The mile-long stretch of El Camino Real in North Fair Oaks, right on the border with Atherton, may never be the same.
The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors recently approved a number of zoning changes that laid out how new density will be permitted along El Camino Real in North Fair Oaks, roughly between Northumberland Avenue and Loyola Avenue.
Three distinct zones in that area have been created along El Camino and along 5th Avenue: commercial mixed-use categories 1 and 2, and neighborhood mixed-use.
In commercial mixed use area 1, the maximum building height is 60 feet, while in commercial mixed use area 2, it is 50 feet, and in the neighborhood mixed-use area, it is 40 feet.
Most of the El Camino Real-facing properties will be granted the tallest of those height allowances, with the more stringent height restrictions clustered around the north side of 5th Avenue between El Camino Real and the Caltrain tracks, and along El Camino Real between Berkshire Avenue and 5th Avenue.
The zoning changes include new design standards, such as minimum setbacks, requirements for parking and street trees, and sidewalks that are at least 10 feet wide along El Camino Real. There are provisions for shared and off-site parking, and new requirements to accommodate parking for electric vehicles and bicycles.
The new zoning bans certain types of new businesses along El Camino Real. No drive-through establishments, funeral homes, car vendors, gas stations, golf driving ranges or mini-golf venues will be allowed.
The rezoning affects new development only. Existing uses can continue as they are.
Under the new zoning, indoor exercise facilities will be allowed, as will, under certain strict circumstances, non-chartered financial institutions or payday loan operations.
According to Linda Lopez, a member of the North Fair Oaks Community Council, an advisory group to the Board of Supervisors, the zoning changes represent the implementation of a community plan, first launched in the late 1970s, to support economic development in the community.
For years, she said, North Fair Oaks was "disenfranchised." Because the area is unincorporated San Mateo County, decisions that affect the area are made by the county and the Board of Supervisors rather than a city government. "It was an uphill battle to get anything for the community," she said.
Over time, things have changed, and now, with the support of Supervisor Warren Slocum and additional county resources, more is getting done, she said.
She credits the changes to a county initiative called "North Fair Oaks Forward," run by the county manager's office with the community council and community-based organizations.
In 2011, the county updated the community plan, laying out the concept for added density and mixed-use development in North Fair Oaks, a roughly 800-acre area of unincorporated land sandwiched between Atherton and Redwood City and between El Camino Real and Bay Road.
The plan also specifies desired community features such as more parks, public art and farmers' markets.
El Camino Real is the second of four areas in North Fair Oaks that are being rezoned.
Before El Camino, Middlefield Road from 1st through 8th avenues was rezoned. The next phases will involve rezoning the part of North Fair Oaks closest to Redwood Junction (the intersection of Woodside Road and El Camino Real) and the area along the Caltrain and Dumbarton rail tracks parallel to Edison Way, according to county planner Will Gibson.
Preliminary preparations to rezone the next area, such as scoping the project, drafting work plans and identifying research needs has begun, according to Joe LaClair, county planning services manager.
As with many public processes, there was a range of opinion on how effectively participants had been asked for their feedback and whether their responses had been heard and incorporated into the final version.
To guide the zoning process, the county's planning department formed a working group with various stakeholders and residents in the community, which included residents, property owners and representatives from the North Fair Oaks Community Council.
Some residents and property owners in North Fair Oaks said that the county did not sufficiently gather and respond to their feedback.
Kent Manske, who was part of a working group assembled to work through specific zoning policies, wanted less density – the amount of square feet of development allowed per square foot of land.
In October 2016, he and nine other residents of the Selby Park neighborhood in North Fair Oaks sent the county an email laying out specific zoning recommendations, such as limiting building heights to three stories and increasing setbacks.
Since then, he said, only marginal changes were made to the plan: "We got them to go down to three or four stories on a couple of parcels."
A continuing concern for him and his neighbors, he said, is cut-through traffic. Some residents can't get out of their neighborhood, with "cars zipping through to deke a traffic light," he said. Some parents don't let their kids ride their bikes in the neighborhood because of safety concerns, he added.
Janet Davis, who lives in Stanford Weekend Acres and owns rental property in North Fair Oaks, alleged that the process was not inclusive enough of the area's Hispanic community, which represents the majority of residents in North Fair Oaks. As of the 2010 U.S. census, 73 percent of the 14,693 residents of North Fair Oaks identified as Hispanic or Latino.
At one public meeting held at the St. Francis Center/Siena Youth Center, a hub for North Fair Oaks' Hispanic community, she said, a number of attendees said they'd never heard about the community plan, nor the added density it would bring, and people were upset.
In contrast, Joe LaClair, county planning services manager, said great lengths were taken to gather feedback from the community at 17 public meetings over 23 months, some of which happened with the working group, and three of which were designated as "community meetings."
At the Siena Youth Center meeting, he said, there was a possibility that misinformation had been spread that upset people.
Translators were present at the three "community meetings," Mr. LaClair said, and some – not a lot – of Spanish speakers did share their points of view.
"I think that we listened," he said. "We made substantive revisions to the proposals from staff based on what we heard, and we're really trying to be responsive to (the) neighborhood."
The county extensively informed residents about meetings via door hangers, websites, postcards and newspapers, he said. Getting people to show up to those meetings is a different matter, he added. "If we mail 1,000 postcards, we might get 50 people at a meeting."
Ms. Lopez, the Community Council's representative to the working group, noted that it can be a challenge to recruit people to such groups because of the commitment involved.
"Quite honestly, more people need to get involved," she said. "It's been a long process, and it could use more participation."
But to her, the new zoning is a sign of progress. For the first time, she said, the community council will have more leverage to ask developers to scale down developments if proposals don't fit the zoning. Developers now must hold a public meeting before any development proposal is formally submitted, allowing the community to give public feedback on such projects.
"Some still think that they don't have a voice, (that) whatever they say doesn't matter," she said. "So all I can do is talk to them and encourage them to participate. If you look at where we were 10 years ago, (and) where we are now, there has been some really good progress. You have to have hope."