Zoning Out

The hits just keep on coming, it seems! In early March, the proposal to redo the Sequoia Hotel popped up on the city’s Development Projects list. Then, just about a week later, here came the proposal for the 2300 Broadway site: the 9 or 10-story office building to replace the downtown branch of Chase Bank. And just last week, the newest proposal appeared: the office building and teen center combo project slated for 901 El Camino Real: the AutoZone site.

The block upon which the proposed 901 El Camino Real project would be built is an oddly shaped one. It is bounded by El Camino Real, Winklebleck Street, California Street, and James Avenue. But it is by no means a rectangle. Here is what it looks like on a map:

In the above, I shaded the block in pink to make it stand out. There are three buildings on the site today: the AutoZone building, the long-empty Yumi Yogurt building, and the old Taco Bell (that is still serving Mexican food, as Carnitas El Rincon). The AutoZone building and the Carnitas El Rincon building both show up in the above rendering; you can just make them out as slightly darker rectangles (tagged with their business names) in the pink area. The Yumi Yogurt building doesn’t appear in the above, but it is roughly the same size as the Carnitas El Rincon building, and sits between the two buildings in the above image.

As you can probably tell, the three buildings on this block occupy less than half the available space. The rest is paved, and used for parking. With land in our area being as valuable as it is, these days the trend is to construct buildings that occupy as much of the land as possible, and put any parking either underground or inside the buildings. The project proposed for this site is no exception: the plans call for a three-level underground garage that is as large as the triangular portion of the site, plus a bit of the “panhandle” — basically to where the Yumi Yogurt building stands today.

Before l leave the subject of parking, and get onto talking about the buildings themselves, I need to mention how the cars would go into that underground garage. This project doesn’t employ mechanical stackers like some do in order to cram in the required number of cars. Instead, it will rely heavily on a valet to do the job. The three-level garage would have 156 marked parking spaces. But if more than 156 cars need to be parked, the valet(s) will simply jam them into every available nook and cranny of the garage. How many more? Would you believe 317? The drawings actually show faint images of the cars and where they could be put — and I have to say, I’ve never seen cars packed in this way:

(In the above, which shows the second parking level, the marked spaces are clear to see. Click the image and zoom in, though, and you’ll see the faint representations of cars packed into every available bit of space.)

To be fair, given this project’s close proximity to Redwood City’s Caltrain station — it is right next door — a lot of people working in this building would likely take the train, and thus the full amount of parking this building is required to supply will likely never be needed. So although I do expect that the valet won’t be spending their day sitting idle, I also don’t expect that things will be quite as challenging as they appear in the rendering.

The building is actually required to have 509 parking spaces, but even with the help of a creative valet, the designer can only fit in 473 cars. Thus, the project would also pay an in-lieu fee to the city for the missing 36 spaces.

Enough about the parking. Just what would sit on top of this three-level garage? This:

This rendering has been drawn from the perspective of a person standing on the corner of El Camino Real and James Avenue — the corner diagonally opposite the subject property. The two-story building in the foreground is the proposed Teen Center, and would replace the Carnitas El Rincon building. I’ll discuss that in a bit. The larger building is the real focus of this project: although you can’t really tell from this rendering, this seven-story office building would be triangular in shape, with one corner (the nearest corner, in the rendering) lopped off. The flat face produced by lopping off the triangle’s corner is where the building’s main entrance would be (cars would enter and exit the garage from the opposite face of the triangle — off Winklebleck Street). A second entrance would be located in the middle of the El Camino Real face of the building, where you can see a small inset in the above rendering.

Between the two buildings would be an open public plaza, dubbed Chrysanthemum Plaza. It would be designed with decorative seating and art to commemorate the period in time when Redwood City was actually known as the Chrysanthemum Capital of the World. (That was back in 1926. If this is new to you, I recommend clicking the link and reading Jim Clifford’s great article about the subject).

The seven-story office building would enclose 169,686 square feet of space, and would be 91 feet in height. For comparison, The Huxley, the large apartment building just one block south of Sequoia Station on El Camino Real, is also 91 feet high; and its next-door, under-construction neighbor at 1409 El Camino Real is 92 feet high. As for the building’s design, I wanted to highlight something that the developer says about that:

Earth-toned and articulated structural bays define the base and middle massing of the proposed Mediterranean-style office building.

