Just a refresher post pointing at the State of the City address I gave back in March that addresses, in more detail, the background behind San Carlos’ current development outlook, and the choices we can make as a community about it.
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.
This is a lightly-edited version of an op ed I wrote which was published in the San Mateo Daily Journal on Friday, April 12, 2019. You can find the Daily Journal item here.
I recently attended the San Carlos Planning Commission meeting where the Environmental Impact Report process for a 68 townhouse development on the old Black Mountain Water Company site was launched. After the EIR process is complete, the Commission will review the project proposal itself, and decide whether to approve it.
In listening to comments by residents I realized there are some misunderstandings about how the process works and, more importantly, why it works the way it does.
I think the biggest source of confusion stems from the belief that, in a democracy, the community ought to be able to decide whether it wants any given development project, and in what form. The reality is different, and for a very important reason: to preserve liberty.
Communities do get to set rules governing what can be built where within their boundaries. While those rules must abide by State and Federal laws, there is quite a bit of flexibility at the local level.
But once the rules are set, and until they are changed, they are binding upon the community. Project approvals are not transactional. Communities don’t get to decide, on a case by case basis, which projects they want.
Instead, if a proposed project complies with the rules, it can and must be approved, although conditions may be attached. It’s what’s called a “development by right”. Failure to do so exposes the community to being sued, a suit it would almost certainly lose, and then not only have to pay damages and court costs but end up with the project being built anyway.
This sounds, and is, rather undemocratic.
But that’s because our system of government is not a pure democracy. It is a representative constitutional democracy, and those other two words substantially modify how it operates. In this case the constitutional aspect protects members of the community from arbitrary acts by the majority, however well-intentioned. We can require you to prove you’re compliant with community rules – that’s what the project review process is for – but, once that’s established, you’re good to go.
That principle was adopted because it’s the best way found yet to preserve as much individual liberty as we can. But, like anything, it involves trade-offs that people may not like. One of those is that it’s extremely difficult for a “by right” project to be blocked by retroactively changing the rules.
There’s a similar situation involving EIRs. Most people see the EIR process as a way, potentially, to block a project that can be shown to have environmental impacts.
But while that can occur, the law is actually focused on identifying environmental impacts and getting them addressed. That’s why EIR studies almost always end up talking about mitigations: what can be done to reduce or eliminate negative environmental impacts?
Having negative impacts is almost inevitable, but it’s not, in and of itself, grounds for stopping a project. Instead, the project sponsor must address the significant (“material”) ones identified by an objective review of the project’s impacts. If they cannot find a cost-effective way to do so they may choose to abandon the project. But that’s relatively uncommon, particularly when dealing with something in short supply and great demand, like housing on the Peninsula.
None of this is intended to dissuade people from engaging city hall in discussions about specific projects. For one thing, that helps ensure a proposal complies with our rules, and that’s important.
But my sense is at least some San Carlans want more than that. Focusing on what’s coming next, rather than what’s currently up for approval, might be a more effective approach.
For example, San Carlos will likely face, in the next few years, a significant amount of new commercial development. Deciding how we want to govern that will make this a pivotal moment in our history. Getting, and staying, engaged in that discussion will better shape the future we pass on to those who come after us.
If you’re interested in more on this subject you might enjoy my recent State of the City address, available online at the San Carlos Chamber of Commerce website.
The Council chair (aka mayor) traditionally offers thoughts on the year ahead when he or she is appointed. I chose not to do that last December because three Council members were stepping down, and three new Council members were being sworn in, and I didn’t want to shift the focus off that unprecedented change. Instead, I made my remarks at last Monday’s Council meeting.
Someone once described legislative bodies as a group of people wearing blindfolds, locked in a room with what turns out to be an elephant, trying to identify, and deal with, what was there.
What I want to talk about tonight is a rather large elephant coming to San Carlos, and what it will mean for the Council over the next few years.
Today San Carlos has about 1.4 million square feet of office space. That’s impressive, and a sign of a healthy and vibrant community. That development provides jobs and opportunities for our people, and tax revenues to help fund public services.
But in the next couple of years, we will see the start or completion of an additional 2.4 million square feet of office space. And that’s just the ones we’ve heard about so far.
Think about that for a second. That’s almost double all the office space that was built since the city was founded almost a century ago! And it’s all happening in just a few short years.
Last November saw a lot of turnover in the Council, with three new members joining this body. I’m excited to hear the fresh perspectives and ideas that will come out of that change.
Because we will need every bit of creativity we can muster, to deal with this elephant, and all its implications. Housing. Traffic. Parking. Mobility. Quality of life. Not to mention all the other things we must do that don’t directly involve development.
We may choose not to allow all the potential growth to happen. We may require what we do allow be done differently than was the case in the past.
But however we move forward, let’s not just apply yesterday’s thinking to today’s opportunities. Unprecedented challenges demand unprecedented thinking.
That’s particularly true when you are a small city like San Carlos. We have been and always will be impacted, often dramatically, by regional, national and global forces that we do not control and must adapt to.
As every single investment pitch you’ve ever heard points out, past success does not guarantee future success. For us to remain the City of Good Living we must be flexible in our approaches, adaptive in our responses, and clever in our decision-making.
To do that, I encourage my colleagues to take nothing for granted. If an expert assures you something must be done a certain way, require an explanation as to why that’s the case. You may find there are hidden assumptions about trade-offs in play, and, while those may once have been valid, it is up to you to make the best choice for today.
If a course of action involves risk, I would urge you not to simply reject it. Understand the risks and get advice on how to manage them. Nothing worthwhile is ever gained without risk, and refusing to ever accept risk guarantees you will create a future that falls short of what we might otherwise have enjoyed.
The future is and always will be an undiscovered country, offering no promises as to what it holds. But we do get to shape it. If we choose to do so.
This Council is presiding over a pivotal moment in San Carlos’ history. I believe it is up to the task of ensuring that those who come after us will enjoy San Carlos as much as we enjoy it today. Even if we can’t imagine how they’ll be living and what they’ll be doing to enjoy life.
I look forward to working with you to help build that future.