Achieving Balance

Balancing Transit Oriented Growth with Community Livability
The case for renewing San Mateo’s height, density and affordable housing protections

Prepared by San Mateans for Responsive Government
July, 2018

San Mateo’s Height, Density and Affordable Housing Protections
Balancing Transit Oriented Growth with Community Livability

In the eight year period between 2010 and 2017, the Silicon Valley tech industry exploded, flooding San
Mateo County with 80,000 new jobs  (1). The torrent of job growth drove rents 1 through the roof and home
prices to astronomical levels. Left in its wake are displaced families, unrelenting traffic, and a housing
affordability crisis of insurmountable magnitude.

The City of San Mateo’s voter-adopted height, density, and affordable housing protections, known as
Measure P, and codified in the general plan, did not create the housing affordability crisis, despite
assertions to the contrary. Nor will the elimination of these protections solve it. The crisis is much larger
than one community and rooted in the heart of an unregulated ‘free market' system. Measure P is just one
tool, used by one community, to help modulate and manage economic growth. For twenty-five years
Measure P has helped San Mateo grow at a sustainable pace. Measure P has stood the test of time.
Created in 1991, Measure H was San Mateo’s original voter adopted height, density and affordable
housing initiative. It was crafted by local grassroots environmentalists, open space activists, affordable
housing advocates, historic preservationists, sustainable growth enthusiasts and small business owners. It
was designed as a responsible alternative to the threat of unrestrained development running roughshod
over the community.

Measure H established land use guidelines that promoted intensification of development near transit, yet
discouraged wholesale redevelopment of irreplaceable architectural and cultural resources. It mandated a
minimum of 10% affordable below market rate (BMR) housing in every new development of more than
10 residential units, while giving the city council the flexibility to increase that percentage at any time.
Beyond that, it allowed substantial office, commercial and residential development into the 21st century
while maintaining the community character and quality of life that continues to draw people to this
wonderful city. In 2004, as it was due to expire, Measure H was renewed by voters as Measure P. It has
proven to be far sighted, environmentally responsible and beneficial for the City of San Mateo.

(1) Industry Employment Data, Annual Averages for San Mateo County, Civilian Employment. 2010-2017. State of California
Economic Development Department.


Measure P and its renewal do three things:

First, it addresses the critical importance of providing housing that is affordable to a diverse range of
incomes. A bold and almost unprecedented move in 1991, Measure H established one of the few
affordable inclusionary housing programs in the Bay Area. Since that time, it has resulted in more than
half of the Below Market Rate housing produced in the city of San Mateo (2).

Second, Measure P includes height protections in the 2030 General Plan that enable significant increases
in office and residential development, especially near transit, but still retain the walkable, pedestrian
friendly scale of our community. Areas surrounding San Mateo’s three train stations are designated “high
density” in the current general plan to support transit-oriented development (TOD). These areas allow
building heights up to 55’ and densities of 68 units per acre (including the state density bonus). Millions
of square feet of office space and thousands of housing units have been built within the smarter growth
envelope of these measures.

Third, with the understanding that the historic center of downtown is a valuable community resource
worth preserving for future generations, it ensures the protection of certain historic structures. Downtown
height allowances also provide a disincentive to replacing our designated historic district with high-rise

The Measure P renewal initiative is consistent with current state housing laws, including AB 1505,
allowing off-site building, or other alternative means of providing affordable housing. In order to coincide
with our current general plan’s expiration date of 2030, a 10-year extension period was selected. Once a
revised general plan is finalized, even if well before 2030, it can be presented to the voters for approval.
Nothing is locked in that can't be changed by a vote of the people at any time.

(3) According to the city of San Mateo, between 1991 and 2017 there were 5,298 total housing units built in San Mateo or in the
development pipeline. Of those, 864 units were affordable (below market rate), and more than half were the direct result of
Measures H and P.


Renewing Measure P confirms the city’s commitment to much needed affordable housing. In 1991, and
again in 2004, voters found that Measure P “encouraged the production of San Mateo’s fair share of
affordable housing,” and that “it was necessary to increase the City’s commitment to the production of
affordable housing.” The renewal initiative complies with recently enacted state housing laws and gives the
city council the flexibility to increase the inclusionary housing percentage at any time. The following are a
few excerpts from the Measure P language in San Mateo’s 2030 General Plan that support affordable

• “Maintain an inclusionary housing ordinance.”

