Retail Therapy

Regardless of how I feel about any given development project, I can almost always find at least one or two aspects that strike me as interesting. I particularly appreciate “mixed-use” projects: projects that are not all apartments, say, or all offices, but are a combination. For instance, a given project might combine retail and residential, or office and retail, or even all three.

Most projects these days seem to fall into the mixed-use category. Some, like the recently opened Arroyo Green senior housing project, include a childcare center. But for most, at least part of the “mix” is retail space. Especially for downtown projects, which often are built to replace existing retail space, putting retail on the ground floor allows the project to be built while (theoretically) having little impact on the character of downtown. This week I thought I’d talk about some of those projects, focusing on what space they provide, what they replaced (or would be replacing), and thus how they are or might change the retail picture within downtown Redwood City.

The project that spurred this idea for me is the nearly-complete Highwater apartment building, at 1405 El Camino Real. Highwater, as you may know, is an eight-story, 350-unit apartment building that has been under construction for just over three years now. They are now hosting virtual and in-person tours (appointment required) for potential tenants, and appear to be just about done with the building.

This is a very large building, one that fronts onto El Camino Real and extends all the way to Franklin Street in the rear. It has two small retail spaces, one on each of the building’s corners along El Camino Real. Here is the one on the left side, at the corner of El Camino Real and Diller Street:

It is the smaller of the two, at 1,400 square feet.

The building’s other retail space is on the right-hand corner as you face the building; it, too, faces El Camino Real but also looks out onto the alleyway that separates this building from the Security Public Storage building:

While this space is technically larger, it isn’t by much: it is only 1,500 square feet in size.

Prior to this building being constructed, this site held a number of buildings. Along Franklin Street was a two-story office building that was home to W.L. Butler Construction, who, back around the time this project was approved, built themselves a new office building (behind Broadway Cleaners, on Main Street at Woodside Road) and moved into it. Along the El Camino Real, this project displaced a small retail center — La Mancha Plaza — and a veterinary hospital. The vet — Sequoia Veterinary Hospital — moved to San Carlos. As for the small retail center, although it had a number of tenants over the years, including a furniture rental center, towards the end it was fully occupied by Treadmill Outlet. For a time, Treadmill Outlet moved to Menlo Park, but their site there also was demolished to make way for an office development, so they moved back to Redwood City and can currently be found at 665 El Camino Real.

I should also note that a small body shop also used to operate on the Highwater site, at 20 Diller St. There doesn’t appear to be a current listing for them, so either they changed their name and relocated, or they closed down altogether.

Clearly, the Highwater retail spaces are not appropriate for either a veterinary hospital or a body shop. And they appear to be much too small for Treadmill Outlet, so I don’t see those folks moving back in. In fact, the spaces are too small for a whole hosts of businesses, although a small service business — a tax accountant, for instance, or a nail salon or even a coffee shop — would fit. One positive feature of the Highwater building is the fact that of the 441 parking spaces in the building’s internal parking garage (all underground, on three levels), 18 of those spaces are set aside for the retailers. Thus, those retailers don’t have to rely solely on the handful of public spaces on El Camino Real and the dozen-and-a-half that can now be found on Diller Street for customer parking.

Greystar, the project’s developer and owner, is probably focusing right now on leasing the building’s apartments. While they may be leasing the retail spaces themselves, hopefully they are working with a broker who specializes in leasing retail space and who has incentive to fill those two spaces. It would be a shame to have those spaces sitting empty for long.

While leaving them empty would be disappointing, it wouldn’t be all that surprising. Take a look at the “Broadway Station RWC” building at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Broadway, for instance. Two years ago, when that building was completed, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative wasted no time moving into the entirety of the building’s office space. However, the retail portion of the building, which mostly faces Broadway and appears to consist of around 10,000 square feet, remains unoccupied to this day. Common wisdom has Wells Fargo Bank occupying the majority of the space, with a small chunk carved out for a Humphry Slocombe ice cream shop and an even smaller chunk outfitted for Aili Ice Designs, a local florist who does unconventional arrangements.

