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Housing and shopping complex to rise in east San Carlos; height worries neighbors

By Paul Jones | 28 Mar 2011

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Railway tracks run over a berm through San Carlos, walling off the residential homes east of El Camino Real from the city’s downtown and elevating noisy commuter trains. Now east San Carlos residents fear a bad situation may be made worse by a new development — the San Carlos Transit Village.

The part-housing, part-retail project would be built on the west side of the tracks, rising above the berm to cut off some residents’ views while potentially amplifying the sound of passing trains.

A depiction of the San Carlos Transit Village as it would appear from El Camino Real. (Image courtesy of Legacy Partners)

“We’re talking about eight buildings, right next to each other, essentially creating a giant sound wall,” said Dimitri Vandellos, a representative with the Greater East San Carlos Neighborhood Association. “And on top of that, it’s going to obliterate the sunlight in the afternoon.”

The project would place 281 apartment units and some restaurants and shops on a roughly 7-acre stretch of land west of the tracks running through the city’s downtown. In addition to undeveloped parcels, there is currently a train station and commuter parking lot on the site. The parking would be moved farther south, and much of the current lot would become a plaza. To the north would be the project’s largest buildings – roughly 50-foot apartment complexes. They are the source of east San Carlos residents’ complaints about obstructed views and amplified train noise.

The land was formerly occupied by small businesses, but the San Mateo County Transit District, SamTrans, cleared it out in the late ‘90s during construction of tracks over the berm. After that project was finished around 2000, SamTrans and the city of San Carlos developed a plan to put housing and retail on the property. A representative for SamTrans, Brian Fitzpatrick, said SamTrans and the city then chose Legacy Partners Residential to design and build the project. Legacy would own the buildings and lease the land from SamTrans.

Jeffrey Byrd, senior managing director with Legacy, argued that the project will provide much-needed living space for younger residents who can’t afford to buy a house. He said the project will improve the existing stretch of largely barren land west of the tracks, adding shopping and dining destinations, as well as trees and landscaping.

“There’s going to be a lot of practical cues that you’re in downtown San Carlos, rather than just blowing by like you can in many communities,” Byrd said.

San Carlos Community Development Director Al Savay said the project fits with the currently in-vogue vision of more centrally located development, in which transportation, housing and businesses are grouped together.

“Contemporary thinking on the growth and development of cities has focused more on getting the development where people don’t have to drive their cars,” Savay said. Instead, developments are built “close to businesses and jobs so you don’t have a bunch of traffic.”

However, the multi-story housing praised by proponents of more centralized communities is one of east-side neighbors’ main complaints. Neighbors say the project will obscure views over the berm in many areas, especially those to the north, near Holly Street.

Byrd said Legacy had worked to address east San Carlos residents’ concerns about their views by altering the project.

“It’s been broken down into chunks,” he said. “This was initially contemplated to be all four stories, and we’ve taken portions and dropped it to two stories in some places and three stories in others. We’ve created a tremendous amount of movement and openness.”

Vandellos with the neighborhood association said the changes don’t solve the sound or visibility issues. And he said other problems need solutions as well. Neighbors also worry that the relocation of the transit parking lot will encourage train riders to park on the east side, clogging residents’ streets with cars. Another fear is that if the high-speed rail project ever begins construction through San Carlos, the Transit Village occupying the western half of the tracks could force construction activity to spill over into the east side, disrupting the community.

“If the project went through as planned, there would be no staging area on the other side of El Camino,” Vandellos said. “All that staging area would be forced over here.”

Neighbors convinced project will alter neighborhood

Neighbors are skeptical that their concerns will be adequately addressed. The project’s environmental impact report, submitted in late 2009, said the project would have no significant impact on the neighborhood, a claim flatly rejected by Ben Fuller, a representative of the neighborhood association.

“It literally argued away any shade impact; it argued away any property value impact. It thought that our view of the San Carlos Hills was a ‘secondary’ view and a negligible impact,” Fuller said.

