurmountable but they are definitely significant challenges. At the very least they’d absorb a lot of time, energy, money and political effort to address.

  4. A San Carlos resident


    The OVER-DEVELOPMENT in San Carlos for both residential and commercial buildings, is unbelievable and is happening on a very fast paste. Please stop building more buildings.

    Thanks, a concerned resident of San Carlos

  5. Hi Concerned Resident! I’m making an exception to my normal rule about allowing anonymous comments to be made because you’re the first person to state this particular concern so directly. Please remember to include your name in any future posts or comments.

    I also encourage you to take a look (assuming it’s still there) at my state of the city address from last March on the San Carlos Chamber of Commerce website. In a nutshell, the development we see going on is the result of the enormous economic energy of the Bay Area, which in turn is due to how tightly connected it is to the global economy. That, coupled to the freedom we grant everyone to live their lives — and use their property — as they see fit, subject to reasonable regulations, is what underlies development activity. Put another way, one of the best places to live — so far as not having to deal with the impact of development — today is Detroit, Michigan…because not that many people want to live there.

    The challenge, as always, is striking a balance. Which is why I want to see the Council review our General Plan, or at least the parts of it where the vast majority of commercial development is going to take place in the next few years.

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