San Mateo’s Bay Meadows development project started out of the gate slow, and it certainly hasn’t picked up much speed.
The proposal to rip down the storied San Mateo horse racing track and replace it with condos, offices, parks and retail space took years to approve, even with a relatively supportive city council. Organizations formed to oppose it and a docketful of lawsuits were filed. Inveterate gamblers stood side-by-side with neighborhood leaders calling for the city to let the track be.
After years of such antics, developers overcame the opposition — just in time for the housing
market to crumble.
Three and a half years after the San Mateo City Council approved the project and demolition crews erased the track from its home of 74 years, the fenced-off lot where Bay Meadows once stood still shows no sign of the offices, parks and retail spaces that developers hope to build.
But the developers can’t delay too much longer. The approvals granted by the city stated that building permits must be pulled by mid-2013, or the project must go through a new approval process.
Master developers Wilson Meany Sullivan took a five-month hiatus from the project in 2009 “to re-evaluate things after the financial markets did what they did,” said project manager Genelle Ball. They then proceeded with slowly laying infrastructure on the property.
Last January, they estimated infrastructure would be completed within six months. And some has been laid, but much of the site still looks like a manicured mound of dirt. Now, Ball said they’re bullish on it being completed by the end of this year.
Despite all these slowdowns, Ball said the project is on track.
“We don’t see things as having been delayed,” Ball said. “We feel very fortunate to be where we are with the project and we’re very excited to be on the cusp of being able to deliver the first piece of land to the community.”
The city gave up a major chunk of its income — a gambling tax that earned it the better part of $1 million a year — when the track was closed. Until buildings are constructed and property taxes assessed, the city's property tax revenues are also lower than they were in the past.
“People are just concerned that it’s taking a long time and the city isn’t getting any tax revenue from what’s there now,” she said. “But overall, in the long term, the city will receive a net increase in tax revenue from this project, and we’re just being patient and waiting till that happens.”
Some residents have been worried about the lack of progress on the site, said Darcy Forsell, the San Mateo senior planner who oversaw the approvals process and is still keeping track of the project.
But Mike Germano, director emeritus of the Beresford Hillsdale Neighborhood Association, which has doubled in size during the fight, doesn’t particularly mind the delays. He opposed the project and felt the city gave far too sweet a deal to the developers.
“For me personally, the big deal was whether it was going to be approved or not. But now that it is, it’s water under the bridge,” he said. “Aside from the revenue that’s not coming to the city, the delays are just putting off the traffic jams it’s going to cause.”
CORRECTION: The Jan. 26 San Francisco Examiner story “Bay Meadows development facing 2013 deadline” incorrectly stated that San Mateo receives no money from the site of the former horse racing track. In fact, representatives of the plot’s developer note that they are paying property taxes, city processing fees and mitigation fees for traffic and parks.
Sources: City of San Mateo, news archives