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Downtown San Mateo retail rules may change
September 28, 2012, 05:00 AM By Bill Silverfarb Daily Journal staff

Office uses on ground floors in downtown San Mateo may be allowed if the City Council follows the lead of the Planning Commission Monday night.

In August, the Planning Commission approved a resolution the council will next consider that will essentially lift a moratorium on office uses on ground floors downtown.

To maintain a retail frontage in its downtown core, the commission approved the resolution that recommends that the City Council allow for alternative uses, such as office space, in the rear of retail buildings which are no longer viable for retail use.

City staff had recommended mandating retail use for storefronts up to 60-feet deep but the Planning Commission decided that a 40-foot retail depth would be enough to maintain the retail character of downtown.

Councilman Jack Matthews is not sure a depth of 40 feet will be enough for a retail establishment to operate but told the Daily Journal Thursday that the city needs to reconsider its current zoning requirements.

The resolution the commission passed, on a 4-0 vote, also dictates what percentage of a storefront can be devoted to retail and other uses. Smaller storefronts would be allowed to have up to 25 percent committed to office use while larger storefronts would be allowed to have up to 33 percent committed to office uses.

The Required Retail Frontage requirements were first established in 1986 that allowed for a small percentage of the ground floor to be devoted to any type of office use.

During the dot-com boom in 2000, however, the City Council adopted an urgency ordinance prohibiting the establishment of any new ground floor offices downtown.

Earlier this year, downtown property owner Steve Musich requested a conditional-use permit to allow startup SnapLogic to occupy some ground-floor space at the Collective Antiques building on Third Avenue.

But the Planning Commission denied the request as did the City Council on an appeal. Musich said that move would likely send SnapLogic looking elsewhere to expand.

Musich has since sold the Collective Antiques building to venture capitalist Tim Draper, who started a university for entrepreneurs across the street at the old Benjamin Franklin Hotel.

Deputy Mayor David Lim was ready to grant Musich a variance to allow SnapLogic to occupy some ground-floor space in the building but the council ultimately voted down the appeal.

Many retailers do not need deep lots, Lim said, who is ready to relax the zoning rules downtown.

The climate for retail has changed over the years, he said, as business owners no longer store their products on site but use next-day shipping instead to stock their goods.

The fear that retail would be replaced by office uses downtown was a real one when the moratorium went into effect, he said.

Matthews, however, said that concern has passed.

Maxine Turner, a former San Mateo planning commissioner, urged the council not to grant Musich a variance. The consequence, she said, is that other property owners would then come in individually with requests for the city to relax its rules.

Turner appreciates a blanket approach to the retail requirements that all must follow.

The time is now, she said, to give property owners downtown some flexibility.

"It seems like a sensible solution,” Turner said.

She is "a little dismayed,” however, with the Planning Commission deciding to allow office uses beyond 40-feet of retail uses rather than the 60-foot depth city staff had recommended.

The City Council meets 7 p.m., Monday, Oct. 1, City Hall, 330 W. 20th Ave., San Mateo.

Bill Silverfarb can be reached by email: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.

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