• “At a minimum, all projects which include more than 10 residential
units, including mixed-use projects, shall be required to include
10% of the residential units for exclusive use as affordable housing

• “Develop…a commercial/housing linkage program.”

• "San Mateo’s multi-family zoning districts allow relatively high
densities in an effort to encourage the production of housing.”

• “Encourage the construction of affordable housing in the
redevelopment of commercial areas.”

The state density bonus, designed as an incentive to increase affordable housing production, ironically has
the opposite effect in San Mateo and other cities with inclusionary housing mandates like Measure P.
Under the state density bonus law, as long as development projects meet the minimum 10% BMR
threshold set by Measure P, they can build up to 35% more market rate or luxury units without having to
provide any additional affordable units. The result is a reduction in the percentage of affordable units
from 10% to 7.5% of the total. The unintended consequence is a widening of the affordability gap.


The following examples of high density TOD projects illustrate that Measure P is compatible with smart
growth and TOD planning principles. Both phases of Bay Meadows, the largest and perhaps most
notable higher density, transit oriented mixed-use development in San Mateo County, were built within
the parameters of Measure P. Others, such as those listed below, are just a few recent examples of higher
density, transit oriented infill development projects.

All are within the envelope of Measure P and all concentrate new homes, jobs, and services near transit.
These projects are walkable, bike-able, and transit-accessible, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and
providing a variety of housing types, sizes, and affordability. Renewal of Measure P enables and
encourages the kind of development that is both good for the community and good for the environment.

Station Park Green

Adjacent to the Hayward Park Caltrain station, this project contains 599 housing units (60 BMR), 11,000 square feet office
space, and 26,000 square feet retail, services and a 1.1 acre park. In a letter to the City of San Mateo on 2/6/15, Gita Dev,
architect and co-chair of the Sustainable Land Use committee of the Sierra Club Loma Prieta chapter said, “We particularly
applaud the city because this transit-oriented housing development addresses the Peninsula’s existing jobs-housing imbalance. Station Park Green can help provide the density at Hayward Park station required for transportation improvements.”


2775 S. Delaware Street (BRIDGE Housing)

Less than a half mile from the Hillsdale Caltrain station, this project at Bay Meadows includes 68 units of below market rate
rental housing with a mix of studios, 1, 2 and 3BR units. Bay Meadows Phase II was required by Measure P to provide a
minimum of 10 percent BMR units within the project site (approx. 108 total units), and these additional 68 units will increase
the overall number of BMR units at the Bay Meadows Phase II to 176 units, or 15.3% of the total units.

The Essex at Central Park

Within a half mile of Caltrain in downtown San Mateo and adjacent to Central Park, this five story rental development proposes 80 new one to three bedroom units over 7,000 sf of retail. Six are BMR for very-low income households.

303 Baldwin

Across the street from the San Mateo Caltrain station and adjacent to the downtown National Register Eligible Historic District, this 131,636 square-foot four and five story mixed-use building proposes office, ground floor retail and 64 residential units. Parking is provided underground.

Concar Passage

A proposed mixed-used project of 935 residentialunits (72 BMR), 35,000 square feet of retail, and 191,850 square feet of common open space within a half mile of a Caltrain station. A mobility hub in the center of the development is intended to facilitate non-auto dependent living for residents and surrounding neighborhoods.It should be noted that Concar Passage is drawing community attention because it is the last and largest of three major projects concentrated at the same intersection. This project along with Station Park Green and the Hines office development, both nearing completion, will have significant cumulative traffic impacts.



Some say the only way to meet our housing needs is to go up - way up. The implication being that enough housing can’t be built unless height limits are abolished. Actually, the five aforementioned projects with 1,746 housing units clearly demonstrate high density
TOD development can produce a substantial amount of housing in a five story world.


One of the distinguishing design characteristics of a built environment is the heights of buildings. The existing height allowance of 55’ was chosen to enable substantial growth while being compatible with the majority of the one-two story buildings throughout the community. It also favors less costly, wood-frame construction instead of the more costly, steel frame construction needed for tall buildings.


