A Tale of Two Cities

For three years or so before we moved to Redwood City, my wife and I lived in a townhouse in the East Bay. I had a fairly easy commute to my job in North San Jose, while my wife was able to experience the “joy” of a cross-Bay commute: she became a regular on the Dumbarton Bridge, commuting to her job in San Carlos. We made friends with some of her work colleagues, and we eventually joined a church in San Carlos which really solidified the little city as the center of our social life. This gave us aspirations of moving to the Peninsula, and naturally began to look for housing in the San Carlos area.

The birth of our first child only increased our determination to make the move: we wanted to exchange our townhouse for a house with a yard, and San Carlos seemed ideal. But given what we could afford we quickly realized that we would need to widen our search to nearby communities. The home-buying process taught us how much of a difference it can make being on one side or the other of the often invisible border between cities. Back then—in the late 1980s—simply by crossing the border into Redwood City our search for a home switched from “nearly impossible” to “expensive, but doable.” While back then Redwood City was regarded by some as a poor cousin to San Carlos, the house we eventually settled on was almost the same distance from downtown San Carlos as it was from downtown Redwood City, so we figured we’d live in Redwood City while continuing to shop and dine in San Carlos.

For a number of years after we purchased our home—during which our second child was born—my wife and I kept our heads down, focusing on our family while working hard and trying to save enough to fix up our little house. We had little time or money for shopping or dining, in San Carlos or anywhere else. And we had little extra attention to pay to the transformation Redwood City was beginning to undergo. But as our kids neared school age, we realized that Redwood City’s schools were starting to make big changes for the better. And as we grew a little more comfortable financially, we started to eat out more and shop more—and realized that Redwood City was becoming a more attractive place in which to spend our hard-earned dollars. Although we still had a great many friends in San Carlos, we increasingly met and drew close to people who lived here in Redwood City. As a result we found ourselves almost unwittingly living in a community that was ideal for us.

The modern transformation of Redwood City began with two large construction projects, both of which were completed in 2006: the building of the “On Broadway” building that today houses, among other things, our Century Theatres; and the restoration of Courthouse Square and the historic County Courthouse building. A few years later the City Council came up with the Downtown Precise Plan, and with that we were off to the races: seemingly continuous construction of office and residential buildings that continues to this day.

While Redwood City was growing up, for a number of years San Carlos did not follow suit. Other than the occasional small office renovation and the expected number of home makeovers, their most memorable projects were the controversial demolition in 1988 of San Carlos High School (which had sat empty since 1982) and the subsequent construction of a park and housing development on the former school site, plus the elevation of the Caltrain tracks through the middle of the city. Other than that, San Carlos for the most part remained the sleepy little town that it was when my wife first began working there. Until recently, anyway. In 2011 In-N-Out Burger began construction on its San Carlos store, located at the corner of Holly Street and Industrial Road. Then, in 2012, Palo Alto Medical Foundation built its multi-story San Carlos Center on Industrial, just north of In-N-Out. With the construction of those two projects, San Carlos appeared to go from what was essentially a no-growth community to one that welcomed it. Nowadays San Carlos appears to be making up for lost time, with several significant projects in active development. I’ve written about those projects before, but recently I took a twelve-mile walk into and around San Carlos to take updated photographs and check on the progress of their numerous development projects.

The last time I wrote about Wheeler Plaza, demolition crews were chewing their way through the former Foodville market site and seemed ready to demolish the buildings along San Carlos Avenue that stood in the way of the planned residential/retail behemoth. On this latest visit, all of the demolition appeared to be complete, and the contractors were getting ready to close the parking lot behind those former buildings:

Wheeler Plaza will ultimately contain 109 condominiums over a two-level parking garage (one level underground) and 10,000 square feet of retail along San Carlos Avenue. The four-story building will rise to just about 50 feet above the sidewalk.

Much smaller than Wheeler Plaza is the mixed-use project that has gone up on the Laurel Street site that formerly housed White Oak Flower Shop. When I was there, the building, which will sport retail below and residential above, was having its exterior finishes applied. The building appears to use every available inch of space on the property, and unfortunately looms over the residence immediately behind it on Howard Avenue, but otherwise seems to be a nice replacement for the admittedly rather tired-looking building that once stood here.

Over on Arroyo Avenue I was amazed to see how quickly the Community United Church of Christ’s new sanctuary is rising:

You may recall that this church tore down its old sanctuary and sold off that part of their property to be developed into housing. Their new sanctuary is being built on part of what had been the church’s playground. To the right of the sanctuary a second building will be built which will contain both the church offices and the parsonage. Behind both, between these new buildings and the parking lot behind the Bianchini’s Market, there will still be a playground, albeit a much smaller one than was there previously.

