In Search of Redwood City’s New Normal

in Community/Headline/Infrastructure

1867, “Year One” of Redwood City’s incorporation, corrected the basis for an offensive nickname: With the arrival of the “wet season,” a news editor lamented, the streets once again were quite muddy. “Outside barbarians,” he huffed, “have stigmatized our town as ‘Mudwood City.’” The ink was barely dry on the incorporation papers that May before the Town Council borrowed $5,000 to start a paving program and get the mud out of the moniker.

2018, and “Year 150-and-Counting” is here. A city mocked in recent memory as “Deadwood City” is relishing its turnaround while dealing with fresh challenges, some exacerbated by a rapid – some say unending – downtown makeover: Congestion. Parking shortages. High-cost housing. Budget problems. And the dilemma of how to build community in a city unsettled about its expanding identity.

“I think being in the transition is never really very fun,” said John Seybert, who just wound up a two-year term as mayor. What the city has been going through, he says, is like living in a house while it’s being  remodeled. “It comes with any change until we’re used to it and until there’s a new normal.”

Last year’s sesquicentennial celebration gave the whole city a timeout to take a look back with pride at 150 years of history, including recent changes that bring the story right back where it started: Downtown. If it took paving for Mudwood to sustain commerce year-round, it was the full-tilt implementation of Redwood City’s Downtown Precise Plan that set off an economic boom that began about four years ago and keeps altering the landscape.

Approved in 2011 and finalized in 2013, the Precise Plan allows for 500,000 square feet of office space, 2,500 residential units, 200 hotel rooms and up to 100,000 square feet for retailers. Though the “caps” in the plan for the first two categories have essentially been hit, construction on some of the projects is still underway and they aren’t occupied yet.  City leaders in 2018 and beyond will be grappling with the lessons learned from the downtown plan and whether to adjust going forward.  How that will that factor into the adjacent frontier for renewal — the El Camino Real corridor, where new apartments are being built – is a logical next question.

“I think we’ll look at how we manage our growth,” Seybert added. “That’s a huge topic to look at.”

There are, to be sure, many residents who are deeply distressed about the pace and scale of development, especially because of traffic and the difficulty finding parking. City Councilmember Janet Borgens hears the lament from older residents in particular that “it’s just not my Redwood City anymore.’”

“I don’t know that there’s going to be a new normal, to be honest with you,” said Kris Johnson, a 17-year resident who became a community activist several years ago, to oppose a proposed jail downtown. “I think the impression developers have is that we’re still an under-engaged community. The steady state of development is the new normal.”

But those multi-story apartment buildings are full of people like Jason Galisatus, 24, who embrace everything that downtown has to offer, from entertainment and restaurants to being able to jump on Caltrain. He grew up in Redwood City and credits all the new apartments for his being able to move back from San Francisco to his hometown.

“It almost feels like we’re pioneers because so many of the new people are completely new to Redwood City,” he said.

So what’s ahead for 2018?  Construction will continue on downtown and El Camino projects that are under way or are approved, notably the Lane Partners’ Building at 2075 Broadway at Jefferson Avenue that will be home to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, scheduled for completion next year. Tenants will move in this month to a five-story mixed-use building at 815 Hamilton St., behind the Fox Theatre. There are two floors of parking and another entrance and exit to the Jefferson Avenue garage under the movie theater.

Goodwin Procter, an international law firm, is moving from Menlo Park and has leased some 100,000 square feet of space in the eight-story office building at 601 Marshall St., which is slated to be ready for occupancy by March, according to Steve Dostart, president of Dostart Development Co. By summertime, about 500 people will be working in the building, which should help fill downtown restaurants at lunchtime.

His neo-Classical building could be seen as a “lesson learned” for people unhappy about seeing the skyline fill up with large, boxy structures. Dostart had gotten feedback about his original contemporary design and ended up redoing it, adding exterior friezes decorated with ships and other images from the city’s early days. (It was also reduced by three stories.)

“Redwood City really loves its history,” Dostart said, “so that building looks like it was built concurrent with the (1910) courthouse.  It was expensive, but it has a lot of character. Modern design is all about the shape of the building and the mass. Classical design is all about communicating what’s inside the building. It’s more organic.”

Count newly installed Mayor Ian Bain, 50, among those who would like contemporary design eliminated as an option in the future. He also favors height restrictions for development adjacent to the old courthouse so its signature dome remains prominent.

Though developers lapped up the office and housing allocations, two allowable uses in the Precise Plan have been largely unclaimed: hotel and retail space, both desired by the city’s residents.  A consultant was retained last year to advise the council about what retailers are looking for and strategies to attract them.  Bain thinks chances for a hotel within a few years are good but the future for retail – everywhere – is less clear in an era dominated by online shopping.  “It’s market-driven,” he says.  “The stores themselves are going to have to decide that Redwood City is a desirable place.  We know that it is a highly desirable place and I do think the retailers will recognize that.”