Five-story building heights emulate the livable, pedestrian scale of many of the most loved and visited American and European cities. These heights promote human-scaled urban design based on the principles of how cities and towns have been built for the last several centuries. These principles are increasingly in favor today under the headings of Smart Growth and the New Urbanism.

Bay Area residents who prefer to live in high-rise buildings can live in one of the region’s three major urban centers - San
Francisco, Oakland, or San Jose.

What then, is an appropriate height for a small city like San Mateo? For many residents, the answer is unequivocal: ‘high density, five story growth is high enough.’ Height limit opponents don’t seem to know what height is right, only that whatever height is allowed is not high enough. And for those who know there’s money to be made and profit to be had if height limits are abolished, the answer just might be ‘the sky’s the limit.’


One reason we have a housing affordability crisis is that housing prices are set at what the market will bear, not what people can afford. The “market” does not produce affordable housing on its own. Building housing that is affordable for families earning less than $120,000 per year is complicated and costly. Increasing the supply of market rate/luxury housing in the hope that affordability will somehow “trickle down” to those of modest means has been proven a mistaken notion and false promise.

Between 2010 and 2015, within San Mateo County there were 19 new jobs added for every one housing unit (3), tilting the jobs/housing ratio way out of balance. Yes, we need more housing. However, doubling, tripling, or even building 10 times more housing units over the same period still would not be enough to keep pace with such runaway job growth.

Put simply, without managing job demand along with housing supply, there is no realistic way for housing to catch up or prices to come down, no matter how high we build. Hong Kong and New York City construct skyscraper after skyscraper yet have some of the most expensive housing costs in the world.

As long as we allow unsustainable job growth, the upward pressure of “what the market will bear” will continue to push prices higher, and housing affordability will continue to worsen. And as prices rise, increasing building heights without corresponding increases in affordability requirements serves only to widen the affordability gap.

There is scant chance that housing prices will come down to an affordable level, or housing supply catch up to the demand, unless we begin to manage job growth and office construction. Only then will we have a chance to return to a reasonable jobs/housing
balance, and perhaps even stabilize housing prices.

(3) California Economic Development Department (EDD). U.S. Census, American Community Survey 2010-2015. 72,800 new
jobs, 3,844 new homes built, a 19:1 ratio.


Time spent in weekday traffic has skyrocketed by 80% between 2010 and 2016 according to the Metropolitan Traffic Commission (4).
Dramatic increases in traffic, it turns out, parallel steep rises in job growth. Caltrain, the transit option that is supposed to take cars off
the road, is routinely 139% of capacity during weekday commutes (5). The long-awaited electrification will apparently add only one extra train during each peak hour. A drop in the proverbial bucket.

Perhaps more than any other single issue, traffic has infuriated just about everyone. Traffic gridlock has become unbearable.
Commute times have lengthened dramatically and tempers are growing short. Despite the rhetoric that assures us that TOD will induce people to forsake their cars and turn instead to trains and bicycles, traffic congestion continues to worsen.

The fact is - and everyone knows this - the more we build, the worse traffic gets. The MTC's John Goodwin, as told to ABC 7 news, said that the traffic "is absolutely directly related to the economy and to the jobs/housing imbalance.”(6)

The only solution put forth, however, is to increase housing supply. The reality is that the demand side of the equation got us into this untenable situation and it is the demand side that must be part of any reasonable solution.

We can’t possibly become the sustainable communities we desire to be if we simultaneously promote unsustainable growth. Excessive growth, like any over indulgence, has left us with a painful hangover: housing prices we can no longer afford, traffic we can no longer bear, families uprooted from their homes, and widening economic inequality. The cure for our excess, we’re repeatedly told, is just add more: more jobs, more housing, more height. Like a drunk on a bender, we can’t seem to stop. At some point, infinite growth stops working on a finite planet with limited resources. Does more equal less? It’s a question worth considering.

(4) NBC Bay Area News, September 19, 2017.
(5) Caltrain 2017 Annual Passenger Count Key Findings.
(6) ABC 7 News, September 19, 2017.


If residents believe that Measure P will expire before the end of the general plan revision, they know there
is little hope of a fair and equitable process. Property owners, real estate interests, building trade unions,
and the tech industry, all of which have a disproportionate share of money, power and influence, will do
whatever they can to tilt the playing field in their favor. If this happens, San Mateo just might end up with
the best general plan ‘money can buy.’

