Critics of a sweeping mixed-use development proposal killed at the last second in San Bruno claim they would have supported construction if the project did not include a grocery store.
Earlier this month, the San Bruno City Council voted 2-1 to deny the Mills Park development proposal which included 425 residential units and a market at the corner of San Bruno Avenue and El Camino Real. Since two councilmembers were recused from the decision, unanimous support was required for approval.
Following the unique and controversial decision, the state Department of Housing and Community Development suggested in a letter to San Bruno officials that it may have violated housing laws in the denial, while questioning the city’s ability to reject an expansive residential development amidst a raging affordability crisis.
For their part, critics maintained they recognize the need for additional housing and support residential development but could not back the plans, primarily for fear of worsening existing traffic issues in an area abutting a neighborhood.
Councilman Marty Medina, who cast the sole dissenting vote to kill the project, laid bare a sentiment largely shared by other project critics.
“There’s a housing crisis in San Bruno and across the state,” he said. “There’s no grocery store crisis that I am aware of.”
A couple weeks after the critical decision, Medina said he believes he would have supported a wholly residential proposal, but feared the 42,000 square feet of market space would have too greatly diminished neighbors’ quality of life.
Neighbor Russell Stines, who criticized the project, shared a similar perspective.
“If they would have maybe let the grocery store go and added apartments down below and took some of them off the top and come up with 425 units in a four-story look, I think the residents would have been more apt to work with the developer on it and it would not have seen the opposition,” he said.
Stines also expressed concerns the project was too tall for its location adjacent to a neighborhood comprised mostly of single-family homes.
For his part, San Bruno resident Stephen Seymore said he felt an agreement could have been reached had the development been more sensitive to the concerns raised by neighborhood residents.
“I want to see something built there but, on this particular property, I don’t think the developer worked through the residential concerns and I think they were valid,” he said.
‘We followed all the rules’
Signature Development initially proposed one five-story building with 182 units over the store and another five-story building with 243 units and 4,000 square feet of commercial space. Of the units, 64 would have been set aside at an affordable rate and the project would have featured 879 parking spaces to accommodate residents as well as shoppers.
The project worked through years of planning and had been thoroughly vetted by officials who agreed it complied with all requisite development policies, including a voter initiative allowing building heights to be raised in the surrounding area.
“We proposed a project that met all the general plan goals and the zoning goals as set forth by the city and the citizens and we followed all the rules. And it still got denied,” said Signature Development President Mike Ghielmetti.
He also discounted the grocery store objections, noting such an issue was not raised during the variety of community discussions and public hearings on the proposal in advance of the final vote.
“We didn’t hear one comment that said get rid of the grocery store,” said Ghielmetti, who added many other project advocates favored the market.
In the immediate aftermath of the decision, Ghielmetti said that the project is dead. However, he more recently amended that position by noting the company is further evaluating its options, including analyzing issues the city may have missed in allowing the denial.
“Everything is on the table,” said Ghielmetti, who did not rule out the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the city. He balanced that perspective by noting such a move is not a preferred outcome.
City Manager Jovan Grogan said a tentative agreement has been reached with the developer to postpone legal action with hopes of identifying a more agreeable resolution.
Beyond the threat of litigation, Grogan noted officials are facing additional scrutiny from the state Department of Housing and Community Development to outline a path for meeting its residential development goals.
San Bruno is expected through its Regional Housing Needs Allocation, or RHNA, to approve construction of 1,155 new units by 2023 — a difficult challenge made even harder to accomplish by denying 425 proposed units.
A letter dated July 30 from the state Department of Housing and Community Development suggested by holding up the decision, San Bruno may risk violating terms of the state Housing Accountability Act and Housing Element law.
While no specific penalties facing the city are identified in the letter, San Bruno officials are encouraged to further examine the Mills Park proposal under an obligation to comply with housing law.
Further compounding the challenge facing officials is the interest of YouTube to expand its corporate campus with an almost 2.5 million square feet of additional office space. And while the specific plan for the surrounding area under includes the potential to build housing, Grogan noted the chance for the expansion to further worsen the existing imbalance of jobs and residential units.
Beyond the chance of violating housing laws, Grogan suggested the denial could bring San Bruno into focus of lawmakers who claim such decisions further the need for state intervention on housing issues.
“There are significant and real pressures if communities don’t embrace and accept additional housing,” he said. “It will be forced upon us through state legislation.”
‘I hope they work it out’
Sidestepping questions over whether an amended proposal would have received the requisite support to pass, Grogan said he believes larger factors are fueling the community’s resistance to the development.
“Communities are approving housing that is market rate and, at current market rates in a working-class community like San Bruno, a lot of our existing residents cannot afford that. So you are expecting a community to accept bringing in other sorts of housing and change is a very difficult thing for communities to grapple with,” he said.
To that end, Stines noted though the Mills Park proposal included below-market rate units, he doubted many longtime San Bruno residents would be able to pay the rents charged.
“I have two kids at home and they can’t afford to live in those apartments,” he said.
Yet despite the opposition, Stines said he is hopeful Ghielmetti reconsiders earlier claims that the proposal is dead and invited further discussions around an amended design.
“I hope the developer comes back and I hope they work it out,” he said.
Seymore meanwhile said he believes a continuance should have been issued at the council meeting, postponing a decision and granting the two sides more time to hash out their differences.
“I don’t think they were that far from coming up with a development that would have passed,” he said, noting the fateful vote arrived in the early hours of the following morning following several hours of deliberation and public testimony.
But Ghielmetti said the countless amount of planning time leading to the vote gave him little confidence further discussion would have adequately ameliorated the concerns held by critics, or Medina.
“We weren’t optimistic those conversations would have gone anywhere,” said Ghielmetti.
For his part though, Medina said he is open to further conversation with an eye on identifying a project that suits both the developer’s needs and the community’s desires.
“I remain hopeful that we could reach a compromise,” said Medina. “There’s many, many benefits to the project, yet there are many impacts, and somewhere in between is the right solution.”
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