By Aaron Kinney
SAN MATEO -- City officials are getting their first look at a proposed development that would dramatically reshape the southwestern corner of downtown San Mateo.
Essex Property Trust, a real estate behemoth that owns more than 100 rental properties in California, has proposed building an eight-story apartment complex along a key retail corridor next to Central Park. The Planning Commission will discuss the plan Tuesday at a study session.
The 117-unit building would be the biggest project in the downtown core in a decade. To win the city's approval, Essex will need to allay potential concerns regarding parking and traffic and get special permission to exceed San Mateo's normal height limit of 55 feet.
Essex owns a few dozen Bay Area apartment complexes, with six or more apiece in San Francisco, San Jose and Sunnyvale. It currently operates only one San Mateo property, Hillsdale Garden Apartments, which became the source of a controversy in 2007 when Essex began jacking up the rents after buying the complex for $97.3 million.
The Essex at Central Park would be erected on a 95-space parking lot between Fifth Avenue and a row of stores that face Fourth Avenue. A still-unspecified percentage of the units, ranging from live-work lofts to two-bedroom apartments, would be set aside for affordable housing. The prices of the rest would be based on market conditions, though Essex estimates they would run between $2,000 and $3,000 a month.
Downtown parking is already scarce, so Essex plans to make up for the lost lot by providing 95 parking spaces below ground. The first few floors of the building would include another 165 spaces, mostly for residents. The ground floor would feature roughly 3,000 square feet of retail space.
The key hurdle for Essex will be height. The proposed building must provide a public benefit in order to exceed 55 feet. The company has offered to maintain and improve an existing walkway between Fourth and Fifth avenues, said City Councilman Jack Matthews.
But that likely won't be enough.
"It's going to be a fairly high bar," said Matthews, an architect. "So far I haven't seen or heard any proposals that meet the threshold."
Public opinion appears to be mixed. Several people who work or live nearby expressed support for the project in interviews, while others were skeptical. Jaime Anderson, an employee of Equinox fitness club on Fourth Avenue, said construction, estimated to last about 20 months, would be a hassle.
"But it will bring a lot of business when it's done," Anderson said.
Kathy Battat, who exercises at Equinox, said an eight-story building would eat up a lot of light.
"You're definitely going to change the feeling in this area," the Hillsborough resident said.
The feeling about Hillsdale Garden is almost uniformly negative on social media sites, where users say Essex continues to increase rents. These commenters make various other claims, from indifferent staff to shabby maintenance.
Interviews on Wednesday with several current Hillsdale Garden tenants, however, yielded no serious complaints.
"I like it very much here," said Steve Emigh, 73, who pays about $2,200 for a two-bedroom apartment. "It's a very quiet, peaceful complex."
Essex spokeswoman Rachael Stoddard did not respond to calls seeking comment.
The last major development in downtown San Mateo was the Century 12 cinema, which opened in 2003 and revitalized B Street, the city's main thoroughfare. These days most of the downtown is thriving, which has led to traffic congestion and a lack of parking.
Presuming the Essex at Central Park makes its way to a council hearing, Mayor Robert Ross said both those issues will be top concerns.
"We're watching this project extremely closely," he said.
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.
What: San Mateo Planning Commission study session
Where: City Hall, 330 W. 20th Ave.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday