Millbrae development passes
By Austin Walsh Daily Journal staff
It’s full speed ahead for a sweeping housing and commercial development proposed to transform BART land at the Millbrae train station, following officials blessing the divisive project.
The Millbrae City Council voted 3-2, with Mayor Gina Papan and Councilman Wayne Lee dissenting, to narrowly approve the Gateway at Millbrae Station during a meeting spanning into the early hours of Wednesday, March 14.
Before a large crowd of residents, housing advocates, project critics and many more, officials embraced the proposal comprised of 150,000 square feet of offices, nearly 30,000 square feet of retail space, 400 new housing units and a hotel abutting the city’s train station.
The decision is a landmark one for the city, completing years of discussions, planning and policy development aiming to craft the area near the intersection of Millbrae Avenue and El Camino Real into a thriving hub of transit-oriented development.
Michael Van Every, president and CEO of development firm Republic Family of Companies, plainly stated his company’s position on the proposal initially formulated nearly five years ago.
“We believe this is the best project for this area,” he told councilmembers, amidst the hourslong deliberation prior to officials taking action.
Many held opposing views on the project though, primarily those who believed officials should hold off on approving the project in favor of negotiating a more lucrative development agreement for the city.
Dozens of critics called for amended project plans to include more retail space, less housing density, greater financial contributions from the developer, better traffic calming measures, a higher quality hotel and increased consideration for the local school district.
Those concerns were shared by Papan, who has long criticized the project for not generating enough revenue or other perks for the local community.
“This current arrangement, I don’t think it benefits Millbrae,” she said.
Criticisms, expressed by community members or officials, were met with enthusiastic applause by residents sporting brown hats declaring “Better Millbrae,” and waving signs and banners expressing dissatisfaction with the project.
Counter perspectives were lauded by housing advocates, real estate professionals and others calling for project approval as a means of combating the local affordability crisis.
“We desperately need housing, and this is the ideal location for 400 units,” said Gina Zari, spokeswoman for the San Mateo County Association of Realtors.
Of the housing units, 80 are proposed in a standalone project to be constructed nearby and reserved for military veterans.
Following a negotiation from the dais led by Councilman Reuben Holober, Van Every committed to adding 20 more affordable units priced at a moderate rate to be built into the market rate project.
Holober also talked Van Every into contributing an additional $880,000 to the city’s Community Center rebuild fund, raising the sum to $2.8 million and matching the city’s payment toward development of the affordable units.
Van Every has claimed the city’s contribution is essential to financing the affordable project, as it unlocks a complex series of tax credits and public money required for the project to pencil out.
Witnessing the flexibility on terms of the development agreement, Papan encouraged officials to table a decision at the meeting to grant more time for bargaining.
“My colleagues would be selling us short if we just agreed on what is before us right now,” she said.
The two dissenting votes on the development reflected the councilmembers’ previous position on the Millbrae Station Area Specific Plan in 2016, when the policy loosening development regulations for the 116-acre site near the train station was approved.
Lee and Papan then claimed the agreement was being ushered through too quickly, to the detriment of the city’s best interest and that perspective was reiterated last night.
“Let’s just go ahead and rush this through,” Lee sarcastically quipped at the most recent meeting.
The station plan decision paved the way for the Republic project proposal, as well as the Serra Station project which councilmembers are concurrently considering. Officials are slated to soon re-examine Vince Muzzi’s project offering 444 housing units, more than 290,000 square feet of offices and approximately 13,200 square feet of retail space in one nine-story and two 10-story towers at the city’s rail stop.
The two sizable projects are only a portion of the residential development slated for the area, as Papan suggested as many as 1,200 units could ultimately be proposed in the 116-acre site.
Following the decision, emotions continued running high as project proponents enthusiastically cheered while critics jeered across the aisle of red folding chairs dividing the gymnasium that they were hijacking Millbrae. Outside, residents who fought the development took off their caps and were overheard readying their plans to move elsewhere.
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