Given that my blog revolves around walking, you might find it odd to learn that I’m a bit of a car guy. I’ve owned a number of cars over the years; have admired many, many more; and have read numerous books and magazines about cars. I don’t collect cars, though, and don’t have pictures of them up in my house: I’m not that big of a car nut. But I’ve always been drawn to them for some reason.
My attraction to the automobile is likely related to the freedom that owning a car represents. I obtained my license as early as I legally could, and from that moment on I was driving as much as possible. For quite some time, of course, that meant driving my mom’s station wagon: it was quite a while before I could afford a car of my own. That first car turned out to be a “hand-me-down,” obtained from my older brother when he went off to college. I loved that car, which was a silver Chevy Vega wagon (think “Ford Pinto,” but made by Chevy). Then, in my senior year of high school, I was able to purchase my first-ever new car: a Ford Fiesta.
Given that I was in my late teens when I bought my Fiesta, you might wonder how I managed to survive the new-car buying process. Well, I had two things working in my favor. First of all, my father took me to the dealership and showed me the ropes. And secondly, the gentleman who owned the dealership was a friend of my father’s. Together, those two elements made the experience both smooth and pleasant. And that experience—and subsequent ones I have had over the years—gave me an appreciation for automobile dealerships and for the car-buying process.
Undoubtedly Redwood City has a strong appreciation for its car dealers as well, but for a much different reason: the city’s new car dealerships are some of the largest producers of sales tax revenue. And sales taxes are the second largest source of the city’s revenue, only behind property taxes. Although Redwood City’s 2016-2017 Fiscal Year Budget does not break down the sales tax revenues by category, it does note that “new auto sales, a segment of the transportation category, are a strong contributor to sales tax, and one of the main contributors to the overall positive health of our sales tax numbers.”
Having such a large dependency on a single industry can be trouble, however. Indeed, from the 2016-2017 budget there is this: “Two categories in which the City currently receives significant sales tax revenue are transportation and general retail, but as the models for these businesses change, City sales tax revenue will weaken in these categories.” And the models do seem to be changing. Younger adults, in particular, seem less interested in owning a car and more inclined to structure their lives so that car ownership is simply not necessary. Services such as Uber and Lyft are enabling this new car-free lifestyle, as are short-term rental services such as Zipcar. And self-driving cars, although still in the future, will likely make on-demand rental vehicles even more available and convenient, making individual car ownership even less important.
The automotive industry may be heading for a decline, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at Redwood City’s dealerships. We are losing one—Honda Redwood City—which will certainly cut into our sales tax revenues, but they aren’t going out of business. Instead, Honda Redwood City is moving to a new, larger location not far away. Meanwhile, two or three other Redwood City dealerships appear to be expanding, further showing a level of confidence in new car sales in our area.
Redwood City periodically publishes an “Economic Development Newsletter” that used to list the twenty-five Redwood City businesses that collect the most sales tax. Back when they included this list I noted that more than half fell into the Transportation category (which is made up of new and used automobile dealerships and related businesses, such as gas stations). The last time the list was published, thirteen of those top twenty-five were new car dealerships. The top four sales tax collectors, in fact, were:
- Boardwalk Auto Center
- Boardwalk Chevrolet
- Carlsen Porsche
- Carlsen Subaru
Recently I thought to list new car dealerships within Redwood City’s borders; I was surprised at the number of automobile makes were represented. Here is the list I came up with:
- Thompson Toyota (Toyota 101) out on Bair Island Road
- Boardwalk Chevrolet
- Boardwalk Auto, which includes
- Boardwalk Nissan
- Boardwalk Lotus
- Towne Mazda, which is immediately adjacent to the Boardwalk Auto dealerships
- Towne Ford
- Hopkins Acura (which is right next to Towne Ford)
- Honda Redwood City
- Land Rover Redwood City (on Convention Way, and backing up to the Whipple Avenue onramp to Highway 101 south)
- Putnam Lexus (Convention Way)
- Peninsula Infiniti (Convention Way)
- Carlsen Subaru (on Veterans Boulevard, north of Whipple)
- Ferrari Silicon Valley (on El Camino Real, close to our border with Atherton)
- Maserati Silicon Valley (as you might guess from the name, they share a showroom with Ferrari Silicon Valley)
- Carlsen Porsche (on Haven Avenue, up against Highway 101 near Marsh Road)
