Has San Carlos Outgrown its “Industrial” Road?  

in Community/Featured/Headline

As bio tech and artisan companies remake the East Side, is it time for a name change? 

The question is percolating in the business community whether Industrial Road in San Carlos still is in fact industrial. The pursuit of the answer becomes a dazzling plunge into the quirky, surprising and oddly delightful environment known as East Side Industrial Area. It requires an exploration of the foundations of Silicon Valley and the future of biotechnology, and the discovery of an amazing and diverse “conglomeration,” as one occupant put it, of artisans and craftspeople, most of whom participate in a staggeringly varied and complex economy of reuse, repurpose and resell, a kind of highly efficient recycling that omits the intercession of the garbage bin. 

There’s a massive six-story life sciences building and a glass blower down there, two ends of technological development stretching back thousands of years. It’s just possible that modern society should not do without either of them. 

If it’s a road then Industrial Road is a runt of one, two miles long, existing only to pass through town and connect Harbor Boulevard on the south end of Belmont to Whipple Avenue on the north end of Redwood City, through the middle of an area once known as Bay Center Acres. 

It was conceived only for that purpose in 1952 when the Industrial Committee of the San Carlos Chamber of Commerce advocated for its construction to deal with traffic circulation problems on Brittan Avenue, which connected El Camino Real and Old County Road over Southern Pacific railroad tracks. 

At 5 p.m. every working day the street was jammed with cars as workers “poured out” of the industrial plants east of the railroad, as the old San Mateo Times put it. 

For years the crossing had status as the most dangerous in the city, drivers crowding onto the railroad tracks as they headed to El Camino. Consequently, occasionally trains smashed cars. 

The city tried closing Brittan completely between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., forcing everyone to either go north to Harbor in Belmont or south to Whipple in Redwood City to cross, an arrangement that must have displeased Belmont and Redwood City. 

Stepping up to champion a new street connecting Harbor and Whipple near the four-lane Bayshore Highway on the east side, along with additional improvements such as a new grade crossing at Howard Avenue, was Hiram A. Lorenzen of 385 Ridge Rd., chairman of the Industrial Committee, vice-chair of the San Carlos Planning Commission and, most importantly, a corporate officer at Lenkurt Electric. 

Lennart Erickson and Kurt Appert, passionate amateur radio operators devoted to the new field of electronics, were locals who met in the 1930s in a University of California Extension radio course. 

At that moment radio tube patents held by industrial giants like General Electric expired and were released to the public domain, permitting amateurs like Erickson and Appert to experiment and improve on the terrible tube designs industry had been sitting on. 

So they did, combining their names in a new company called Lenkurt. 

Over the next decade San Francisco and the Peninsula became ground zero for almost every innovation in radio tube design and new companies began to cluster around Lenkurt Electric on Old County Road. 

Among the first was Charles Litton’s Litton Industries, Inc., today a division of Northrup Grumman. Russell and Sigurd Varian cobbled together $22,000 to open a shop to manufacture the klystron tube, which they had invented at Stanford University. They brought aboard David Packard, who with William Hewlett later founded Hewlett-Packard. Bill Eitel and Jack McCullough moved their eponymous EIMAC tube factory down from San Bruno. 

If later geniuses had not figured out how to eliminate the radio tube and etch its capabilities onto a silicon wafer, the Peninsula today would be called Electronic Valley and San Carlos would be celebrated as the cradle of its birth. 

Before they even received the $500,000 to build it, Lorenzen and the chamber of commerce decided that the new street would need a distinctive name, something that advertised the city’s character and attracted new business. It needed to be branded. It would have to be photographed. There would have to be a brochure. 

The San Carlos Chamber of Commerce Industrial Committee looked for guidance to the Rome, New York Chamber of Commerce Industrial Committee. After study and deliberation, the chamber made its choice: Industrial Road. 

If that sounds unimaginative, the actual process was less so. Immediately after World War II hundreds, if not thousands, of chambers of commerce across the country set up Industrial Committees. Business was booming. Everyone wanted a piece of it and “industrial” was the code word of the day. San Carlos’ road was not the only “industrial,” though, to be fair, it might have been the only one with a brochure. 

Like most branding efforts, it’s impossible to judge the Industrial Committee’s success because the campaign didn’t come with measurable goals. Like a message in a bottle, it was set afloat on the wave of post-war growth. 

There were many kinks to work out before road work ended in 1955. On the south end a new bridge had to be constructed over Cordilleras Creek at the Redwood City border. The two cities formed a committee to hammer out financing. Redwood City took advantage of naming rights on its side of the creek, which is why Industrial Road turns into Industrial Way in Redwood City. 