Personally I’m good with most of this, but “Mediterranean-style office building”? Does anything about this building say “Mediterranean” to you? Admittedly the larger building will have a pitched terracotta roof to match the one on the smaller building, but as you can see, that particular feature isn’t going to be very visible. Of course, one can like the look of the building without having to label it “Mediterranean” — and, personally, I think I do. One nice feature of that roof — one that definitely won’t be visible from the ground — is that it will support a “generously landscaped roof garden [that] would provide a place for informal gathering and respite for office users.” The developer thoughtfully included a rendering of what that rooftop garden might look like in their project submittal:

The white bit in the middle is where the mechanical equipment you usually find in a building of this type is located, along with the elevators and stairwells, plus a set of bathrooms. But surrounding all that, you can see a number of landscaped and tiled areas, with seating scattered about. A portion of the outdoor area will be shaded by a pergola — look carefully and you can just make out a somewhat grey-shaded rectangle below (in the picture) the white center section.

I must say, if this building does get built, I’m going to be jealous of the people who work in it. I would just love to be able to spend time on that rooftop! I imagine one could get a great view of the Sequoia High School football games from up there…

That rooftop garden area isn’t the only outdoor space that the building’s employees will be able to enjoy. On the building’s fifth floor, there will also be a terrace along nearly the entire El Camino Real face of the building. This terrace is pretty clearly visible in the overall rendering I began this discussion of the building with. As well, on the seventh floor there is another, much smaller terrace facing El Camino Real, plus a somewhat larger, roofed terrace facing out over Chrysanthemum Plaza.

The building’s close proximity to Caltrain is likely to be a major point in its favor: the “Box” buildings have proved that putting an office building close to Caltrain really does reduce the number of cars that come and go from the building each day. In addition, though, the developer intends to build this building so that it achieves a LEED Gold rating for sustainable building practices. They also intend to achieve WELL certifications: these focus on the “overall health and well-being of building occupants, through an array of architectural, building systems, and site-specific features to ensure positive human health and well-being through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind.”

There isn’t much else to say about the office building, so allow me now to move onto the Teen Center. Back when this project was first shown to the City Council, as part of the Council’s “Gatekeeper Process” discussions, the office building didn’t look all that different from what is shown in the official project submittal. The Teen Center, on the other hand, looked radically different.

As you can see, the original design was fairly wild. Presumably, it was intended to make the building stand out to the teens who would be using the center. It certainly made the building stand out from the large office building next door, which I suspect the teens would regard as a good thing. Now, however, we have the rather staid little building that you can see in the earlier rendering. I should note, that the whimsy isn’t quite all gone, however. This side-view rendering shows the Teen Center from James Avenue:

The bright green panels in the rendering represent a living wall, which would soften the view of the building quite a bit. And to the right of them you can make out a faded wall with some art reminiscent of the original design: that is the building’s “mural wall.” Above that wall, incidentally, is where the building would have an outdoor “yoga” terrace. That terrace would face towards today’s Caltrain station.

As for what the Teen Center would consist of, this two-story, 4,462-square-foot building would be designed to provide “a safe place for studying, socializing, events, and gaining job skills and training. Various activities include a flexible social space for large meeting and casual study space, private study rooms, audio-visual rooms, and a demonstration kitchen space.” Given its location directly across El Camino Real from Sequoia High School (and just four short blocks from North Star Academy and McKinley Institute of Technology), it likely would get a great deal of use.

The Teen Center would be one great public benefit that this project would bring to Redwood City. I do need to make brief mention of one other: this project would also fund and “facilitate the construction of” 60 new units of affordable housing on an off-site location. During the Gatekeeper Process presentation the nearby A-1 Party Rentals building was singled out as the site of this affordable housing project, but other developers — and the project to elevate the Caltrain tracks through some or all of Redwood City — may make this location a no-go. The developer of this project at 901 El Camino Real will be submitting the affordable housing project separately, so we’ll have to wait until we see that submission before we can consider the merits of the specific proposal. But know that we likely will see 60 units of affordable housing built somewhere if indeed this project is approved.

