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If it Ain't Broke...

Does Burlingame really need downtown upgrades?

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.

Fiona Hamilton August 07, 2011 at 04:43 PM
Our parking lots are a disgrace - even Burlingame can find something more creative, surely?
Jack Sherratt August 08, 2011 at 12:32 AM
Mr. Rosen, Indeed, if it ain't broke it doesn't need fix'in! Take a good look at what hungry politicians have done to others around us, just look at Millbrae!!! What a messs! Jack Sherratt, Burlingame, CA
John Taylor August 09, 2011 at 04:36 AM
While Burlingame downtown does not need huge change, I think it needs two things: SPRUCING UP and MORE ACTIVITY. Allow me to explain. Burlingame Ave physical condition is dated and deteriorating. If you visit it regurlary you may not notice, but it certainly does not look as nice as Santa Cruz Street (Menlo Park) or Broadway (Redwood City). The plan, actually more like a "hope," the City has to improve the sidewalks, planter boxes, etc. on Burlingame Ave would be a big step forward. Such improvements might be paid for from some new downtown development. Hence, point two. MORE ACTIVITY would include more downtown visitors and residents and stores, not to mention tax revenues. It is a waste to have so much of the downtown surface area devoted to parking lots. Move the parking up (garages) or down (sunken garages) so the surface can accomodate more retail space. Put residential above some of the new retail. This should provide a better night time population downtown. The Post Office property could also be a major part of this new development. And if we had a developer doing a substantial muti-use (including parking garage) development in place of one of the big parking lots then maybe there would be enough revenue for the City to buy the Post Office property. Or, maybe the Post Office property could be part of the development. We need to think creatively about how to add ACTIVITY downtown without losing the essential character of the City.

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