Last January an application was filed with the city for a sign permit for the bank, but that permit is still marked as being under review. I don’t see any other permits for outfitting the interior of this space, and each time I look in the windows I see no signs that anyone is making progress towards moving in, so who knows when, or even whether, all of this will come to pass. Certainly, I can understand some hesitation on the part of Wells Fargo Bank: they are currently operating out of their freestanding building at 1900 Broadway — just about a block and a half away — and may not see the need to relocate until the project being proposed for their existing site is approved (that project has not even been formally submitted to the city, so it’ll be years, if ever, before Wells Fargo would actually be forced to move). As for the other two retailers, perhaps the pandemic has caused them to rethink their plans? In any case, for now the retail space on one of the busiest corners in Redwood City remains empty.

Before The Broadway Station building was constructed, this prime downtown corner contained a large single-story building that was home to Powerhouse Gym, TanFastic (a tanning salon) and C.E.A. Travel (a travel agency). When it was time to go, Powerhouse Gym moved just a stone’s throw away, into the Jefferson Avenue-facing retail space in the Century Theaters building that previously had been occupied by DB Shoes. As for C.E.A. Travel, they appear to have moved to Woodside Road. I’m not sure that TanFastic still does business in our area.

On the proposed project front, two of the largest projects would replace stand-alone banks. I’ve already mentioned the one that would replace the current Wells Fargo Bank; that project, assuming it goes before the city as currently planned and is approved and constructed, would sport 10,000 square feet of retail space located along Broadway. Unless Wells Fargo moves back into that space, the project would add a nice-sized bit of retail to a busy downtown corner (Broadway and Main Street). As for the other proposed project, that one is in the very early stages of the approval process; it would replace the Chase Bank on Broadway (next to Courthouse Square) with a tall office building containing 12,000 square feet of retail, tentatively divided into three spaces. Two of those spaces would face Broadway, and one would face onto a closed section of Hamilton Street. The developer appears to envision the Hamilton-facing space being a food-service operation of some sort, which makes sense if that block of Hamilton is closed and turned into an urban park, as the developer envisions. But either way, the three retail spaces, combined, would more than make up for the loss of the Chase Bank. (Note that Chase Bank recently opened a branch in nearby Sequoia Station, in the old Max’s Café space.)

The proposed redo of the Sequoia Hotel would affect a number of small retailers. Currently, the ground floor of the hotel has four retail spaces facing Main Street, two of which are unoccupied, one of which is home to Gambrel & Co. (a craft butcher), and one of which houses the Main St. Market. Rounding the corner, there are three retail spaces on the building’s Broadway face, occupied today by Happy Nails, Ralph’s Vacuum & Sewing Center, and Broadway Tobacconists.

The drastically remodeled-and-expanded version of the hotel would have a restaurant along much of its Broadway face (a restaurant that would be open to the public), otherwise eliminating all of the traditional retail that is there now. As for the Main Street side of the hotel, much of it would be taken up by the hotel’s entrance lobby, leaving only a small area — 617 square feet — that opens onto Main Street for retail.

Coming full circle back to the vicinity of the Highwater building, Premier Properties has proposed constructing a six-story, 130-unit apartment building across the street from Highwater. That building, which would not be mixed-use and thus would not have any retail space, would take the place of three existing businesses: Happy Donuts, Cycle Gear (a motorcycle parts and accessory shop), and The Record Man, a shop that sells vinyl records. All three are businesses that could move if this project gets the green light and actually goes ahead, although I wouldn’t be surprised if The Record Man, at least, chooses to close up shop and retire. We’ll see.

I have to give some of Redwood City’s projects credit for including at least some retail, even if they are doing it at the behest of the city rather than because they believe it is truly the right thing to do. It does appear that the number of retail spaces in Redwood City is slowly shrinking, and that many of the spaces we are ending up with are smaller than what we’ve had in the past. I have fond memories of the world before internet retail became a thing, and thus would love to see the city move back in a direction of more, larger retailers. But the shift towards buying things online is not likely to be halted, much less reversed, and so I recognize that mine is a pipe dream.

The future of brick-and-mortar retail in general is uncertain, although it appears that some forms of retail just don’t work all that well online, and thus that there will always be a need for at least some traditional retail. As well, more service businesses are taking over spaces that used to house traditional retail (Powerhouse Gym taking over the DB Shoes location being an example of that), adding to the need for at least some retail space. Just how much a city like Redwood City needs, though, and in what sizes and in which locations, are tough questions to answer. I’ll leave that to the paid professionals (which includes the city’s Economic Development folks). I do hope, though, that the city pays special attention to the city’s long-time, independent retailers; to my mind, they are key to what makes Redwood City special.

