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Redwood City approves further downtown renovation, including housing, retail and office space

By Daniel Bohm | 27 Feb 2011

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The shadow blocking the next step in the makeover of Redwood City’s downtown area is beginning to lift — literally.

Last month, the Redwood City Council unanimously approved the environmental impact report for what it calls the Downtown Precise Plan, and the plan itself. The plan allows for the private development of up to 2,500 new residential units, 221,000 square feet of retail space — which is about half the size of San Jose’s eight-story Dr. Martin Luther King Library—275,000 square feet of office space and 200 new hotel rooms in the three-block radius surrounding the county courthouse in what city officials are calling the second wave of downtown renovation. The city originally proposed the plan in 2004, but it hit a few speed bumps — including one involving shadow impact — on its way to approval.

This is a birds-eye view of what downtown Redwood City could look like. (Picture courtesy of Redwood City Planning)

Since the beginning of the new millennium, Redwood City has tried to overhaul its downtown area and kick-start investment, most notably by building a 20-screen movie theater, a parking garage and some retail shops. It also holds free outdoor concerts and other events on nice evenings. The city financed those changes. The plan approved last week sets guidelines for private development, however — so what and how much actually gets built is up to the private developers.

The plan doesn’t call for the city to spend anything because any developments will be privately funded. However, some residents are concerned with the motives of private developers.

“As long as they don’t destroy what’s already here, then I’m okay with it,” said Barbara Lieberoff, a long-time San Mateo resident who often comes to Redwood City because of the movie theater. “You never know what you’re going to get when you get developers’ money involved.”

Despite the cinema project, downtown Redwood City has a growing number of empty storefronts, and some local business owners describe it as “Deadwood City”—a problem that some local residents blame on the lack of downtown housing.

“Redwood City has done a hell of a job overhauling its downtown,” said Mo Lieberoff, Barbara’s husband. “If they had downtown living it would make for a neat living experience. If more people were living here it would really bloom.”

Given the state of the economy, however, it may take some time before housing begins popping up downtown. Still, Mayor Jeff Ira called last month’s meeting a day of “hope,” because he and other city officials believe the new plan will bring the city’s downtown alive by creating public open spaces and a walk-able community.

“The Precise Plan guides new development and the form it will take,” said Dan Zack, the city’s downtown development coordinator and primary author of the plan. “We want to make sure new buildings are oriented to pedestrian sidewalks pulsing with life—to put people in the shops, put people in the restaurants and put people in the pubs.”

This sketch shows what Broadway in downtown Redwood City could look like after redevelopment. (Picture courtesy of Redwood City Planning)

The plan provides rules and a framework for would-be developers. It calls for the creation of an employment district filled with outdoor gathering places such as plazas and courtyards so that downtown can become what the plan calls a “livable urban neighborhood.”

This was the second time the council approved the plan and its environmental impact report. The first came in 2007, but a lawsuit brought by a local business man, Joe Carcione, forced the city to redo the environmental report to further study how and when taller buildings will shadow smaller ones and to also ensure the preservation of the city’s historical buildings.

The new report approved last month tries to address Carcione’s concerns. Zack said no new structure can put another building in more than 50 percent shadow at 12 p.m. on the Spring Equinox and that the city designated 41 buildings, mostly around Broadway and Main Streets, as historic. These are buildings, Zack said, that are unique in design or may not exist elsewhere in Redwood City. The goal, he said, is to protect those buildings, though there is no way to fully ensure that they are never demolished.

“We put into place every mechanism possible to keep those buildings around,” Zack said. “But we can’t prevent private owners from doing what they want with their buildings.”

Once the plan takes effect, which should be on March 7, the city must wait to see if the judge approves its new environmental report, and there is no exact timetable for the ruling. The city must also hope that no one files a new lawsuit. Zack and the city’s principal planner Tom Passanisi believe, however, that the new plan goes above and beyond what was asked in court.

At last month’s meeting Gregory Ryken, who represents Carcione, seemed satisfied with the alterations made to the plan and simply asked the city to notify residents if any development called for the destruction of a historical building — a request that city planning director Jill Ekas said would be granted and written into the plan.

Local residents hope the retail and office space will reinvigorate downtown. Some believe though that housing is what downtown lacks most, and that the addition of residential units is the key part of the plan.

“There’s not very much living downtown,” said Mary Askins while walking her dog by the Century Cinema. “People can’t really walk from home downtown to the restaurants or to see a movie.”

Askins, who has lived in Redwood City for eight years, added that the Cal Train tracks create a barrier that blocks residential Redwood City from downtown Redwood City.

Zack agrees that housing is an important part of the plan—because it brings in a consumer base—but he believes that because of the state of the economy and specifically the housing market, offices will likely spring up downtown first, with housing coming in a second wave a few years later.

City officials expect a lot of interest in downtown from developers. Six development applications were submitted in the 16 months between the plan’s initial approval in 2007 and the court’s ruling in 2008 that the environmental report had to be redone. Those projects would have brought in 400 new residential units. Although no development plans have been submitted since last week’s approval, some of the same developers — and new ones — are interested, Zack said.

Local business owners provided a parade of support for the plan and excitement about development at last month’s meeting. Citizens walking the streets of Redwood City also seemed to agree that more could be done downtown.

“I really like downtown Redwood City now,” Askins said. “The gentrification of the city has been fantastic and I’m looking forward to continued development.”

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