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Council Won’t Allow Ground Floor Office Space in Downtown

Rather than allowing property owners to lease the space as offices, the city council moved to start a task force to reduce downtown vacancy rates.

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.”

 

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Reality Check May 22, 2012 at 04:12 PM
This article leaves out what happened to the numerous other tweaks to the Downtown Precise Plan (DTPP) that were being proposed along with the easing of the ground-floor retail prohibition. Did the council throw them all out, or just the ground-floor retail part?
Jim May 22, 2012 at 05:26 PM
Awesome, a task force is really going to fix things. I work downtown, there is pretty much 0 retail worth visiting in town, and walk up and down streets and it's one vacant storefront after another.
wotten1 May 22, 2012 at 05:29 PM
While recruiting new retail to fill the vacuum of ground-level vacancies in downtown Redwood City is the glass slipper sought by city management and property owners, an interesting variation of that goal presents itself: why not get _existing_ businesses--those who've demonstrated the savvy to succeed in edgier locations--to move to foot-traffic friendly downtown? Smart property owners should leave low-hanging fruit to rivals by concentrating on businesses with clear potential for sustained success given they're still afloat in locations less than ideal. Bring in such gems with attractive leases and both the property and business owners will enjoy success as will Redwood City's development management. One such example is a Latin-influenced seafood restaurant which quietly opened recently without major fanfare in the off-Broadway version of Broadway Street--just exiting downtown: La Viga. Its originality and culinary expertise, coupled with engaging service has created an expanding base of enthusiastic customers--but its long-term viability would clearly benefit from a downtown location. So adding such an approach to that of recruiting _new_ retail to downtown, keeping alert for _existing_ businesses glowing with the aura of sustainability increases likelihood for every one--a chance to enjoy the fabled status of Win-Win.
Ralph Garcia May 22, 2012 at 05:41 PM
From El Camino Real to Main street there are 8 vacant stores. That does not sound like store after store.
Reality Check May 22, 2012 at 05:42 PM
Jim, you forgot to mention what you propose. What are examples of retail "worth visiting" and explain how will allowing up to 40% dead-to-the-public ground-floor offices provide it to you? (You wouldn't say where you got that earlier nonsense about "100% OK" ... so let's see if you can be bothered to answer this time.)
Ralph Garcia May 22, 2012 at 05:42 PM
That's on Broadway
Jim May 22, 2012 at 05:53 PM
Reality check, for someone that lives in RWC and works in downtown, focusing on not allowing ground floor commercial/office isn't the biggest issue. I would much rather have commercial and office space vs empty storefronts. More people in town, working in town, creates the need for more services to be provided downtown. Ask the restaurants on Main street how they feel about having YuMe and Turn on Main street. Think they are upset that there aren't enough 'retail' stores? Before those businesses moved in, restaurants were emtpy, since the move we now have the Patty Shack, and Milagros has even taken the time to reduce the number of major health department violations. The 100% ok was sarcasm, I was thinking with the hard as nails nickname of 'Reality Check' you would get that. It's priorities and for someone that works downtown, I see the blight that is main street as a bigger deterrent to the recovery of Redwood City than whether or not some of the ground floor retail is used as office space. Number of times I've been panhandled in San Carlos 0, I get panhandled in RWC every time I leave the office for lunch, but by all means, keep your laser like focus on ground floor office space.
Jim May 22, 2012 at 05:56 PM
There is more to downtown than just broadway.
Reality Check May 22, 2012 at 06:04 PM
Good answer, Jim. Not a bad spanking either. Thanks! So if the restaurants are so happy with office space and want more of it, why didn't they turn up and say so at last night's council meeting? (Or did they?)
Jim May 22, 2012 at 06:06 PM
Because the majority of downtown is office space so everyone leaves at 5?
Reality Check May 22, 2012 at 06:12 PM
But the retailers were there in force, and (at least for the part I watched) I didn't see any restaurateurs speak in favor of (or against) the proposed up-to-40% ground-floor office space proposal.
Jim May 22, 2012 at 06:16 PM