13 thoughts on “Retail Therapy

  1. Cities generally don’t “build” anything … whether it’s retail, offices, hotels, housing, or mass transit systems. The best they can do is encourage and incentivize, and the worst is to discourage and disincentivize with onerous or difficult land use regulations and approval policies and processes. What gets proposed and built is really up to the private sector and market forces. Nobody can just will thriving retail into existence … *especially* now with an indefinitely long and unpredictable pandemic and the pre-pandemic rise of online shopping.

  2. With the significant increase in office space and high-density housing square footage in downtown RWC, retail/service businesses should target just these occupants (and not locals). No matter the appeal of “local” or non-franchise businesses coloring the downtown area, it seems higher rents will force them out, or at least move them closer to the city limits. RWC is clearly morphing to a more urban landscape, which means fewer reasons for a local pedestrian to come downtown. I assume San Carlos and other peninsula cities are on similar paths.

    • It is indeed becoming more urban (downtown, anyway) but the city does a pretty good job of giving people reasons to come downtown. Plus, a lot of our best restaurants — and our movie theaters, and the Fox Theatre (for live stuff) — are downtown, so we go down there quite a bit. Most of San Carlos’s major development is outside their downtown core; Laurel Street and San Carlos Avenue are still “restaurant rows” and appear quite popular with locals and out-of-towners alike.

  3. Am I the only one (can’t think so) who is appalled at the design for the “rehabilitated” and extended Sequoia Hotel? The old facade may have lots of problems, but it is a wonderful, historical element at the corner of Main and Broadway … at a time when so much of RWC is being transformed into a series of building blocks of various materials and heights, with no relationship to the city’s history. The new facade seems to combine blocks on the Broadway side and a stack of graduated bowls at the corner. Will this be pleasing to see, year after year?

    Thanks for your weekly observations!

    • You are welcome. I am not wild about the look of three-floor addition that the developer is proposing adding to the top. I understand the need to increase the square footage of the place in order to make it financially viable, but to my eye the upper floors don’t fit in well with the lower floors. Those lower floors, though, are being restored to something very close to their original look; old photos agree with the look that the developer is proposing. That doesn’t mean you have to like it, of course, just that the developer is trying to stick with history here.

  4. Retail has always been an afterthought for Council and it shows. It takes serious effort to have thriving retail but we’re too busy approving large projects while getting little in return. We shouldn’t permit a project that results in a net loss of retail given the incredible upzoning that has led to taller buildings with enormous profits.

    I believe we are now on our third Downtown Retail Task Force with nothing to show for it.

    • 100%. Our downtown looks like a Swiss cheese of empty storefronts yet all the big proposals include retail to get through Planning.
      But the big development projects don’t care what happens once they are done and gone. They can just move the costs of empty spaces onto the housing units and take tax deductions on the empty retail. Developers are in a long game and our CC is term-by-term.

  5. What is leaving/moving/pushed out for redevelopment appear to be the unique kinds of retail — the kind where you had small businesses, expert at what they do, and where word of mouth spread about where to buy meat, get your sewing machine fixed, talk music records, and so on. With so much being done online, the human touch and the exchange of information is lost. I wish there was room for both.

    • I think there is, actually. Especially for businesses like The Record Man who also embrace the internet. But I would hope that we would always need businesses like Ralph’s; I can buy a new sewing machine from Amazon, I suppose, but the sales and service I (OK, my wife, actually) get from his business can’t be replicated online ( and thus is why we keep patronizing his business). We also are regular customers of Gambrel & Co.; being able to talk to Ben about what is good and how to prepare it is worth any extra cost. If enough of us patronize these businesses, they’ll stick around.

    • Thank you so much for the photo of 1405 El Camino Real. I believe this is the location of an old bungalow style home my Grandparents lived in for at least some part of the 1920’s. Have one picture of my Great-grandmother with them and my Dad on the front porch. Letter I have from my Great-Grandfather, Colusa County is just addressed to Charles Humphrey, Redwood City, Calif. guessing they may have gone to the Post Office to pick up mail or RWC so small then did not need a street address to get your mail. Amazing the old house was there so long. Have always wondered if Charter St. RWC named after my Grandmother’s family.

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