Whose general plan
is this anyway?
Four years ago, before coronavirus paused San Mateo’s general plan update, the community was promised an extensive and “robust” public process. One that would be transparent, inclusive, and where the concerns and input from all residents would be heard. Outreach efforts were broadened to include those who may not have participated in planning efforts before.
A significant number of comments and input came from people who reside in other cities. These out-of-towners are regular participants in the general plan meetings, workshops and online. They include paid YIMBYs from San Francisco; paid lobbyists and organizers who live in Oakland, Palo Alto and San Bruno; paid attorneys from San Francisco and consultants from Berkeley; activists from San Carlos, Belmont, Burlingame, East Palo Alto, Foster City and Woodside. These voices are exclusively very pro-development. It seems fair to ask, why in the world would the city of San Mateo put comments from residents of Oakland or Belmont on equal footing with those of San Mateo residents? After all, this is San Mateo’s general plan, isn’t it? Affording residents of other cities the same level of influence as local residents tilts the scales and unfairly influences the process, resulting in a biased outcome.
San Mateo has traditionally been very attentive to including its residents in public policy decisions. Community advisory committees were the preferred form of engaging residents when the general plan needed revision, to generate a plan for a new transit center, and many other civic projects. Residents were brought into the conversation early, given a seat at the table and made valuable contributions. That all changed in the early months of 2015.
Real estate development interests and YIMBYs at City Hall decided that Measure P height allowances were in the way of the big changes and vast redevelopment they envisioned. Despite knowing that the community thought otherwise, some at City Hall began to dream of grand-scale redevelopment. Neighborhood charm and small-town character were suddenly considered dispensable. Community advisory committees were shelved. Those who pushed for “higher and denser” were courted, regardless of their city of residence. In some influential circles it seemed, San Mateo residents were regarded as more of an impediment than an asset.
It is in this political context that the general plan revision is taking place. But, not to worry, residents are still included in the process. It wouldn’t look good otherwise. But local residents’ input is now heavily diluted by growth lobbyists and paid operatives from all parts of the Bay Area. I suppose it’s one way to define broad and inclusive outreach — bring the foxes into the chicken coop and watch the feathers fly.
San Mateo residents entered into the general plan revision process in good faith. We engaged in the conversation believing it would be the inclusive and fair exchange of ideas between San Mateans about the future of San Mateo. Apparently we were wrong. The Draft General Plan is a tone-deaf repudiation of the kind of community in which San Mateans want to live.
We all agree that there’s a dire need for more affordable housing at all income levels. But the manner in which housing and other general plan matters are responsibly addressed in San Mateo is up to San Mateans, not residents of other communities. Most of us would be very happy to live with the outcome of a fair and open discussion about height, density and land use in San Mateo, whether or not we agree with the outcome. As long as it is the result of broad participation of local residents and not of those with singular agendas who live elsewhere.
The question is whose interests is this general plan update intended to serve? The outsized influence of special interest organizations, paid YIMBY operatives, and over-inflated state housing mandates (RHNA) continued to be the primary voices shaping the General Plan. The promised “robust” general plan update process turned out to be a ruse guided by appointed city council members and commissioners sympathetic to the YIMBY 'build-everything-in-your-backyard' narrative. The result is a general plan created by YIMBYs for YIMBYs. The beneficiaries of the large scale redevelopment envisioned in the Draft General Plan 2040 are not those of us who live here, but those who stand to profit the most - big tech, big real estate, and big construction.
The General Plan should be a stewardship document, not a revolutionary one. The Draft General Plan 2040 seems to be more of the latter than the former, however. It is not the kind of plan that will find favor with the vast majority of residents and voters, but one that more likely than not, will be roundly rejected.
There is still opportunity for members of the City Council to step up and show leadership — to take active steps to prioritize the concerns, interests and viewpoints of San Mateo residents — and reject the extreme Draft General Plan 2040. After all, whose general plan is this anyway?