VOICES AND VIEWS
Protecting the unique history of San Mateo
Keith Weber, April 28, 2023
One day your neighbor’s house is there. The next day it’s gone! Ripped asunder and reduced to rubble. The home had stood as a proud contributor to your neighborhood for almost 100 years. You find out the new buyers just “love” the neighborhood — yet appear acutely unconcerned about the attributes that define its character. They want a “new” house. They’re entitled. Tear downs of multimillion-dollar homes have become ironically trendy. And it is destroying our unique heritage neighborhoods.
San Mateo has a wealth of historic resources that can be found in every corner of the city. They reflect important themes in the city’s growth and development — architecture, city planning, social history, ethnic heritage and commerce. Collectively, they tell the story and define the character of our community, adding to the quality of life for all. Yet, many of our historic resources remain unidentified and most are unprotected.
Galvanized by multiple home demolitions, Laurie Hietter and community leaders from diverse neighborhoods formed San Mateo Heritage Alliance as a 501c(3) nonprofit corporation in 2022. The organization is a response to community concerns about losing irreplaceable historic resources and the resulting erosion of neighborhood character and identity.
“Undermining our historic neighborhoods by demolishing them house by house, even if well intentioned, is disrespectful and wasteful,” Hietter said. From an environmental standpoint, the “greenest” building is one that is already built.
“San Mateo’s walkable historic residential neighborhoods and downtown commercial district are the touchstones that signify our history and uniquely define our community,” Hietter said. San Mateo can be a vibrant, thriving and diverse city without sacrificing its character or its heritage.
“Economic growth and resource protection are not mutually exclusive,” she said, “but partners in a more prosperous future. New development that respects the contributions of the past enriches the entire community.”
The Baywood, Aragon, North Central, Hayward Park and San Mateo Park neighborhoods reflect the early development of San Mateo when large estates were subdivided for housing in the early 1900s, catalyzed by train service from San Francisco. San Mateo’s century-old homes have a variety of irreplaceable architecture, craftsmanship and landscape that distinguish them from the later post-World War II homes of the 1950s and ’60s. It is remarkable that so many of these historic homes remain intact and continue the identifiable character of their neighborhoods.
These early residential neighborhoods invigorated the growing commercial downtown. Even today, most people believe that the true heart of San Mateo is the downtown historic district. The collection of historic commercial buildings in downtown provides the visual, architectural and historical connection to the development of San Mateo between 1890 and 1950. Their pedestrian scale, mixed use and walkability is an enduring example of the smart, sustainable cities so sought after today.
However, in spite of being valuable and irreplaceable historic resources, the recent economic boom threatens the loss of many residential and commercial buildings that have not been officially identified or protected. San Mateo’s only historic resource survey is 34 years old, incomplete and outdated. To make informed planning decisions — or create an adequate general plan — city policymakers need baseline information on potential historic resources. Before buildings are torn down, altered or rezoned for more intense development, it is necessary to ask if they have some significance to the community. Without fundamental information about our historic resources, uninformed decisions will be made and important resources lost.
San Mateo Heritage Alliance is urging the city of San Mateo to conduct a citywide survey of historic resources. There are laws that protect historic resources and many examples from other communities that historic preservation increases both economic value and civic pride. To catalyze a citywide survey, SMHeritage has independently hired a consulting firm to identify whether the Baywood neighborhood qualifies for listing in the National Register of Historic Places as a residential historic district. SMHeritage hopes the city will then continue this type of survey for other potentially historic neighborhoods.
Historic district designations are zoning tools that “preserve the architectural detailing, high-quality materials, craftsmanship, character and charm that people seek in historic neighborhoods,” Hietter said. In practical terms, they encourage homeowners to remodel, upgrade and expand sensitively because they know their investment and the character of their neighborhood is protected over time.
“Our heritage is what we have inherited from the past,” Hietter said, “to value and enjoy in the present, and to preserve and pass on to future generations.”
To learn about or donate to San Mateo Heritage Alliance visit smheritage.org.
August 22, 2022
The Aug. 16 Daily Journal article about the recent San Mateo General Plan Subcommittee meeting on community design and historic resources quotes Mayor Bonilla as saying he wanted to avoid “weaponizing historic preservation and character in the approval process,” and cautioning that we must avoid a “politically charged discussion.” On this point, I am in full agreement with the mayor.
Avoiding a politically charged discussion about historic resources and community character is actually quite simple. The first step is to acknowledge that they exist and are really very important to San Mateans.
The second step is to identify them by including a citywide historic resource survey as part of the General Plan update currently underway. Public requests for this have been consistently ignored by the council.
And lastly, to incorporate thoughtfully “robust” preservation policies and actions in the General Plan that protect, preserve and enhance those resources for current and future generations.
The only way that historic preservation and community character will be weaponized is if Mayor Bonilla continues to do it himself. Mayor Bonilla knows that state law and CEQA protect historic resources so it’s no surprise that he and his pro-growth City Council majority continue to resist completing the city’s 1989 historic survey that would provide the objective standards needed to determine historic significance.
The city’s shared historic, architectural and cultural heritage should not be weaponized. Mayor Bonilla can unite the community or he can divide it. Either way, it will be Mayor Bonilla’s choice.
Where are all the architects?
August 15, 2022
After seeing the rendering of the proposed building on the Talbots property I ask “Where are all the architects?” This will be the sixth building within a couple blocks that has or will have the same architectural design. San Mateo has a diversified architecture throughout the city which should be embraced and incorporated in the architects designs. The planning commission keeps approving he same building designs over and over again. The commission has the ability to deny the design of a building from the developers and ask them to create a design that is unique and individual. San Mateo is becoming a mecca for large office and housing units. There is a great opportunity to design buildings that don’t look the same, block after block after block ... . We need diversity in San Mateo’s downtown architecture as they have been doing in Redwood City.