This is not speculation; indeed, it is already happening. At the June 18th San Mateo City Council
meeting - after midnight and with most of the public gone home - three city council members made a
blatant attempt to “carve out” exemptions to the height limits for influential special interests to build high
rise buildings on their own properties. These carve-outs would be added to a competing ballot measure
the city council was considering in an effort to confuse voters.

Just a few days later, a deceptive and biased internet survey was circulated with the intent to sway, not
gauge, public opinion. Filled with misleading questions, misinformation and outright lies, the survey was
little more than a thinly veiled attempt to undermine both the renewal of Measure P and the legitimacy
of the general plan update itself. Sadly, these questionable political maneuvers are available to those with
money and used to skew the political process to their own benefit.

On the other hand, continuing San Mateo’s height, density & affordable housing protections will provide
stability, predictability and reliability for the general public and development community while land use
changes are debated. Past experience tells us this will take years. Moreover, it will maintain existing
baseline development standards with which new ideas and proposals can be compared. And it will put
working families and concerned residents on a more equal footing with high paid development

The general plan update is an important opportunity for the entire community to fully and openly discuss
the inter-related issues of housing, heights, transit and infrastructure that impact all of us. And that will
happen with more cooperation and less divisiveness if citizen-voted safeguards are in place.
Letting Measure P expire in the midst of the general plan revision changes the rules of the game. Like
moving the goal posts, changing the rules can unfairly change the outcome. Backing this extension keeps
current rules in place as a safety net for the general public. It is a way to level the playing field while the
entire community considers what it wants to be.


San Mateo has grown substantially under the protections of Measure P and captured much new
development fueled by the tech boom, including new office and residential neighborhoods at Bay
Meadows and Station Park Green. But even this growth strained the community’s ability to absorb it
incrementally and without destroying why people live here in the first place. Unlike the move fast and
break things model prevalent in the tech industry, successful cities have a long-term perspective that
maintains their community’s values. Renewal of Measure P:

1. Advances sound land-use planning policies and principles
2. Embraces sustainable smart growth development principles
3. Concentrates higher heights and densities near transit centers
4. Helps preserve open space and reduce sprawl
5. Ensures mandate for a minimum 10% inclusionary affordable housing
6. Complies with current state housing laws, including AB 1505
7. Enables significant increases in market rate housing
8. Allows for continued office, commercial and economic growth
9. Reduces threats to irreplaceable architectural and cultural resources
10. Supports the General Plan, Downtown Specific Plan, Sustainable Streets Plan, Rail Corridor TOD
Plan, Bicycle Master Plan


There are many reasons for the Bay Area’s sky high housing costs, but Measure P is not one of them.
Abolishing building height and affordable housing protections that have served San Mateo well for more
than a quarter of a century will do nothing to stem the tide of rising rents, displaced residents or
excessively long commutes. Rather, the effort to eliminate these protections is divisive and destructive.
Lately, there has been a growing recognition that residents who live here should have a say in their future,
not just real estate interests and global tech corporations. When external forces cause a city’s growth to
become so out of balance that the community can no longer absorb it, and representative democracy fails
its citizens, California voters are lucky to have an initiative process to give power back to the people.
San Mateans understand their true power lies in the vote. Only through the ballot can we counter the
vast sums of money that distort our government at every level. Local volunteers recently collected over
7,000 signatures to place the renewal of Measure P on the November 2018 ballot so residents directly
affected by these land use decisions could express their point of view. Yet, from the very beginning,
private interests have made a concerted effort to suppress that right and prevent the issue from ever
reaching the voting public. Residents and voters are increasingly standing up and fighting back against
those who view our community as nothing more than an economic opportunity - a resource to be

For generations, San Mateo has grown responsibly and changed with the times. It is a desirable small city
with a diversity of residents and a wide range of housing choices. San Mateans have invested in building
a better tomorrow by protecting the best of yesterday and integrating it with what works for the
community today. It is what old timers and new faces alike find attractive about San Mateo. Renewal of
Measure P continues this tradition.

Rose Garden, Central Park, San Mateo.

Become a Height Hero!


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