Real estate developers are, by nature, dreamers. They look at a piece of property and dream of what they could make of it. Like most dreamers, their initial dreams are often unbounded by reality: they start with suppositions such as “if money were no object” and “if there were no rules” and come up with a vision as to what they could do. Soon, though, reality starts to creep in, and they quickly start modifying the dream, bringing it closer to what might actually be possible. Assuming that the developer overcomes most of the necessary hurdles — for instance, assuming that they manage to either buy or at least obtain an option to buy the property, that they come up with a design that they think might be accepted by the powers that be (such as a City Council or Planning Commission), that they work out the financing needed to build their design, and that the project pencils out such that it will eventually be profitable — they submit the design to the controlling authority and work to gain approval.
Redwood City does a good job of posting design proposals for major projects on their Development Projects web page. Just because a project is listed on this page, however, does not mean that it’ll actually be built: some turn out to be no more than just dreams. Anyone who wants to go through the process can propose nearly anything but there are limits, and projects that look to change those limits, especially, have a steep hill to climb.
By now you’ve probably heard about the proposal for the Sequoia Station property. Certainly, people keep asking me about it! The one thing they seem most concerned about is the proposal for a 17-story (239-foot) building on the property. While anything is certainly possible, I think that when it comes to this particular project, the developer is still dreaming.
In case it isn’t clear, the developer has submitted a rough proposal, but not a concrete one. Their proposal breaks the rules for the area in a couple of ways, and so they are asking the city to consider amending the General Plan to allow a project such as theirs. Only if the city actually does amend the general plan will the developer put together a more concrete set of plans and submit the actual project to the city (if the city declines to amend the General Plan the developer may still propose a project for the site, but it will likely be a very different one). So for now, what the city is facing is a request to amend the General Plan. At the moment the first discussions around this subject are tentatively scheduled for the January 27, 2020, City Council meeting.
Just so we’re all on the same page, here is a map of building height limits within Redwood City’s downtown, taken from the latest version of the Downtown Precise Plan (DTPP). I’ve annotated it by drawing a green dashed line around the area about which Lowe, the project developer, is dreaming.
[click on the image for a version you can zoom in on]
The important thing to look at right now are the colors of the areas within the dashed outline: the different colors indicate the allowable building heights. The dark brick-red color is where buildings of up to 12 stories are allowed. The bright red areas are within the “10 story zone”; there, buildings up to 10 stories are allowed. Finally, eight-story buildings are allowed in the areas colored dark orange. (Bright yellow marks a three-story zone, but there is very little of that in the project area.)
The DTPP currently doesn’t allow for buildings taller than 12 stories, or 136 feet, anywhere within the Downtown Precise Plan area. Thus the developer’s need for an amendment.
Building height is a real problem, but not the only one. The developer also needs the city to alter the parking ratios in the area. Currently most of the land is used for surface parking (and there is a one-level underground parking garage beneath the larger Sequoia Station buildings), but the proposed offices and residential units will all require a great deal more parking than what is there today. In a future development most, if not all, of that parking would be underground or in above-ground parking garages. Since parking garages, underground or not, are fairly expensive to build, the developer is understandably hoping that they can cut down on the size of the garages they would have to build by having the city reduce the number of parking spaces required per housing unit and per 1,000 square feet of office space. (The specific numbers currently required vary and so can’t be easily encapsulated here, but if you are interested, take a look at Section 2.6, “Parking Regulations,” in the DTPP document.)
Redwood City’s DTPP set out a set of what are called M.A.D. (Maximum Allowable Development) caps. These defined a specified amount of new office space, new retail space, new housing units, and new hotel rooms. The city then worked out what they thought the various environmental impacts (including traffic) that would occur if sufficient development was done such that all of those numbers were reached. They then put together an Environmental Impact Report, or EIR, under that scenario. The resulting EIR covered all development that fell beneath those M.A.D. caps: any development project that did not exceed the M.A.D. caps on new office, residential, retail, or lodging didn’t have to have its own EIR. This was a significant streamlining of the approval process, and something that was instrumental in the growth we’ve seen in downtown Redwood City. Since then the cap for office space has been met, and the cap for residential units has essentially been met as well, meaning that essentially any new project with an office and/or residential component within the DTPP area (as is the case with Lowe’s proposal) is no longer covered under the DTPP’s blanket EIR; that project will need its own. Understandably, Lowe is hoping that the city will increase the M.A.D. cap limits sufficiently so that their project won’t need its own EIR.
Is this all dreaming? It’s for the City Council to say, of course, but whereas I wouldn’t be too surprised if the Council considered some alterations to the parking ratios, given the current political environment within Redwood City I would be extremely surprised if they didn’t require Lowe to do their own EIR, and I’d be flabbergasted if they allowed the height limits to be increased beyond the current 12-story/136-foot limit.
