The large turnout of Monday night persuaded the city council to reject a change in policy to allow ground floor office space downtown.
The Planning Commission voted 5-2 on May 1 to amend the city’s Downtown Precise Plan, or zoning blueprint, to allow ground floor office space so property owners could have more flexibility to lease their vacant spaces. However, the city council accepted business owners’ offer to create a task force to combat the vacancy issue.
“I want to see if this passion is sustainable,” Councilmember John Seybert said. “Stay involved, stay engaged.”
Business owners like Dayna Marr of , Active Aggie and offered to form a committee to find ways to bring more retail to downtown.
Stephanie Kolkka of also offered to create some sort of task force.
“Downtown has a precious asset. You don’t barter it away, you work to address it,” Kolkka said. “Why would you work to pull the rug out from under it? What message does this send to retailers who invested in you?”
Staff initially proposed the amendment, and the Planning Commission approved it, because the downtown vacancy rate has been approximately 20 percent, and as much as 30 percent in the last 10 years. The staff wanted to increase the flexibility of the Downtown Precise Plan by allowing for other types of businesses, including offices, to rent space for temporary four year use permits, with a possible one-year use extension.
“Of course we want housing, retail and employment, but we’re pausing when other uses comply,” said Downtown Development Director Dan Zack of the rationale. “This will create a more active downtown.”
“Our long-term plan doesn’t change,” Zack added. “But what do we do in that interim period in the meantime?”
Many business owners, donning orange “Keep Retail” stickers, believed putting offices downtown wouldn’t bring the foot traffic that retail or other businesses could bring.
“Don’t poison the fruit that the downtown has been baring,” homeowner Pamela Estes said. “We’ll lose this opportunity to establish this core retail opportunity in downtown. It’s not what residents want.”
A San Carlos resident even spoke at the council meeting championing Redwood City’s burgeoning downtown.
“It’s a gem amongst gentrified towns with little personality. It’s now my favorite stop and you’ve transformed the downtown,” he said to the council.
Developers who spoke at the meeting told accounts of how long their properties had been vacant and the lack of interest from people in starting a retail business.
Mary Gallagher, a resident and urban planner, called the proposed temporary office rezoning was a “relief valve.”
“It’s an incremental improvement in the short term market leasing situation,” she said. “It normalizes vacancy rates and becomes more attractive for potential business owners.”
Seybert agreed that the task force needed to act quickly so property owners could “rent their space and make money off this wonderful downtown.”
The camaraderie in the room was palpable as hugs and cheers went on outside the council chambers after the meeting adjourned.
“This might be the best day in the history of Redwood City [for retail],” said co-owner Eric Lochtefeld. “I’m in favor of the passion and what this could bring. Every day I’m in Redwood City it gets better and better.”