San Mateo residents offer differing visions of downtown’s future 

Beyond just helping San Mateo map out the next 20 years for the downtown area, the upcoming Downtown Specific Plan update may guide the city in defining its identity as either a serene suburb or the bustling "Heart of the Peninsula."

After gathering input from more than 100 residents in November, the staff of Planning Chief Ronald Munekawa turned to the San Mateo City Council as well as the Planning Commission Tuesday night to discuss the future of San Mateo’s downtown area.

A generation gap arose at the meeting, with many longtime residents pushing for the city to lower building heights in some sections and work on providing parking for visitors.

Newer residents like downtown’s founder Sam Shank — who walks several blocks from his home to work most days — said the downtown needs higher density construction and fewer parking spaces to force visitors to take public transportation downtown.

He said the area could mirror Palo Alto’s University Avenue, with high quality shops, clubs and venues for music and the arts.

"San Mateo is not a sleepy little town, it’s an exciting hub of entertainment," Shank said.

Unification of the downtown area and its neighbors as well as the integration of the east and west sides of the Caltrain tracks was on many speakers’ lists of to-do items.

"The train tracks are a physical divider and they seem to be a retail divider as well," Mayor Jack Matthews said. "We need to find a way to get more retail on the east side."

Finding a way to bring City Hall back to the downtown area has also been on many officials’ minds, and moving some or all of the city’s offices to a new central location has become a common topic at meetings involving the downtown.

"The one thing we really need in downtown that we don’t have now is City Hall," Planning Commissioner Robert Gooyer said before the meeting. "It’s asinine that City Hall is in a converted warehouse on 20th Avenue."

Once all of the necessary input has been gathered, it will take approximately one year to update the Downtown Specific Plan and begin putting those changes into play, Munekawa said.

While much of the meeting flowed smoothly there was a brief recess just before 7 p.m. after San Mateo resident Eddie Alexander used his two minutes of time to chastise the City Council for its "pro-war stance" and lack of ethnic diversity.

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