Only thing I can think of is that they were doing dinner service for their restaurants. The only type of business that seems to be growing in RWC is food, especially at lunch.
Zeke Mead May 22, 2012 at 06:36 PM
"There is more to downtown than just broadway." Except for Theater Way and Broadway, you can already have store front office space downtown. And you're getting panhandled in RWC not because of a lack of retail downtown, it's the very large JAIL in the middle of it as well as SRO hotels.
Buck Shaw May 22, 2012 at 11:22 PM
I can see it now! "Reality Show RWC" rent this space. What am I bid. Will it last. Council against landlords, Business against City, Resturants against landlords and City. People and shoppers against merchants! What a TV show... Only thing is people still vote with the feet and University Ave. has a lot of bum's too.
Sarah H. May 23, 2012 at 05:47 AM
I work downtown, and while I enjoy the growing number of restaurants to choose from for lunchtime fare, I would really like to see some interesting retail. And no offense to Pickled, Cindy's and Brick Monkey, but something other than super expensive boutiques would be nice. I've said it before and I'll keep saying it - we need McWhorter's or something of that ilk. Redwood City completely lacks a good card store. Also, a wise retailer would look at RWC's growing number of middle and high schoolers that just love to come downtown and hangout downtown sans parents. For good or bad, these kids are enjoying just hanging downtown on weekends and chances are they've got money in their pockets from their parents. Let's give them something other than the movies and food to spend their money on. A trendy teen-savvy shop would be a hit. So, no, I do not think the city should consider putting in more groundfloor office space downtown. Let's give retail a chance. Keep RWC weird. :o)
Lou Covey, The Local Motive May 23, 2012 at 02:06 PM
Here's the problem, folks. Brick-and-mortar retail is not doing all that great in this economy... just in case you hadn't noticed. The reason McWhorter's shut down in Redwood City... and everywhere else... is because no one was buying enough for them to pay the rent and employees. And you can't blame big box stores, either. Best Buy and K-Mart are just the latest of the big retailers facing closures nationally. There are very few retail merchants making it. Restaurants, on the other hand, have a fairly steady clientele, which translates into sales tax revenue that the city needs. I think the council made a mistake in not allowing office space on Broadway, although I thought the 5 year maximum lease was too long.
Reality Check May 23, 2012 at 04:58 PM
The council listened to the retailers. What you're saying is that the retailers just made a mistake too (not impossible -- I'm amazed at how wrong the retailers fighting the California Avenue makeover in Palo Alto are). Brick Monkey says they're doing well and drawing clientele from well beyond Redwood City. I believe them; it's a really nice store ... probably the nicest store we've got downtown.
Lou Covey, The Local Motive May 23, 2012 at 05:54 PM
Totally agree with you, RC. Shops like Brick Monkey are doing well. But Sarah, and others, want something other than "high-end boutiques." People who come to downtown after working hours come to eat and stick around only if they go to a movie. There is very little retail available to keep them around. That's what other potential retail tenants see. I'd like to see more start-ups and incubators in downtown where the workers stay at the office until 9 p.m. That would give retailers a reason to stay open and create more foot traffic.
mama mia May 24, 2012 at 01:46 AM
Let's talk about all the downtowns or fun places where we love spending time (in the bay area and beyond). How many of them are riddled with offices on the ground floor of the MAIN strip? Hmmm, Can't think of any.... Let's talk about (just a few of) the successful areas that attract locals as well as patrons and visitors from elsewhere.... San Carlos Palo Alto Burlingame Los Altos Pacific Ave (santa cruz) Santana Row The Mission district, SF Haight St, SF The Marina district, SF San Luis Obispo Sonora Murphy's ETC. ETC. ETC..... this is a tough question, but..... WHAT'S SO ATTRACTIVE ABOUT THESE DOWNTOWNS AND OTHER DISTRICTS??? Drumroll. please..... SHOPPING AND ENTERTAINMENT!!! agreed that offices add to the amount of people spending in any given area, but they are not the reason people would go out of their way to travel to or spend time there. we need more than lunch and dinner crowds. people need a reason to stay dntn after work and before or after they eat.

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