Lowe isn’t the only developer dreaming about Redwood City right now. Cargill (who owns the property) and their development partner, DMB Pacific Ventures, is still hoping that they’ll be able to develop the former wetlands on which for years now Cargill has been harvesting salt. In the above picture, all of that flat, white space you can see is Cargill’s property. Note how big it is compared with the portion of Redwood City that sits in front, as well as to the right, of it. This is one project that, if it went ahead, would have serious impacts on our area. For one, most, if not all, of the entire 1,433-acre site (that’s about 2.25 square miles!) would have to be protected against sea level rise, either by raising the site or by building giant dikes around it. Then, there is the traffic that would result, and the resources that would be consumed by the tens of thousands of people that Cargill hopes would live and work on the site. Given all of the issues we are having right now, it seems inconceivable that the serious environmental impacts that a project out there would have would be acceptable to area residents.
Cargill has put forth multiple proposals for the site, none of which have made it beyond the proposal stage. At the moment Cargill doesn’t have any concrete proposal on the table: likely they are trying to come up with a proposal that will someday win approval while waiting for a more favorable political climate.
Cargill’s land is currently zoned TP (for Tidal Plain) and GI (General Industrial); residential and office uses are most definitely not allowed on the property. That zoning would have to be changed in order for any development along the lines of what Cargill seems to be dreaming of to proceed, and I’m pleased to note that the City Council doesn’t appear to be inclined towards altering the zoning. Salt harvesting seems to be an OK use for the land, but I really think that it needs to be completely restored to the wetlands that it once was.
From the large pool of dreamers, I want to touch on one final one: Lane Partners. Lane Partners are the folks who built the building at the corner of Broadway and Jefferson Avenue, soon to be the new home of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a limited liability company (it is not a non-profit) that has the lofty aim to “advance human potential and promote equality in areas such as health, education, scientific research and energy.” This building:
In addition to the building’s large office component, most of the ground floor and part of the second floor — totaling almost 27,000 square feet — is designated as retail space. The scuttlebutt was that a bank was going into this space, and during Monday’s City Council meeting we learned that although nothing seems to be set in stone as yet, Lane Partners does indeed hope to move a bank into part of that space. Their hope is to move Wells Fargo from their current stand-alone building at the corner of Main Street and Broadway, and then purchase Wells Fargo’s building and land (Wells Fargo apparently owns the land) and redevelop it.
Lane Partners has yet to submit any concrete proposals to the city, but during his time at the podium, Mark Murray, a principal at the firm, noted that the building that they envision would contain a mix of office, housing, and retail. The retail component would total around 10,000 square feet; he declined to provide any specific numbers as to how much office space or how many housing units the building would include. He did note that the company planned to make 35% of the housing units affordable, which is something. Parking would presumably be in an underground garage, and Mr. Murray noted that some of the parking would be open to the public even during the daytime (rather than just on nights and weekends, as is the case with many of the new office buildings downtown).
According to the map of allowable building heights I showed earlier, Wells Fargo’s parcel falls largely within the 8-story zone, meaning that unless the height limits are changed, Lane Partners’ new building could go up to, but could not exceed, 92 feet in height.
Without seeing more specifics, it’s hard to pass judgement on what Lane Partners is dreaming about. But I’m guessing that a lot of people will like the idea of extending Redwood City’s highly walkable restaurant/retail areas, both on Broadway and on Main Street, a little bit farther, as this project would do. Whether doing so via an eight-story building is acceptable, however, is another story altogether. We’ll have to look at the proposal in context, once there is such a proposal. Keep an eye out for one, and know that if a proposal does come before the city, I will of course write about it.
Developers dream, and, in some cases, turn those dreams into reality. Not all of their dreams, of course, but that’s the nature of dreams: some come true, and some do not. Soon we may just know if the dreams of Lowe, Cargill and DMB Pacific Ventures, and Lane Partners will remain dreams, or will someday, in some form, come true.
About a month ago, in my post Slow News Week, I shared a picture of the small building at 1531 Main Street which I noted was been remodeled for use by DoorDash. I had assumed that it likely would be offices, but did state that “perhaps DoorDash is getting into some other aspect of the business and needs a kitchen?” As you may have heard, this latter scenario is indeed what is happening. DoorDash has been experimenting with stand-alone kitchens that are shared by select food-service businesses, kitchens that those businesses can use to prepare foods exclusively for delivery (by DoorDash, naturally) and perhaps for takeout. According to Elena Kadvany, who writes for Palo Alto Online, noted that Nation’s Giant Hamburgers, Rooster & Rice, Humphrey Slocombe and The Halal Guys all are currently preparing food at this Redwood City kitchen, food that can be delivered not only to Redwood City but to many neighboring communities as well. So now we know what this bright red building on Main Street close to Chestnut Street is all about.