Old County Road and the East Side evolved along with the electronics industry, which meant it grew up and moved away. Lenkurt Electric made gear telephone companies used to pipe 17 conversations over one telephone line instead of one. General Telephone and Electronics, a big customer, bought the business and moved the operation. Over time, manufacturers — Varian, Litton and many others — outgrew the East Side’s small lot sizes and relocated to other tech hubs or out of state. 

The area remained zoned for heavy industry, but the days of heavy industry were over. 

Small business, however, sustained it. Building crafts and business-to-business construction material suppliers proliferated with offerings of everything from rebar to doorknobs, concrete to countertops. They found it a hospitable environment. The typical property was 5,000 square feet with room for an office, a counter and enough warehouse space to handle customer traffic. There wasn’t much parking but nobody came to shop. Most were get-and-go businesses. The saying was you could build a house with what you could find on Industrial Road, a truism that may apply still. 

Developers, primarily locals, assembled larger parcels here and there and upgraded buildings and land uses. The east end eased into the era of one-story manufacturing/warehouse complexes current occupants call “condos.” 

The most successful of the developers was San Carlan Don Tanklage. His signature building technique, the concrete tilt-up, is all over the area.  

If that was the second transition of Industrial Road, the third now is well under way, in a word, biotech. Big change in the form of really big life science buildings has begun. 

Tanklage is owed partial credit for this. Had he not assembled lots big enough for this and other developments currently being considered, and had they not been purchased by Windy Hill Properties, this section of the Industrial corridor would not have become developable. 

Last September a group of East Side property owners launched a website: rebrandindustrialroad.org, its object: rename the street to reflect its “changing commercial landscape,” a move emphatically away from the industrial brand. Though at this stage the discussion hasn’t settled on what direction a new brand ought to take, exactly — other than not “industrial” — it doesn’t seem to be toward biotech, though biotech is definitely the Goliath that will be taking over the East San Carlos Industrial Area. 

So far the Committee to Rebrand Industrial Road is taking a soft approach as it begins to sample the mood of businesses and property owners in the area from Harbor to Whipple, Old County Road to the Bayshore Freeway. 

Laura Teutschel, whose LT & Associates Strategic Communications is working for the committee and is guiding the campaign, said those behind the effort feel “there’s more than just industrial business happening down there, and that an evolution has begun and perhaps a different name might be more all-encompassing for everything that’s going on.” 

Though it’s impossible to miss what’s going on when it presents itself as a 556,000-square-foot, six-story biotech building, as Boston’s Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Inc. is constructing at 825 and 835 Industrial Road, that is not where the rebranding idea has its roots and it does not appear to be what the rebranding group means by “evolution.” 

Biotech has had a role to play, but that is not the direction in which this effort is going. It is going in the direction of showcasing an intriguing new mix of businesses that pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps and are beginning to flower. 

Industrious craftspeople, or crafty businesspeople, are behind those new uses. 

But first a word about biotech and life science companies that have anointed San Carlos the Next Big Thing and are the engine powering the repurposing of Industrial. 

Alexandria Real Estate is building what’s may become the 1.6-million-square-foot Alexandria District for Science & Technology, a campus spread across both sides of Industrial north and south of Holly Street. 

Biotech is not limiting itself to the north end of Industrial. MBC Biolabs has gone down the street to Brittan and around the corner to build a 30,000-square-foot life sciences incubator at 1030 Brittan and is looking for more acreage on which to grow. 

Still standing inside MBC’s building is the original tilt-up condo that occupied the spot. The roof came off and openings were cut in walls to make it an interior space. 

If a demonstration were required to show how biotech is swallowing up industrial uses in San Carlos, this might be it. 

Teutschel says 2 million square feet of biotech reportedly is in the offing. 

San Carlos Director of Community Development Al Savay says “Alexandria was sort of the catalyst for some of these other companies. They’re very successful, with properties in (San Francisco’s) Mission Bay and on the East Coast. They do Class A life science facilities. Other groups have seen it as a catalyst. If Alexandria is interested in doing it here, then it’s probably a good idea to take a serious look at San Carlos.” 

There are additional factors. Savay pointed out that the area’s heavy industrial zoning has always allowed for taller and bigger buildings than historically have been built. The existing buildings are old, some dating to before World War II, too tired to justify a remodel or upgrade.  

Then again, San Carlos itself could be considered a catalyst. 

“We’re in the heart of Silicon Valley,” Savay said, “25 miles from San Francisco and 25 miles from San Jose. We have access from 101 and from 280. There’s a commuter rail Caltrain stop in the community. We have a great downtown. We have a small airport. 