Mini mansions in San Mateo
By Sue Lempert
Aug 8, 2022
There was a time not long ago when young tech entrepreneurs made so much money they were buying up modest homes in downtown Palo Alto, tearing them down and building mini-mansions. The City Council eventually put a stop to this. Are mini-mansions becoming a trend in San Mateo when some members of the Planning Commission think the bigger the better?
Before writing this column, I wanted to be as objective as possible (Disclaimer: I live in a historic home built in 1921). I revisited the home at 415 Fairfax Ave. also built in 1921 which was the subject of a heated San Mateo Planning Commission meeting. The application to demolish and build a much bigger house was under scrutiny and discussion because of neighborhood resistance against its demolition, citing ADU size, building height, design concerns and California Environmental Quality Act violations. The Planning Commission, at its July 12 meeting, found no reason to deny the project. It noted the neighborhood was not a historic district and met all design standards, with the city obligated to follow state guidelines. The commission thought approving the development was an easy decision given the factors involved. I was especially appalled that it was an “easy” decision.
And the news gets worse. Since there was no appeal filed within 10 days of Planning Commission approval, it won’t go before the City Council. The City Arborist, Matthew Fried, still has to approve the plan which takes out one heritage tree and probably dooms a second one. There have been many letters asking to save the trees (Disclaimer: I introduced the ordinance to protect heritage trees when I was on the council).
There is another original 1920s house in Baywood, 564 Edinburgh St., that is petitioning to be torn down. It’s 1,600 square feet to be replaced by a 3, 240-square-foot home. Deadline for public comment is 5 p.m. today.
I recognize there is a need for more housing but the need is for more affordable housing. And these mini-mansions won’t be affordable. In our desire for more affordable housing, we have allowed if not the encouraged the building of too much market-rate housing. We have more than enough expensive apartments and condos. And in my opinion, many will soon be vacant. I supported Measure R and still believe increased densities should be allowed near public transportation. I am not a fan of 10-story buildings. I don’t want San Mateo to look like some of our neighbor cities. I am very much for rent control for a limit of five years to keep our existing and new rentals affordable. A much better solution than building more and more
This old house
By Jon Mays
July 22, 2022
My neighbor spent days, then weeks, watching me on our front porch painstakingly peel off the paint from the doors of our built-in hutch. Ours was one of those homes that had layers and layers of paint from over the years when, instead of cleaning, new owners, landlords or tenants would simply paint over the marks.
It made it difficult to open and close the doors and I decided it was my task to fix that. I had to put down drop sheets on the front porch in case there was lead paint and spent up to an hour each morning scraping and scraping and scraping.
“A jack of all trades and a master of none, huh Jon?”
I knew it was a dig but, he was so good-natured and generally helpful, I took it well and smiled.
“You’ll get there.”
I did, eventually. And I repainted them, cleaned up the glass, shined the hardware and put them back where they belonged. I never did get to the other built-in book cases, but it’s on my list.
When we moved in our house, it was a mere babe at 90 years old. Now that’s it more than 100 years old, there is very little of this house I haven’t worked on or thought about working on, or even just looked at for a while wondering what to do.
What I have learned is that it has what is called “good bones.” It’s a very basic house, with a very basic layout and there isn’t much to it. But the wood is good, the light is good, the pipes are now good and we’ve done what we could to make it as nice as possible.
As with many cheap houses that have been used as rentals, it’s been modified. Not too much, but enough. Yet, the value of this house to me is its age and utility. Restoring it as much as possible to its original state improves it.
Rather than just replacing an overhead light that was originally hard-wired to the now long-gone knob-and-tube electrical system, I have spent far too long Frankenstein fixing it because it came with the house and is beautiful. When I say far too long I mean more than a weekend, when replacing it would have taken no more than an hour. It also didn’t help that I didn’t really know what I was doing. I kept the pushbutton light switches in case we could ever find a way to get back to that. And since some of our doorknobs were replaced over the years, I have spent hours going through bins at Urban Ore looking for some that match the originals. We have come very close in some instances, but it’s always a work in progress.
Our neighbors have similar homes and I’ve gotten clues from those what the original conditions were to see what we can do and there is evidence throughout about paint colors, tile, wallpaper, original flooring, etc. We have done what we can to match what we envision the original condition could have been. I know, for instance, that the original house color was white with green trim, but no one else wanted to go with that; however, my grandparents’ farm house had the same color scheme. Instead, we went neutral gray, or as the paint color said, “San Francisco fog,” with white trim. Close enough.
Our bathroom tile is now tiny white hexagons with black ones to reveal a larger flower shape, and there is a reason why people don’t have those tiny tiles any more. They’re a pain.
Our floors are now back to the original hardwood and we were able to find the moulding from Pedersen Arnold to replace the section once cut out for an old achy wall heater.
Our house isn’t fancy enough to be historic. It doesn’t really even have a style. It’s not craftsman, and it’s not farm house. It’s just a small house built in 1919 originally as a vacation home for people from the city. I also recognize that small houses like ours are endangered because there is too much of a push for higher densities. But I’d like it to be saved. It can easily last another 100 years.
While I don’t have that many years in me, I do have a few more to fully bring it back to its original condition. It’s our home. And sometimes the learning is in the doing, being is becoming and original is much better than new.
Jon Mays is the editor in chief of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Jon on Twitter @jonmays.
"Baywood is one of the most unique and architecturally interesting neighborhoods not only in San Mateo, but in all of the Bay Area. Destroying its character will not solve the housing shortage. Please work to protect the unique and historic homes and neighborhoods in Baywood and all of San Mateo."
- Glenn Voyles, Baywood resident