Charting Progress

Last week in my regular column for The Daily Journal I wrote about a subject that I’ve been developing for quite a while now: how the pace of development in Redwood City has fared over the years. It took quite a while to identify all of the significant projects that have been approved by the City Council, by the Planning Commission, and by the Zoning Administrator over the last decade or so. After that, it took even longer to come up with the significant milestone dates for each. Although I originally set out to build up this body of knowledge so that I can provide more background when writing about new projects, I soon realized that the data I’ve accumulated can be used in other ways as well. One way — the one that I addressed in my newspaper column — was significant enough that I thought I’d expand upon it here.

In addition to the fact that my newspaper column has to be a specific length (800 words), it is text only: I cannot use any images. Here, on my blog, though, I can of course make my posts as short or as long as I want, and I can use images. And when talking about data changing over time, a picture is often worth a thousand (or, in my case, around 800) words. Let’s start with that chart:

Now, let me try to explain what it all means (using, ironically, more than 800 words!).

Over the years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve built up a rather complex spreadsheet that attempts to track all of the information that arises from a development project. That spreadsheet currently has 95 entries, from the One Marina condominium development up to a handful of projects that have been proposed but whose applications to the city are as yet incomplete. I track both large residential projects and commercial ones. Note that I do not track smaller projects, such as individual houses. What you see here are merely the projects of a type large enough, or significant enough, to make it onto the city’s Development Projects web page (whether or not they actually ever appeared on that page).

Although many of the projects I’ve been tracking have been built, some are still in the process and a good number never even made it to the groundbreaking stage. All of that information is in my spreadsheet, along with four key dates (assuming the project made it to each of these milestones, that is):

  • The date the project was first proposed. This date can be tricky to pin down. For instance, I don’t have a precise date for the One Marina project, but as far as I can tell it was proposed sometime in the year 2002. I did manage to come up with reasonably precise dates for all of the projects that I charted, though.
  • The date the project was approved. Some projects are approved by the Zoning Administrator, some by the Planning Commission, and some by the City Council. Whenever the project got the final green light is the date I used (some projects are approved and then an appeal is filed; in that case I used the date that the appeal was denied and the project was thereby upheld). For most projects this date is easy to find since it is either in the records of the approving body, or there is a document from that body to the developer giving the thumbs-up.
  • The date that the project broke ground. I had to use my judgement when coming up with this date in some cases, but I like to think that my dates are accurate to within a week or two. Often I have photographic evidence of on-site work commencing, and those photographs are dated. For instance, I have photographs showing the initial demolition of the buildings that were on the site where the “Box” buildings were soon to be constructed. In a few cases, though, I had to rely on the dates that certain building permits were issued.
  • The date that the project was completed. This date, too, I often was able to get from my own photographs (I currently have more than 17,000 photographs that I’ve taken for this blog; as you can see, they come in real handy). Here, too, on occasion I’ve had to look to other sources of information, including building permit sign-offs, news reports, and other documents.

In thinking about the pace of development I kept remembering how, during a couple of our City Council and Planning Commission campaigns, various members of the public would call for a “pause” in the amount of development activity that was taking place. A couple of candidates seemed to sympathize with that feeling, and that led me to wonder whether our city leaders ever really did slow down the seemingly frantic pace of real estate development in Redwood City. Accordingly, I took the 95 projects that I have records for and focused only on the ones that were approved. (Approved, but not necessarily built; a “pause” would result in fewer, or no, approvals for a time. Whether or not an approved project is actually built is more up to the developer than to our city leadership). I then grouped them into two-year buckets. Why two years? Well, the calls for pausing all development seemed to be loudest during City Council campaigns, so I used the two years between City Council elections (which is why the first bucket starts in November of 2009, rather than January 1, 2010). I also ignored projects approved earlier than November 2009, since there my data is less complete, and likely less accurate.

Because my buckets correspond to a given set of City Councilmembers, I labeled each with not only the dates but also with the name of the person who was mayor during that two-year period. (In Redwood City, although councilmembers serve four-year terms — staggered so that only about half the council is voted on every two years — the council selects a mayor from one of their own after each election. Thus, we get a new mayor every two years.) However, the position of mayor is largely ceremonial: while they do sign official documents on behalf of the city, and do preside over the City Council meetings, much of what the mayor does is represent the city at ceremonial functions such as groundbreakings and civic gatherings and such. Thus, whether or not a given set of councilmembers are pro-development or anti-development is a reflection of the council as a whole, and not just of the mayor. Plus, I’m also including projects approved by the Planning Commission and the Zoning Administrator, so although the Council does set the overall tone, they did not personally approve every one of the 53 projects that are reflected in the above graph. So although each bar has a name affixed to it, the length of the bar doesn’t really say anything about the person who was mayor at the time. That label is really just a helpful way to recall what was going on in Redwood City back then — and an easy way to refer to the time periods.

Given all that, the chart shows the number of major projects that were approved during each two-year Council term since November 2009. Given my particular criteria, I count 53 in total. As you can see, between November 2009 and December 2017 we experienced steady growth in development project approvals, peaking at 15 projects approved during Mayor Seybert’s term (December 2015-December 2017). During the following term, when Ian Bain was mayor, the pace slowed a bit — but only to a pace nearly equal to period immediately before December 2015. Prior to Mayor Seybert’s term, when Jeff Gee was mayor, 12 projects received city approval. Immediately after Mayor Seybert’s term, 11 projects were approved. While some may consider the drop from 15 projects to 11 projects to be a “pause” — especially if you look at that final bar, with its measly two approvals — others may simply see Mayor Sebert’s term to be something of an aberration, and Mayor Bain’s term as more of a return to “normal.”