So the amenities of San Carlos are seen as an asset, and they have been for many years.  Based on our location and our assets we are a highly desirable community in Silicon Valley. We are sort of the perfect location in the Bay Area and have these natural features that companies tend to enjoy. We also have a great single-family residential neighborhood that CEOs feel comfortable raising their families in.” 

The tipping point, however, is not to be found in San Carlos. 

It is in South San Francisco. 

In the early 1980s Bob Swanson and Herb Boyer picked South City to build the first biotech company in the world, Genentech, because it was halfway between the big brains at the University of California at San Francisco, where Boyer was an academic, and Stanford University, where Stanley Cohen, his colleague in recombinant DNA research, did his work. 

In the time since, South City has nurtured construction of the largest biotech cluster in the world — interestingly enough on the east side of town. 

More than 225 biotech and life science businesses have built there, and that’s about all there ever will be. It’s built out, said South City Councilmember and immediate past Mayor Karyl Matsumoto. 

Biotech, however, hasn’t stopped growing. 

It may be true that as biotech companies cast about for new properties San Carlos may have appeal that other cities lack. It also has going for it the same meet-me-halfway feature that attracted Swanson and Boyer to South City. 

San Carlos is midway between the gravitational pull of San Francisco and Santa Clara, a fact the original developers of the Alexandria property promoted when they called their development Meridian 25, for the distance to the urban hubs in either direction. 

The fact simply may be that it’s the closest available suitable location to South San Francisco on the Peninsula, but that’s impossible to determine, suitability being in the eye of the beholder, or the developer, or the life science company. 

What’s clearly evident is that biotech had nothing to do with generating sentiment for rebranding Industrial Road. 

It was hospitality. 

Dominick “Dom” Chirichillo, owner of Domenico Winery at 1697 Industrial Road, is one of the founders of the Committee to Rebrand Industrial Road. 

Rebranding goes straight to his business practices. 

“We’ve developed a very robust business and I think we lose some business because of what our address is: ‘Domenico Winery, Industrial Road.’ You know what I’m saying? It’s not a warm and fuzzy address for a winery. We’re not on Vineyard Lane or Zinfandel Road. 

“It may be a little bit of selfishness on my part,” he said, “but I’ve made a big investment in my facility here and my community. We’re a very community-minded company. We contribute to major nonprofits in and around San Carlos. We’re very active that way.  We provide discounts to all nonprofits that have functions in our facility. So we’re very community-minded. We like to give back to the community.” 

Domenico Winery represents the first Industrial Road case of transition to hospitality. 

Chirichillo conceived his business model as a college entrepreneur in his native New Jersey, basing it on his experience making wine with his grandfather, after whom the winery is named. Friends liked his wine. He made more. At 20 barrels he became commercial and leased his equipment to other small winemakers in a kind of cooperative he called alternative proprietorship — winemakers shared the space and the equipment but bottled their own labels. It grew into a multi-location franchise operation. 

Moving west after the 911 tragedy, he and wife Gloria bought a Shiraz and Primitivo vineyard in Amador County and began making California wine. 

In 2003 he opened Domenico Winery, turning a former printing plant into a small-scale operation that, while selling wine through a wine club and restaurants, again featured alternative proprietorship. To maximize return on a space that just did nothing while the wine fermented, Domenico’s rented the barrel room for parties and functions, converting a big, cold room with racks of wine barrels into a cool event space. 

Then came people. Office buildings started to sprout up — Soft Bank is a couple blocks away and event planners liked the ambiance and the wine — and entertainment was introduced. 

Industrial Road had acquired a night life. 

Paul Rogerville came next in 2009. He was a contractor who wanted to bring some of his home winemaking gear into his Belmont office, but Belmont said no. 

He got in touch with Chirichillo to see if he could make wine in San Carlos, “and he said, ‘Yeah, they’re pretty cool here.'” 

“I went to the San Carlos Planning Department and said I have a 3,500-square-foot construction company here and I want to have wine. Would you give me that license? 

“They said yes.” 

So he moved to San Carlos. 

Evolution again: Rogerville doesn’t do contracting anymore. He is Cuvee Wine Cellars, an alternative proprietorship business model fashioned exactly after Dom’s.  It’s easy to spot Cuvee at 1001 Washington St.  It’s the one with the huge wall murals of folks enjoying wine. Just off the sidewalk is a 600-square-foot party patio, with grapevines. Beyond that is the event space. Beyond that, a winery. 