As for future development, “I would say the difference of opinion (on the City Council) is whether we are going to keep the current caps in place or do we do away with them altogether. I personally think doing away with the caps would be a mistake because I’m more on the side of managed growth, closely managed growth, especially with the amount of developer fatigue that this community has right now.”

An important key to the city’s path forward, both Bain and Seybert agree, is through the revitalized and reactivated neighborhood associations, to facilitate two-way communication and increased community involvement. The boundaries were redrawn last year and the number of groups expanded.

The newest is one that some might not even consider a neighborhood. But more than 50 residents showed up at Angelica’s restaurant in December for the first meeting of the Downtown Neighborhood Association.  “It really told me there’s a lot of energy among our neighbors to get involved,” said Galisatus, who is one of the three co-chairs.

Those who assume the denizens of the newly urbanizing downtown are young and rootless cliff dwellers, here today and gone with the next career move, should meet Matthew Self and his wife, Natasha Skok.  Intrigued by the vibrant new downtown, they decided to rent out their house in Emerald Hills so they could see what living downtown was like. Daughter Nika, now 14, was taking Caltrain to school in Palo Alto when they made the move to a three-bedroom apartment in the Indigo building, and being close to transportation was another benefit to relocating.

The one-year experiment was to end last August, but “we finished our first year and had a family meeting,” Self explained, of the decision to re-up for another year. “It’s just fun being a part of it all.” He walks to work at Box, the cloud security storage company, and “probably don’t get in my car five days a week.”

He also served as chairman of a citizens’ advisory committee that gave input on a vision for the next planning area, the El Camino Real corridor, which the City Council recently approved.  Among the many goals, the busy thoroughfare would be made more bike- and pedestrian-friendly through intersection improvements, protected bike lanes and the potential elimination of on-street parking. At this point, the El Camino plan is just a vision for the future that would need to be followed up with zoning modifications to give more flexibility for housing, as several speakers advocated, especially affordable housing.

Isabella Chu, a Friendly Acres resident for the past four years, urged the council to do the necessary rezoning to allow for “desperately needed housing.” Of 27 homes in the city listed for sale recently, Chu noted, only three were under $1 million. “This was a working class town,” she said.  “We need to zone El Camino Real in such a way that it’s really easy to build lots of housing.”

Johnson, the community activist, contends that Redwood City already allows the highest building heights from San Francisco to San Jose and the hundreds of El Camino units that are already coming on line aren’t even occupied yet. “Without question there is a need for more housing in every community on the Peninsula,” he said. “Without question Redwood City has done more than its fair share of market-rate housing. High density housing close to transportation makes a lot of sense, but it doesn’t mean the sky’s the limit.”

Over coffee one recent morning, Vice Mayor Diane Howard and Councilmember Borgens reflected on the last few years of frenetic building downtown.  Is El Camino Real a chance to get it right this time?

“You know what,” Borgens responded, “15 years ago we thought we did . . . We had consultants, we had charrettes—”

“We really believed that we would have benchmarks along the way where we could stop and say, ‘Are you liking what’s happened so far?’” Howard replied. “We weren’t given that because of the rush. It was like a tidal tsunami coming in.”

Nobody predicted how the economy would take off. Property owners wanted to sell. Developers seized the moment. And the rest is history.  If the city had thrown on the brakes, developers might have gone elsewhere, and “we would have lost the momentum that we waited for for so many years,” Howard said.

For a City Council trying to find a balance when it comes to density and growth, charting the way forward will be even more complicated for two reasons.  2018 is an election year with three council seats up for grabs. Howard is running for re-election. Seybert says he hasn’t carved out the time to come to a decision, and Councilmember Jeff Gee did not respond to an inquiry.  Asked about a possible candidacy, Johnson declined to answer but speculates that if there is an open seat, it will be an expensive race.

Development is by no means confined to downtown.  The first phase of construction of Stanford University’s 35-acre Redwood City campus is taking place on the one-time headquarters of Ampex.  That phase will include four office buildings, a child care center and a fitness center, a park and other amenities for the 2,700 employees. Not too far away, at Broadway and Woodside Road, there’s a proposed mixed-use project, Broadway Plaza, on a former shopping area which would include some affordable housing.

There are also proposals for large projects east of U.S. 101 that are in various stages of discussion or review, according to the city’s website.

Jay Paul Company, the original developer of Pacific Shores, has proposed an office campus on the industiral lands of the former Malibu Grand Prix, Strada Investment Group has proposed a waterfront townhouse development at 1548 Maple St, consisting of 131 townhomes, and SyRes Properties LLC also proposes to redevelop the former cinema site with a project that combines housing and a sport club.

