San Mateo City Council divided 

San Mateo city leaders know something must be done with the vacant buildings and parking lot at 480 E. Fourth Ave., but they’re divided on what would be best for the city.

While San Mateo City Council member Brandt Grotte wants to explore the idea of renovating the buildings and possibly moving City Hall to the heart of downtown, the high costs associated with renovating the old buildings and putting together a construction project may stand in the way.

"The practical problem with that plan is that you’d need to come up with capital to build a new city hall before you’re able to sell the old site," Community Development Director Robert Beyer said.

The Redevelopment Agency bought the site for $5.3 million in 1998. At the time, the intent was to use the additional parking on site to handle visitor traffic while the parking garage and cinema on Main Street were built.

The City Council voted to deny a residential development on the property, opting to save the land and possibly enter into their own deal with private developers. At that time, the council tasked city staff members with analyzing potential uses for the site.

City Manager Arne Croce estimated that any major projects on the site would take five to 10 years, so in addition to planning long-term solutions, the council discussed possible short-term actions, including public parking or leasing deals with private groups to use the buildings.

The 12,780-square-foot building on the site that once housed a Kinko’s and Aguirre International has been vacant since 2003; at least $415,000 in basic improvements will be needed if it’s to be reused. But if the council elects to use the building for city offices, the permanent location could save the city $267,000 yearly in rent.

Grotte said he was in favor of looking into the move, but other council members were not as enthusiastic about the idea.

"We definitely need to find a way to not spend that rent money, but I’m not convinced the answer is building a downtown city hall," Deputy Mayor Carole Groom said.

If not developed into housing or retail, the site could also become a seven-story parking structure, costingmore than $28 million and bringing almost 800 parking spaces to the downtown area. Funding again may prove the ultimate hurdle, however, because the revenue generated by parking spaces would fall far short of supporting the construction project.

City staff will return to the council with more data on costs associated with the various options discussed, and a decision will be made at a later date. Croce said any decision will also need to wait until after the Downtown Specific Plan is finalized.

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