Recently someone at Thompson Toyota told one of my readers that the dealership would be expanding towards the back, and my reader wondered if that meant that they would be expanding to where the old Century Theaters have sat empty for years now. While I can’t be absolutely sure, I walked over there and wandered around onto Bair Island, where I could (barely) see the back side of the dealership. Back home I looked at an aerial photo of the place, and I think I can say with confidence that if they are expanding towards the back, it isn’t onto the Century Theaters property. What is behind the dealership is Alan Steel and Supply Company, a place that appears to be much like a lumberyard, except for metal. They sell steel, aluminum and copper, plus scrap metal and bits of overstock. Apparently they sell all sorts of metal objects; I really need to go back and wander through the place. Check out their Yelp reviews if you want to get a better idea for what they do, but if you need metal of any sort for a project, they seem to be the folks to see. In any case, the metal building that you first encounter when you cross over Highway 101 at Whipple Avenue towards Bair Island is just the tip of the business: they have a large yard with a couple of sheds behind it that, because of the curve in the road, also sits behind their next-door neighbor, Thompson Toyota. Here is an overhead view of the dealership and the metal yard:
Alan Steel occupies the four buildings at the top of the above photo, which as you can see all sit on a parcel that is close to rectangular. The three buildings towards the middle and bottom of the photo are Thompson Toyota (the strangely shaped building is, I believe, the new car showroom). If I had to guess, Thompson Toyota would expand towards the top of the photo, either onto their own surface lot or perhaps into what looks to be a large dirt lot on the Alan Steel property.
Switching to Honda Redwood City, they hoping to make their move to San Carlos by the end of the year, but I’m guessing that they may not make it. I regularly walk by their under-construction dealership on Industrial Road (which is now very visible from Highway 101, just south of Holly Street) and although they are making good progress, the developer still has a long way to go. They can take their time as far as I am concerned; my wife drives a Honda that came from Honda Redwood City, and although the new dealership is still within walking distance for me (something I value when it comes time to get the car serviced) their current location is much closer to my house and was always easy to get to when I was commuting on Caltrain. I do find the design of their new dealership to be fascinating, however, and will check them out as soon as they open. The new dealership is designed with the showrooms and service department on the upper level, accessible via a couple of large ramps. The ground floor (including beneath the dealership building!) is where the bulk of the cars for sale will be parked, and where customers will park. Because the dealership will sits almost entirely behind a dance studio, the main building will not be immediately visible when driving along Industrial Road. However, I have no compunctions about walking behind the studio and taking pictures of the under-construction building, so here’s the latest:
Land Rover Redwood City, which is tucked in behind Crunch Fitness (at Whipple and Veterans) is not moving, but as I’ve noted before they definitely seem to be expanding their used-car sales into part of the now-empty dealership that sits at the prime corner of Whipple Avenue and El Camino Real. As far as I can recall the small building right on the corner has always been a used-car sales office, although it also (I believe) was always associated with the next-door new-car dealership. Land Rover Redwood City appears to be taking over the small used-car office and the surrounding lot, but doesn’t appear to be taking over the adjacent empty showroom and service center.
Still, this is appears to be an expansion of the Land Rover dealership, which would seem to be a good thing.
And speaking of dealerships that are expanding, put Carlsen Porsche on that list. Today Carlsen Porsche sits on three parcels that together add up to more than 71,000 square feet of land. They currently have a single 17,300 square foot, two-story building that contains their showroom, their offices, and a service center with seven bays. Their plan is to more than double the size of the building: they will be adding almost 11,000 square feet of showroom and sales space, 4,400 square feet of office area, 13,500 square feet of service area (which includes fifteen additional service bays) and 4,900 square feet of parts storage.
Many industry watchers are predicting that new-car buying will slow, partly due to changing attitudes among the younger generations and partly due to the new technologies and services that make car ownership less important. Redwood City’s budget acknowledges the uncertainty around the future of new car sales, and notes the upcoming loss of Honda Redwood City. But other local dealers appear to be bucking the trend, and doubling-down on their Redwood City dealerships. As someone who likes cars, I’m pleased to see that Redwood City will apparently remain a place to go for people looking for a good deal on a set of new wheels.