The two winemakers spun off other small winemakers to follow the model or encouraged new ones to open — Flying Suitcase, Russian Ridge, Old County Cellars, Santa Cruz Winery. There’s now a Peninsula Wine Trail in the heart of the East Side. 

Domenico recently underwent a big expansion with a new facade and the addition of a restaurant, the Osteria, with a full-service menu that features a pizza oven and Chirichillo’s specialty pizza menu. The progression has been linear, the product of the need to capitalize on time, space and talent on hand. Shrewd business sense doesn’t hurt. 

Rogerville is trending in that direction as well. “My building has evolved like Dominick’s. Not on that grand scale, but mine has,” he said. 

Across the street from Cuvee is the source of some of that evolutionary pressure Rogerville feels: Devil’s Canyon Brewing Co., an award-winning microbrewery that every Friday puts on a come-as-you-are, family-oriented, pay-for-entry party for hundreds of aficionados of hops, barley, live music and food. 

If Domenico Winery got the ball rolling, Devil’s Canyon is making the East Side a veritable must-see venue for food, music and fun. 

At 8,500 square feet, its bar and stage area is big, but then it spills out into a large paved area where during the Friday night events a half-dozen or so food trucks dish out everything from barbecue to tostadas to pho. The combined party space is over 22,000 square feet. 

Through large glass windows in the event space visitors can watch beers and ales being produced in stainless steel tanks. Little-known fact: Those tanks were discards from Genentech. Co-owners Chris and Kristiann Garrett rescued them from the trash. 

Also not commonly known: Devil’s Canyon occupies what once was Varian’s electronics plant. The fermentation room was a Tesla lab. The tall wooden tables: all rescued from public surplus or made of reused lumber harvested from residential teardowns. Other gear is Apple Computer hand-me-downs. 

“They call us up and say ‘All of this has to go. Do you want it?'” Kristiann said. “We say, ‘sure.’ Everything in here is reused or recycled.” 

The ethic extends throughout, from the furnishings to the lighting to the beer glasses themselves. Devil’s Canyon visitors bring their own mugs or buy one to take with. 

Even a few Devil’s Canyon customers get reused when they cross the street to Rogerville’s winery. 

“We sometimes have folks come over from Devil’s Canyon who prefer a glass of wine instead of beer and enjoy our little outdoor patio,” he said. 

If it’s beginning to sound like Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, it should. Ten years ago San Carlos planners revised the city’s guiding General Plan and decided that the “granularity” of the properties between Old County and Industrial from Varian Street to American should be preserved, which meant protecting the 5,000-square -foot lots from being combined into the large parcels office and commercial buildings require to be economically feasible. 

They designated it an Industrial Arts Business District for zoning purposes, intending to encourage exactly the kinds of businesses found in the famous Funk Zone: restaurants, brew pubs, wineries, galleries, designers and other interesting small businesses. 

The intention is not to create space for “arts” as in painting and sculpture, the fine arts; but “artisan,” those with special skills, craft beer brewing and small batch winemaking among them. 

The success of Domenico’s, Cuvee, Flying Suitcase, Devil’s Canyon and others has proved the wisdom of the decision, but in the larger sense this Industrial Arts Business District had been an artisan district long before its official designation and shows every sign that it will remain one for years to come. 

It is not true on the northern end where the big developments are coalescing, but here, on American, Washington, Bayport, Center and Varian, the streetscape is a riot of texture, a hodgepodge of building setbacks, brick facades next to very distressed wooden building fronts, glassed-in showrooms and chainlink-fenced parking lots occupied by everything from backhoes to 100-year-old hulks of automobiles. 

A dog barks behind a door in a building with not even a number to identify it, one of many anonymous structures that do not yield their secrets to the casual eye. 

Laundry hangs next to a dilapidated residence squashed between two industrial buildings. 

Repurpose, reuse and share is not a trendy slogan here, it’s a survival instinct. 

What’s Toole’s Garage and Hybrid Shop except a way to put a car back on the road? What’s an auto custom shop if not a business that makes something bound for the junkyard into a unique creation? 

Hy-Tech Plating is there to restore the chrome or refinish. Dan-Mar Tool and Supply will sell or make the tool needed to do the job. There are places with solutions for diverse problems: ExcelltechYoganiche, MOAH. 

Of course there are crafts: Ironstone Metal, Sterling Woodcraft, and, about as elemental as it gets, Sticks and Stones, which specializes in custom stone, particularly cultured marble. Every one a story. 

Gil Bergman owns SFO Representatives, Inc., a lighting business his father originated at SFO that survived the move in 1998 to a former screenprinting shop at 952 Center St. 