The large housing project at 777 Walnut Street (which is very visible behind the Bank of America on Laurel) is now fully formed, and is appears ready to receive its windows and exterior finishes:

This four-story building is slated to have twenty for-sale residential units over a small commercial/retail space and a 34-space parking garage.

Kitty-corner from the San Carlos Library, at the corner of Chestnut and Cherry streets, a three-story, 28-unit condominium project is making great strides. Its below-ground parking garage appears to be in place, and the contractors seem ready to start building the residences themselves:

Out on El Camino Real, the Transit Village project is finally off the ground. With much of the ground-level foundation and infrastructure work seemingly complete, when I visited contractors had started on the center section of the project:

On this site, just north of Holly Street and the San Carlos Caltrain Station, the contractor is building four three-story residential buildings. Together with the two additional residential buildings that should eventually be constructed just south of Holly, this project will bring to the community just over 200 new apartments. For now the contractors are focusing on these four buildings; later they hope to build the remaining two along with two commercial buildings, one on either side of San Carlos’s historic train depot.

Just to the south of this project is another that is not to be confused with the Transit Village. Contractors are currently underway on the construction of the San Carlos Transit Center, which will extend from the Transit Village all the way to Arroyo Avenue. This will become the new parking lot for Caltrain commuters using the San Carlos station, making up for the loss of the existing parking lots to the Transit Village project. The Transit Center will be accessed from El Camino Real at Cherry Street, which is soon to become a signalized intersection.

Back out on Industrial, this time south of Holly, the steel structure for the Landmark Hotel is now starting to appear:

This 204-room extended-stay hotel will rise to four stories, and will be surrounded by surface parking. No underground garage here!

Heading back along Industrial in the direction of Redwood City, we come to the site of San Carlos Honda. This unusual design puts the two-story dealership on stilts, leaving nearly the entirety of the parcel’s ground level free for the storage of cars. The showroom, service department, and offices will all be on the second and third stories, reached by the ramps you can see in the center and left side of this picture:

When complete, Honda Redwood City will close, the cars will be moved to this new location, and San Carlos Honda will open its doors. This new location has great visibility from Highway 101, but is oddly located on a flag lot behind the Melodic Remedy Dance Studio. Utilizing a small, separately purchased parcel they will maintain a pocket-sized lot out on Industrial Road which will remind passers-by of the dealership’s location and signal to their customers just how the dealership is accessed.

For a number of years there was a marked contrast between Redwood City and San Carlos when it came to development, with Redwood City seeming to embrace it while San Carlos seemed to reject it. So far much of the development in San Carlos is resulting in new housing (and some office and retail) with heights limited to four stories. That will change, however, when the Meridian 25 project (also on Industrial Road) gets underway; it will yield two six-story buildings that will provide more than 525,000 square feet of office space. These buildings will extend to 87 feet above ground level (97 feet if you count the roof screens that will surround the rooftop air conditioners), possibly making them the tallest buildings in San Carlos. (Expect to read more from me regarding this project when it actually gets underway.)

Redwood City is no longer the quiet little town my wife and I moved to some 26 years ago. Although it took a while, San Carlos, too, seems to have gotten the building bug and today is a hotbed of construction activity. With more projects on the way, San Carlos soon may look as different to its long-ago residents as Redwood City does to its own. Who’s next? I’m looking at you, Belmont…


In Redwood City news, the “Broadway Station” project (the four-story combination office/retail building slated for the corner of Jefferson and Broadway, where today the Powerhouse Gym is located) finally seems about ready to get underway. Powerhouse Gym is relocating across Jefferson to the current site of DB Shoes, which will remove the last impediment to construction. And the developer has new incentive to get this building done: the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has apparently signed a lease for some or all of the building’s office space.

Nearby, the owners of the under-construction 601 Marshall project (which sits across from Redwood City’s downtown Bank of America and currently sports a large tower crane) have also signed a lease for much of their yet-to-be-constructed office building: the law firm of Goodwin Proctor has agreed to take 75% of the building’s 130,000 square feet of space.

3 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities

  1. Pingback: Disrupting the Royal Road | Walking Redwood City

  2. Hi Greg, I forwarded your last post with the robot delivery service at the bottom to our son at Berkeley. He replied that a relative of yours is a pledge in his fraternity. Small world.

    • Indeed it is! Throughout my tech career I found it interesting how many times I kept running into people I had worked with at a former employer. The Valley is a small place, in some ways.

      Thanks for reading!

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