About that final bar. It is there for completeness, but it should largely be ignored, at least for now. For one thing, that stubby little bar shows the approvals so far in Mayor Howard’s current term — a term which is only half over. The Development Projects list currently shows 12 large projects that are in the “Proposed” stage; any or all of these could be approved over the next year, which would add to Mayor Howard’s score (and one could be a whopper: the Sequoia Station Redevelopment project). Also potentially adding to those 12 are the nine development projects that were reviewed during her term by the City Council as part of their Gatekeeper Process. While that process didn’t actually approve any of the nine, it did give a green light to six of those projects, enabling them to be submitted for formal approval — so they could appear on the city’s Development Projects list, as “Proposed,” almost any time. All of this adds up to a good chance that the bar for the current term and/or the bar for the two-year term that will follow will be right up there with the last couple.

My rather simple graph shows counts, but doesn’t reflect the magnitude of the projects themselves. For instance, although during Mayor Howard’s term only two major projects have been approved so far, one of them was a whopper: the South Main Mixed-Use project that will see the redevelopment of six city blocks (plus one outlying apartment building) in one fell swoop — and thus could be considered as six or seven separate projects, depending upon how you count the buildings. Some other really large projects are hidden in a number of the other bars, including the Broadway Plaza project (three office buildings and three apartment buildings, plus a bit of retail on the large parcel at Broadway and Woodside Road, and on a smaller parcel just across Woodside Road), the Blu Harbor project (402 apartments in eleven separate buildings encircling a mid-sized marina on the old Pete’s Harbor property), and the Indigo apartments (three towers comprising 463 apartments all above a single large underground garage). Each of these three was approved by a different council: Indigo was approved while Alicia Aguirre was mayor, Blu Harbor was approved while Jeff Gee was mayor, and Broadway Plaza was approved on Ian Bain’s watch.

As is often the case when I write about Redwood City development as a whole, I find myself a bit overwhelmed with the sheer numbers. 53 major project approvals in eleven years means that we’ve approved just under five projects each year, on average. For a place the size of Redwood City — about 19.4 square miles of land and a population of around 86,000 persons — that does indeed seem like a lot of (re)development. And, as you can see, there are no signs of it stopping…

I did take a short walk this week, and wanted to point out just a couple of quick things. First up, one project I was beginning to despair of — the 12-unit condominium project that is to replace the rapidly deteriorating Mountain Mike’s building on El Camino Real close to the San Carlos border — is finally showing signs of life! I was positively thrilled to see that signs have added to the construction fencing, and that some construction materials are starting to show up on site. This project is apparently to be named “One20 Towns” (it is located at 120 El Camino Real, and they are building townhouses), and will look very similar the immediately adjacent 12-unit condominium project (called The Towns @ Avondale) that was completed last year:

More on that project when construction gets underway.

Heading south on El Camino Real I noted that the Chase Bank, which is going into Sequoia Station where Max’s Cafe previously operated, is getting very close to opening:

Next, Chain Reaction Bicycles’ move from their current location, at 1451 El Camino Real, to the freestanding building where Aaron Brothers used to be, at 1680 El Camino Real, finally seems to be happening.

Expect them to continue operating from their current location in the Security Public Storage building through the end of the year, after which, fingers crossed, they’ll open their doors on their new location:

At long last there are (temporary) signs up in the windows of their new location, and I’m starting to see signs of life inside. For many reasons this new location should be an improvement on their current one, and will hopefully improve what is already a stellar Redwood City retailer. My family has bought several bikes from Chain Reaction in years past, and they’ve serviced those bikes as well, so I count myself as one of their many happy customers. And I’m not done: I’m giving serious thought to buying one of their electric bikes…

Finally, now that we are under a regional “stay at home order” for at least the next three weeks, dining at any of our wonderful restaurants — whether it be indoors or out — is forbidden. Most, if not all, of our restaurants are still open for takeout and/or delivery, though, so more than ever we need to patronize them. To make it easier for all of us to pick up our meals, the city has removed the barriers that were preventing parking and/or driving along some of our downtown streets in order to make room for outdoor dining spaces. Main Street is fully open once again, for instance. Just today I witnessed these trucks carting away the heavy concrete barriers that had been used to safely protect the in-street dining alongside Milagro’s:

Whether or not the barriers will come back after the stay-at-home is lifted, I have yet to hear. That may depend upon how many people have continued to dine outdoors as our weather has turned cold. In any case, know that, for now at least, traffic should once again flow freely through downtown Redwood City.

4 thoughts on “Charting Progress

  1. Thanks Greg! Lora and I are Chain Reaction fans too and we’re looking forward to their moving to the new location. Let us know if you decide to get an electric bike.

    • You can bet if I get an electric bike, that I’ll be writing about it! In the meantime, I noticed that Chain Reaction’s doors were open at their new site, so be sure to give them a visit!

  2. Thanks. If you are looking for an analysis of development projects done within North Fair Oaks, I’ll keep your request in mind. However, I would be largely starting from scratch, and having to work from county (not city) records, making the task somewhat harder. Then again, North Fair Oaks is much smaller than Redwood City and has experienced less significant development, so the list would be shorter…
    If you are looking for a writeup more along the lines of my neighborhood posts (, that is much more likely. I enjoy wandering through North Fair Oaks and will make it a point to do a more through survey of the area sometime next year. Once I’ve done that I’ll have a better idea of how I can best approach the subject. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. Greg – Really appreciate the wealth of information you bring to the masses on your blog and w/in your writing for the SMDJ. Do you think you may be willing to run a profile on the unincorporated North Fair Oaks part of Redwood City next year sometime?

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