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City relaxes downtown retail rules
October 03, 2012, 05:00 AM By Bill Silverfarb Daily Journal staff

Property owners in downtown San Mateo will have greater flexibility in what uses are allowed on ground floors as the City Council unanimously voted to relax its retail requirements and allow for some office uses in spaces that have deeper depths.

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

The council, however, moved against that recommendation Monday night and sided with city staff as property owners will be able to seek a special-use permit to set the depth at 40 feet on a case-by-case basis, Deputy Mayor David Lim wrote the Daily Journal in an email.

"We also kept in the review in three years, clarified that applicants have a right to appeal the Planning Commission finding to the City Council and cleaned up some of the language in the ordinance,” Lim wrote.

The amendment to the city’s ground-floor retail requirements ordinance also dictates what percentage of a storefront can be devoted to retail uses 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 city has recognized the changing needs of retail and the shift to e-commerce, Councilman Jack Matthews said about changing the retail requirements.

The change should encourage startups and other businesses to locate downtown, Matthews said.

"We need to periodically review our zoning requirements in our downtown area to be sure we are creating the ingredients for a lively and commercially viable area that adds to the quality of life for all of our citizens,” Matthews wrote the Daily Journal in an email.

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.

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

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.

The council’s response was influenced in part by the Downtown San Mateo Association, San Mateo Area Chamber of Commerce and local real estate brokers who urged for greater flexibility downtown, Councilman Robert Ross said.

The ordinance will need a second reading within 30 days before the council can formally adopt it.

Commercial Realtor Clarke Funkhouser supports the changes after previously telling the Planning Commission that a property at 18-20 Third Ave. has been vacant for nearly 15 years. Relaxing the retail requirements could help fill the space, he told the commission at its last meeting.

Yesterday, he told the Daily Journal that relaxing the rules will be good for downtown overall but that it is "not a perfect fix for everyone.”

The council’s actions, Funkhouser said, will benefit larger buildings more than smaller ones.

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

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