A New Century

Recently I noticed a pair of articles about the old Century Park 12 theater property on East Bayshore Road (on the northeast side of 101, near Whipple Avenue). The first was in the Silicon Valley Business Journal and can be found here. The second, which summarizes the project and adds some detail, was published in the San Mateo Daily Journal; it can be found here. Both describe a preliminary proposal for redeveloping a place where, for a time, most Redwood City residents went to see first-run movies. Together those articles made me realize that as much as the downtown has been changing lately, so has the part of Redwood City along East Bayshore Road near Bair Island.

My wife and I, along with our infant son, moved to Redwood City in 1989. Four months later the Century Park 12 opened its doors on East Bayshore Road. And so began the roughly fifteen years of our lives when my growing family spent a good amount of time on the Bay side of Whipple Avenue. We saw countless movies there, of course, but also bought a car from one of the Boardwalk Auto dealers and routinely had it serviced there. We also ate breakfasts and lunches at the Diving Pelican Cafe, and dined at the Waterfront Restaurant at Pete’s Harbor. Finally, my wife took sailing lessons from Spinnaker Sailing at Pete’s Harbor (they subsequently moved to Seaport Court, off of Seaport Boulevard). All the while we were doing all this, we found ourselves spending very little time in downtown Redwood City. Other than the bank or the library, there was little to take us downtown in those days. Certainly there was nothing like the restaurants we have today—although there did seem to be more in the way of retail than there is today. When we went out for dinner back then we either went south to Menlo Park or Palo Alto, or north to San Carlos—or we went to Redwood City’s Farmhouse Restaurant (does anyone remember that place?), which wasn’t downtown.

It seems interesting that, as development goes on both in our downtown and on the Bay side of 101, my wife and I now find more and more reasons to spend time downtown and fewer and fewer reasons to cross over 101 at Whipple Avenue. These days all of the development out there by the bay is principally just adding to our housing stock. Since I’m guessing that, like us, many of you don’t go out there anymore, I thought I’d let you know what’s going on.

Let me start with some background on the Century Park 12 property. This property has been owned by the Syufy family since at least 1961, when they built the Redwood Drive-In Theater (also known as the Whipple Drive-In Theater) on the site. Starting with a single screen, by the 1970’s they had added three more to make a four-screen complex that could accommodate 600 cars. In 1986 the Syufy family closed the drive-in, and by October of 1989 they were opening the doors on the Century Park 12, a twelve-screen indoor theater. Those theaters were very popular, if our experience was any indication, entertaining Redwood City and neighboring communities for some nineteen years. In October of 2008, Cinemark, who had purchased Century Theaters, Inc. (the operations, but not the land or the buildings) from the Syufy family some two years earlier, closed the Century Park 12 for good. (There was a great deal of controversy surrounding the construction of the Century 20 Downtown Redwood City and the closing of the Century Park 12, but I’ll save that for a future post.)

The only use the property seems to have gotten since the theater was closed has been as a storage lot for the area’s car dealerships. I recently took a walk out there, and except for the fencing to keep the public out, and the weeds sprouting from cracks in the pavement, the place looks pretty much as it did when we first moved to the area. Getting a good photo through the fencing is difficult, so I’ve settled for this Google Earth view which shows not only the theater “domes” but the numerous new cars being kept there:


The Syufy family, who still own the property through their SyWest Development LLC, has been trying to come to an agreement with the city on a redevelopment proposal since mid-2004—shortly after ground was broken on the downtown theater complex. The current preliminary proposal is just the latest. It calls for a gigantic (100,000 square foot) health club along East Bayshore and 550 apartments (275 one bedroom, 275 two bedroom) in three six-story buildings arrayed along the back of the property. Here is one of the renderings accompanying the proposal (click it for a larger version):


It is important to note that this proposal is only preliminary: it is not an official project at this point. The developer is simply floating a concept to see how it would be received. There are still some hurdles that need to be surmounted before something like this could become real, such as:

  • The property would need to be re-zoned by the city for residential use. Currently it is zoned “CG”, or “General Commercial”; residential is not allowed (hotels are OK). Fortunately for the developer, in Redwood City’s General Plan this area falls within the “Mixed Use – Waterfront Neighborhood” category, which allows a combination of housing and supporting commercial businesses—so a zoning change probably won’t be difficult to obtain.
  • A second way in and out of the area would need to be added: in the event of an emergency, the existing single access would not be sufficient to evacuate all of the people in the area. From City Council resolution #14590, made on 6/7/2004 in anticipation of the Marina Shores Village project (which morphed into One Marina): During an emergency evacuation of the Bair Island Road area with the proposed project at full occupancy, volumes on Bair Island Road, East Bayshore Road, and Whipple Avenue (near the project site) could be expected to exceed roadway capacities, resulting in LOS F operations. This effect would represent a significant impact [emphasis theirs]. A sensitivity analysis has been conducted to determine how many new project residential units could be developed in the Bair Island Road area before the Blomquist Street Extension would be needed to maintain adequate emergency access. The results of the analysis (available for review at the City of Redwood City Community Development Services Department, City Hall, 1017 Middlefield Road) indicate that the existing roadway has the capacity to accommodate 750 new dwelling units before a secondary access would be needed to accommodate the assumed emergency scenario. When this analysis was done, the 155-unit Villas At Bair Island complex was in place, so they probably don’t count towards the “750 new dwelling units”. One Marina wasn’t, however, so its 231 condos should. As should the 411 apartments now being built at the former Pete’s Harbor. That leaves 108 additional housing units that can be constructed before the requirement for a new access road is triggered. Since the proposed 550 housing units is well above this remaining amount, a solution to the emergency egress problem would have to be part of any approved project in this area.

While the Century Park 12 property is just a proposal, there are other projects in active development just down the street that are worth noting. The nearest, at the roundabout where East Bayshore Road intersects with Bair Island Road, is where our new Courtyard by Marriott hotel is being constructed. The foundations have been completed and the walls are starting to go up:


You can see this project from 101 as you sail past. It will become increasingly visible as the project rises into the air, since this 177-room hotel will ultimately reach five stories in height. It will have parking on its first and second floors, along with the hotel lobby and support operations. The guest rooms will be on the upper three floors, which will overlook a central, open-air courtyard with a pool and spa. The hotel will also feature a restaurant, bar, and lounge, plus a coffee shop and meeting spaces.

Pass by the hotel, One Marina, and The Villas at Bair Island, and you get to Pete’s Harbor. At least, you did: nowadays you get to “Blu Harbor”, the new name for the area at the end of the road. Ever since the liveaboards and other boats were kicked out, the property has been closed to all public access. For some months now construction has been taking place behind construction fencing, making it hard to see what is going on. But there are ways to get a peek. The easiest is to head out onto Bair Island and then look at Blu Harbor from across the water:


For another angle on this property, head to Penboscot Drive, in the Seaport Boulevard/Chesapeake Drive area. You can get a nice view back towards the west, right into Blu Harbor’s inner harbor:


Or, if you know someone who lives in The Villas at Bair Island (immediately adjacent to Blu Harbor), you can climb to the top floor of their buildings and look out over the construction fencing:


In the center of this photo you can just barely see the docks for the inner marina. Soon that view will be blocked by a huge 6-story, 308-unit apartment building wrapped around a 7-story parking garage. Arrayed along the far side of the marina (where those white vertical tanks are standing) and to the left (outside the bounds of the picture) will be ten smaller buildings, some with nine apartments and some with ten. Altogether, there will be 402 apartments built at Blu Harbor.

The Blu Harbor project is in the very early stages. Currently they are raising the land to protect against king tides and sea level rise. Early stages or not, though, they are already taking names for a waiting list, and plan to begin “pre-leasing” units sometime next year.

With so much construction going on both out by the Bay and in Redwood City’s downtown, the shift in where my wife and I spend our time fascinates me. Downtown has come alive, while, except to explore Bair Island or visit the Boardwalk auto dealerships, the area on the Bay side of Whipple Avenue is no longer of interest to most—which is not necessarily a bad thing, since we’ve gained more downtown than we’ve lost out by the Bay. Still, it’s easy to focus on the downtown construction and forget that there are other areas of the city that are experiencing their own drastic transformations. Although Redwood City is changing, we must be sure to always look at the whole picture, and not just our suddenly booming downtown.

9 thoughts on “A New Century

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  4. Fascinating. My younger sisters took sailing lessons at Pete’s Harbor in the early 1970s. We are all in our 60s now. Our parents often took us to eat at the Waterfront Restaurant when we returned to visit Redwood City in the 1970s.

    The air looks so much cleaner than it did when I left San Mateo County in the summer of 1973. San Francisco Bay was very polluted back then but has made a comeback.

    Continuing to enjoy your blog.

    • Thank you so much for the comment! I especially love hearing other perspectives from people who lived here before I. I was “enjoying” the not-so-clean air in Los Angeles back in 1973…

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