Vandellos said the neighborhood association submitted over 80 pages of feedback in response to the EIR.

“They ignored views, they ignored sound,” he said. “It was riddled with defects.”

Savay, the community development director, said a consultant prepared the draft EIR, and that it isn’t a finished document. He said the draft was made available for review so that neighbors can voice concerns over such issues as noise, traffic, parking and views. Those concerns have to be reviewed before a final EIR is approved.

The idea “is that you put out a draft report and then you get comments from the community,” Savay added.

But Fuller said that in addition to residents’ anger over the EIR, the east side’s experience with the city in the past left a lot to be desired.

“The entire history of San Carlos makes me skeptical,” he said. “They have always seen this neighborhood as the working-class neighborhood, something that you can forget.”

Vandellos said that during the berm’s construction, relocated telephone poles ended up crowding sidewalks on Old County Road and – allegedly contrary to the city’s claims — the elevated trains became louder. Another instance several years back involved a sudden effort to rezone part of the neighborhood for apartment construction, an idea that was scrapped after angry residents showed up to a city council meeting in force.

Fuller said the neighborhood doesn’t completely oppose the development, and that leaders want to work with the developer and city to address their enumerated concerns. But he said Legacy hadn’t been responsive to neighbors’ requests. For example, he said Legacy refused to consider an alternative design that was proposed by San Carlos resident and Sierra Club member David Crabbe, which could have reduced the project’s height.

“We would like them to consider alternatives to a 55-foot building across the street from a 12-foot house,” Fuller said. He said that Legacy “told us no matter what we do, it’s going to be that height, and we should just get used to it and that it will be great for the community.”

Byrd said Legacy hadn’t used neighbors’ proposals because they were not feasible.

Legacy Partners and SamTrans to See Financial Benefits

Neighbors’ complaints aren’t limited to Legacy Partners, however. Fuller argued that the city and SamTrans stood to benefit from the project as well, and were acting without due consideration to the well-being of east San Carlos.

SamTrans is “trying to sell off their land to the highest bidder,” Fuller said. “And the city of San Carlos, they benefit because they basically sell off our neighborhood in exchange for getting El Camino a face-lift.”

SamTrans does stand to benefit financially from the development, which would be leased to Legacy if the project is approved and built, according to Brian Fitzpatrick, the SamTrans representative. He said SamTrans would use the money to help fund its operations as a transportation agency.

San Carlos City Manager Jeff Maltbie denied the city had any special motive related to the project, although he acknowledged it would be an improvement to the east side of El Camino Real through the downtown.

“There’s really not any incentives for the city,” Maltbie said. “SamTrans, the property owners, they have land-use rights. We have an obligation to review their development application.”

But San Carlos could benefit financially from the Transit Village project. The city council voted on Jan. 24 to apply for grant funding for transit-oriented development from the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo, which city documents say the city would be able to receive “if the proposed San Carlos Transit Village and Wheeler Plaza redevelopment project are approved and under construction within two years.”

And according to Fitzpatrick, the city, in addition to working with SamTrans in determining the final vision for how the land is to be used, had a role in picking the final project. SamTrans put out a request for bids to build a mixed-use development on the land, and Legacy –which proposed one of the smaller projects for the site- was selected as the developer by the transportation agency and San Carlos together.

“San Carlos staff, as well as SamTrans staff, participated in that developer selection process,” Fitzpatrick said.

Maltbie argued that the project was consistent with the city’s vision, but that San Carlos’ role was only to evaluate the project and decide whether or not to approve it. He said the review process would be robust, and allow for neighbors’ concerns to be addressed.

“We go through that process so the city and development are legally defensible when they’re approved,” he said.

For the time being, Fuller said the community would do what it could to ensure its interests were protected.

“We’re keeping our options open –we’ve been in contact with different legal representation,” he said. “But the reality is we’re just a bunch of small homeowners, in one of the less affluent areas of town, and the power of development to just run roughshod over us is something that we may not be able to beat.”

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