“I think the November 2018 election is going to be a vote about where our city is headed right now,” Johnson said. “You’re likely to see more residentialist candidates.”

Other complex issues confront city leaders too. The council is set to consider regulations of short-term housing rentals, like Airbnb units, and early in the year will take up adoption of a new citywide transportation plan. Paradoxically, amid boom times, the city is facing the need to both raise revenue and cut expenses. A major reason is because of rising city contributions for retiree pension and medical costs as a result of the California Public Employees Retirement System’s assumptions and lower-than-expected investment earnings.

“Even though the economy is doing really well,” Bain explained, “we’re actually in a position where we have to make cuts, which is always difficult and challenging but it’s even harder for the community to understand because they are saying, ‘Companies are hiring like crazy. So why isn’t city government in the same position?’”

Adding to the cognitive dissonance, a number of capital improvement projects will be under way or completed in 2018. But fees collected for a specific purpose or capital grant funding can’t be redirected to the general fund. The city has limited ways to raise additional revenue, and an increase in the transient occupancy tax on hotel stays (now 12 percent) is one of them that may end up on the ballot, he said.

A Magical Bridge Playground, an innovative concept first seen in Palo Alto, may open late this year at Red Morton Park, depending on construction variables. Designed to be socially inclusive for children and adults of varying physical and cognitive abilities, the accessible playground is the result of a partnership between the Magical Bridge Foundation and the city, which is contributing $1.5 million in capital funds previously set aside for renovation of the park toward the cost.

The city has collected a considerable amount of money from park impact fees, in fact, and will begin an assessment of possible sites for creation of a downtown park and other green space.

Work is continuing on the master plan for a new Veterans Memorial Senior Center and a new YMCA fitness and aquatics facility, also a partnership – with the YMCA of Silicon Valley. A community outreach process will get under way in 2018.

It’s hoped by the end of the year, a sculpture called “The Pirate Ship” by artists Emilia and Ilya Kabakov will be installed next to a bayside trail outside the Redwood Shores Library in a new playground area. Purchased with $400,000 in developer fees set aside for art and parks, the ship is big enough that kids will be able to play on the interactive sculpture.

Construction will proceed on a number of transportation improvements in the city.  Pedestrian crossing work at Middlefield and Woodside Roads will be completed in the summer, providing a safer, more protected way to cross the busy intersection.  The project includes an upgraded traffic signal system, new sidewalks and curb ramps, pedestrian signals and lighting. The city’s capital fund is providing $1.3 million of the $1.6 million cost, with the remaining $340,000 coming from federal funds. The design is coordinated with the future plans to underground utilities on Middlefield Road as far as Costco.

“All of those crisscrossing utility lines will be put underground,” Bain said. “Trees will be added. Middlefield will go from being one of the most blighted areas to one of the most beautiful streets in Redwood City.”

Caltrain, meanwhile, will begin work along the railroad corridor in Redwood City in preparation for the coming electrification project. Look for foundation work and for poles and catenary wiring going up. Grade crossing improvements at Whipple Avenue, Broadway and Main Street will be going on as well.

Schools in the city are in the expansion mode too.

Oracle Design Tech High School welcomes its first students Jan. 9 after three years in Burlingame. The    64,000-square-foot building on vacant parcel next to the Oracle campus is a partnership with the Oracle Education Foundation.  Some 550 students in grades nine to 12 are enrolled for the first year at Redwood Shores.

Sandpiper School at the Shores is opening up newly built space for sixth graders and science classes on Jan. 9. The school will be expanding to grades 6 to 8 in phases to keep up with the growing district population.

Cañada College is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018 and is highlighting it at events nearly every month. The college is asking for photos and personal stories for a special webpage (

Construction was kicked off in December on a $66 million Kinesiology and Wellness Building that will replace the old gymnasium. The two-story, 83,000-square-foot learning structure will include not just a gym and fitness rooms but a running track, sport courts, yoga area, exercise equipment and modern classrooms for instructional and wellness courses. The exterior deck will feature a competitive pool and an instructional pool. What’s more, the public will have access to the state-of-the-art sports facility.

If Redwood City’s “new normal” can seem at times a moving target, Councilmember Seybert notes that this growth spurt isn’t a first. He attended the December premiere at the Fox Theatre of a 150th anniversary documentary, which took the city from the 1850s to the present and showed the spread of subdivisions as the population quadrupled.

“What’s fascinating to me is we’re not talking about that kind of growth (today). We’re talking about a few percentage points of growth,” Seybert said. “I think over time we will get used to that. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard.  I think it’s more important that we learn to manage through things as a community rather than think all growth is bad. There are always challenges that come with growth, but I trust that about Redwood City because we’ve always gone through times of growth.”