There is a lot to like about this project. One can certainly argue about the need for yet another office building in Redwood City, but a number of developers — who stand to lose a great deal of money if they are wrong — see real demand for additional office space in our area over the next several years. Putting that issue aside, this appears to be a nice-looking building with some really great amenities. And it would make far, far better use of the oddly shaped block upon which it is planned to sit than the three buildings that stand there today. While I would miss both of the businesses that operate there today, I’m hoping that they could find places to move without too much trouble — perhaps with the help of this project’s developer and/or the city.

Having written so much about Redwood City — this is my 362nd blog post — my inbox tends to fill up rather quickly with information and suggestions, and I on occasion do overlook things. About a month and a half ago I received an email from Taylor Leatherman, the Community Communications Manager at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), with a photograph of their building showing how it was lit up for the final week of February, which I learned was Rare Disease Month (the last day of February — what they consider to be the rarest day of the year — is Rare Disease Day). Here is that photograph:

If you saw this building lit up this way and wondered what was going on, well, that was it. If not, keep an eye on it next year — when presumably more of us will be out and about — to see if they do something similar. But given that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a solid part of Redwood City now, I for one hope to get to know them better. I’ll share more as I learn it, but for now, allow me to include the relevant part of Taylor’s email to me:

In 2019, CZI launched the Rare As One Project to strengthen rare disease communities, connect them with one another, and build their capacity to accelerate research. As part of that effort, we funded 30 patient-led rare disease organizations that are working to develop and strengthen collaboration in the research community.

Despite significant obstacles brought on by the pandemic, rare disease patients and advocates continue to work tirelessly to make advances in research, and CZI celebrates their ongoing contributions to find treatments and cures to rare diseases.

For more information, check out their Medium post.

Thanks to an article in The Daily Journal, I learned that at long last, our libraries are poised to reopen! On Thursday, April 22, we’ll once again be able to reenter our libraries throughout San Mateo County. Of course, hours and services will be limited, at first, and you’ll need to wear a mask and adhere to social distancing standards. As well, your visits will be limited to a single hour at a time, and the library will close at midday for an intensive cleaning. Library events and programs will remain virtual for the time being. But if you want to browse the stacks or use the computers, know that very soon you’ll be able to do that once again.

14 thoughts on “Zoning Out

  1. Pingback: Mighty Morphin Power Project | Walking Redwood City

  2. I can easily see the park & rec dept managing this teen center, like they do at the Red Morton facility! Go Chris Beth!

  3. Hi Greg! I wanted to give you a heads up that, while the libraries operated by San Mateo County Library will be opening next week, the various libraries operated by cities are each on different timelines (the Daily Journal article didn’t make that clear). Redwood City Public Library will be making an announcement soon about our opening date in late May – we decided to give all of our employees enough time to be fully vaccinated before we open the doors. However, when we open, we plan to be open six days a week at the Downtown Library and five days at the Redwood Shores and Schaberg branches, so access will be plentiful!

  4. Hi, I need to sign up for your post. I spent 7 years as a Planning Commission, 21 years as a city council members including two terms as mayor for 4 years and am still deeply commuted to our city. You post are about the only thing we have a a newspaper in our city and I wan to thank you for it.

    • You are most welcome. I enjoyed the couple of years when my columns were included in the Spectrum Magazine, and was saddened when that came to an end. Although I now write a weekly column for the Daily Journal, my blog goes into much more depth on subjects (and includes pictures). Fortunately, I enjoy what I do: the blog is a labor of love, and not a source of income.

      Signing up to get notified when I put up a new blog post is easy: just enter your email address in the “Follow blog via email” box and click “Follow” and you’ll be so notified. Alternatively, if you are into Twitter, you can simply follow @walkingRWC. My setup generates a tweet whenever I put up a new post.

  5. Do you know who would run the Teen Center? It is a great concept but there has to be an exciting, organized organization to run it to get teens to use it. They need to have lots going on to draw the teens in. Great location though. By the schools, CalTrain and buses!

    • That question occurred to me, too, as I was writing the post. No, I don’t know who would run it. I kinda wonder if that hasn’t been decided yet (they do have a few years to work that out). It may come up during the project discussion with the Planning Commission or City Council (which also won’t take place for probably a year or so)

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