With the August 4 announcement that the City of Burlingame had received – and was about to commence considering – 19 separate proposals for developing downtown parking lots, several important issues relating to Burlingame’s future and its definition of “quality of life” increased in relevance. The parking lots have been in play for a long time; what happens now could mean very big changes for downtown.
The city is looking to convert this land into revenue, and to hopefully add elements to downtown that will raise its profile and improve Burlingame’s overall quality of life – without losing any of the parking spots afforded by the land in parking-lot form. How will city officials do this?
Like almost every city in San Mateo County, Burlingame has a . Unlike many of its Peninsula neighbors, Burlingame’s downtown (defined by the Downtown Specific Plan as the areas adjacent to Burlingame Avenue) doesn’t need a wholesale revitalization.
So, whereas San Mateo and Redwood City arguably had to move mountains to return their downtowns to relevance, Burlingame’s is chugging along quite nicely, thank you. One could ask oneself exactly what needs to be done to downtown Burlingame that isn’t already there – and how to improve a quality of life that’s already pretty good.
Other cities’ downtown upgrades required change -- infusion of new retail and restaurants, new entertainment districts. Burlingame’s plan calls for “change,” but “preservation” is more clearly emphasized. It suggests that downtown add a boutique hotel, one of the options presently under consideration by the City Council. It also lists as one of its goals to “encourage a mix of uses in areas currently dominated by a single land use” – hence, parking lots that become hotels, restaurants, shops and mixed-use residential/commercial development.
Mixed-use development – especially the kind that orients itself near a transit center, like Caltrain – is the sacred cow of 21st-century urban planning. It was the foundation of 18th and 19th-century urban planning, but that was more by default than by plan. There were no cars, so people had to live within walking (or horseback) distance of jobs and amenities. The automotive era changed all that. Now, after a century of fleeing downtowns, it turns out that cul-de-sacs and subdivisions weren’t the answer, after all.
But does this apply to Burlingame? I would argue that Burlingame doesn’t really need mixed-use development downtown, since the bulk of its residents already live within walking distance or, at worst, a short drive, from either Burlingame Avenue or Broadway. I would also argue that Burlingame’s primary attraction to potential homebuyers isn’t its vast inventory of affordable housing. The apartment buildings along El Camino Real are an excellent, already-built example of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD). Does Burlingame need more?
Personally, I am a major TOD booster. Projects already completed or on the books in San Carlos and Millbrae could be game-changers for those small cities. But neither of those places have a tradition of urban/small town-style living. Burlingame does.
Introducing downtown, mixed-use development keeps those cities in step with changes in lifestyle philosophy. Changes may not be necessary in Burlingame, where people have been walking downtown for a century.
Finally, adding housing to downtown adds people to downtown; more people means more cars. Credit to the city for requiring each proposal to include replacements for every parking spot list by development. There will be no net loss of parking spots, but there will be more cars.
Over the next several months, the City Council must add another consideration to the 19 proposals they will be vetting. As they strive to improve Burlingame, they must also weigh the benefits versus the costs of change. They must do this, and they must remember that their town is unique. What transformed Redwood City simply may not be necessary in Burlingame.