SAN MATEO -- Tim Draper's ambitious vision for a cutting-edge entrepreneurial school in the heart of downtown San Mateo is on the verge of becoming reality.
The Menlo Park venture capitalist who helped launch Baidu and Skype has passed a critical threshold, having received a mostly glowing recommendation this month from the Planning Commission, and now faces a decisive City Council meeting on Feb. 4.
The project has expanded significantly since Draper, a youthful 54, first proposed the idea after buying the rundown Benjamin Franklin Hotel more or less on a whim in 2011. Draper now envisions not just a school but a campus occupying three buildings, for which he paid a total of $15.15 million.
For the city, Draper University of Heroes promises to revitalize a key block on Third Avenue, bringing new business to local shops and restaurants. There's also the tantalizing prospect, conjured by Draper and his team, of establishing a regional and even global reputation for San Mateo as a home for innovation.
"We believe that Draper University is going to be a catalyst for economic development and growth," said Carol Lo, the school's chief operating officer. "Not just in San Mateo, but in the broader region."
Surbhi Sarna, who runs a medical device startup and participated in Draper University's 2012 pilot program, pitched the Planning Commission on Jan.
Provided it receives the City Council's blessing, the school plans to officially open its doors in April. The incoming class includes students from as far away as Venezuela. An Egyptian in the class is receiving free tuition in exchange for writing an Arabic-language book about his experience at the school.
The hub of the campus will be the Ben Franklin Hotel, where up to 180 students at a time will live and work during four eight-week sessions a year. The nine-story landmark had been vacant for about 15 years, except for the ground-floor restaurant Astaria, until Draper University moved in.
Across the street the school will transform a Tudor-style building, which formerly housed an antiques store, into the Collective Entrepreneurs Club. It will feature work and conference space, a lounge, pop-up retail displays and a room for both school and public events. An old bank building on Fourth Avenue near the Ben Franklin Hotel building will be used for administrative space and a school store.
The club will benefit not just the quarterly students but participants in an advanced entrepreneurial
Though Draper University has generally been met with a favorable response, local merchants and residents have expressed concern about parking and the project's deviation from the city's ground-floor retail requirements. The school has agreed to various measures to cut down on the parking load, from banning students from bringing cars to installing bicycle racks, but homeowners in the nearby Baywood neighborhood remain skeptical that they'll work.
So far, however, the city appears to see more reward than risk in permitting the school.
"We have an ambition and the stated goal to be the premier city on Peninsula," said Chris Massey, a member of the Planning Commission, at a Jan. 7 meeting. "Seizing an opportunity like Draper University is one of the things that we need to do to capture and retain that kind of premier position."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.