Across the street is a new neighbor, Tin Pot Creamery, a fast-growing specialty ice cream maker with a “scoop shops” in Palo Alto and Bay Meadows in San Mateo. 

Bergman’s business is reselling refurbished circuit breakers — huge ones, small ones — and transformers, which he buys when buildings are remodeled or removed or when old stock goes out for new. Oracle’s construction helped keep his business going for years. His product also is helping electrify many businesses in the Industrial Arts District. Domenico’s Osteria is running on his circuit breakers. 

The reverse is also true. Bergman has had beer at Devil’s Canyon. “We take care of each other around here,” he said. 

Clearly there is little on-street and very little off-street parking in the district, Devil’s Canyon having probably done the best job providing parking lot spaces. 

But parking so far is not a problem, Bergman said.”They do all their events in the evenings or the weekends,” he said. 

Refurbish and resell is his way and he thinks it’s the only way forward. “It just takes way too much and way too long to manufacture new stuff.” 

A few doors down Center Street is Placemakers, Inc., the perfection of the cycle of reuse, from demolition and deconstruction to restoration. Owner James Dawes runs a regular contracting business and a demolition crew that salvages material, or he will rescue special items for reuse and resale. He also buys and sells “architectural assets.” Not much good stuff gets away. 

Placemakers‘ location is a World War II-era steel Quonset hut Dawes thinks was used to repair airplanes, quite likely an accurate observation. In the 20s just about every city on the Peninsula had a dirt strip it called an “aeroport;” San Carlos’ occupied all the area between Terminal Way and American Street on the East Side. 

The original industry was aviation, so it may be more correct to say today is the East Side’s third incarnation. 

Right up until city fathers decided to build Industrial Road, the dirt airstrip was in use, with one end at Brittan across the street from MBC Biolabs and the other at Washington Street about a block away from Placemakers. It’s even possible his building was an airplane hangar. 

When he says “they’re all over the place here,” waving his hand in an arc, more Quonsets suddenly become visible. 

His business has been forced to move several times, ejected the last time from Diller Street in Redwood City by new high-rise residential. Of his choice of San Carlos, he says “logistics are a big part.” 

“The setup costs for something like this are significant, and in an area where the changes are happening rapidly, in terms of use and branding, the number of landlords that would give me a long enough lease at a favorable enough rate to invest this kind of money in improvements is very limited. 

“I was very fortunate to end up where I did.” 

He purchased the 10,000-square-foot property in 2013 and recently acquired a 5,000-square-foot lot down the street. “I’m somewhat secure,” he said. “More secure than I would have been otherwise.” 

His is a risky business because the only thing that distinguishes a valuable asset from garbage is time, not age. If it doesn’t sell in a reasonable time, well, maybe it’s garbage. He not only has to know what stock can sell, he must know how long every piece has been in inventory. 

“This is a sustainable business,” Dawes said. “A core principle of sustainability is profitability. If I can’t make a profit, I can’t sustain it.” 

Businesses in the area are keeping a finger on the pulse of what’s going on — and expressing themselves if they don’t agree with it — through a group they formed called the Industrial Area Business Association, or “Yabba” as it’s pronounced. 

Placemakers is a member, as are the Garretts at Devil’s Canyon and Rogerville at Cuvee, who are prime movers in the group. Tin Pot Creamery is aboard, along with Carrington Hill Designs, DoBell Construction, Papachay coffee, Intermountain Electric and others. Dave Toole is a founder. 

They are not affiliated with the Committee to Rebrand Industrial Road, though everyone knows everyone and sometimes interests coincide. 

Everyone seems to be supportive of the stance the city is taking — preservationist thus far — but all of them have been in business long enough, have had to scuffle, shift and shuffle often enough, they may be up to the challenge of another change. 

Still, it’s a time of uncertainty and of transition. 

“The sad thing,” Dawes said, “I understand all that, and I might benefit from that in direct and indirect ways, but the bottom line is people need to get their lawn mowers fixed or a place to pick up nuts and bolts that’s not 25 miles away and isn’t delivered by drone. 

“There’s a place for all this stuff and it’s just getting more financially stressful for the small operators. Every year the industrial areas are getting eaten up and nibbled up. That’s why I put my money in this. They’re never going to entitle a single square foot of light industrial space, ever again, on the Peninsula. It’s just getting less every year. With housing, office, it’s just disappearing.” 

The neighbors have seen developers, some very big names, sniffing around the neighborhood, kicking tires. But nothing has happened. Apparently the city’s current approach is working. 

It appears those beautiful 1948 Quonset huts will be around a little longer. 

This story was originally published in the February print edition of Climate Magazine.