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city support for
Historic preservation 

A short history of historic preservation in the City of San Mateo

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1989-1999

On the heels of the 1989 Historic Building Survey, the City began to put in place policies and programs to protect and polish its historic resources.  Primarily focused on the historic Downtown commercial core, city policies supporting protection of historic resources extended to all areas identified in the 1989 Historic Survey.  Budget constraints limited the 1989 Survey to the East side of San Mateo.  Neighborhoods west of El Camino Real - roughly half the city's geographical area - were never surveyed, and therefore the City has never acknowledged that they may contain unidentified historic resources.  Although it was recommended they be studied as potential historic districts, further study of the western half of San Mateo was never done.

Historic preservation policies were included in the Conservation/Open Space element of the 1990 General Plan, although limited only to resources identified in the 1989 survey, those east of El Camino Real.  Protective policies required applicants to submit alternatives to demolition unless they could prove renovation infeasible.  Policies also prohibited demolition of individually eligible  historic buildings and contributor buildings in the Downtown Historic District until a building permit was authorized. 

 

Preservation policies were carried forward in the 1995, 2005, 2010 and 2030 General Plans.  Commercial and residential neighborhoods west of El Camino Real not surveyed in 1989, however, continued to be excluded from preservation policies.

In 1993, the City Council voted to officially designate the historic Downtown commercial core a local Historic District, conforming to the boundaries identified in the 1989 Survey.  Also that year, The City adopted a historic preservation ordinance and published the Downtown Retail Core & Downtown Historic District Design Guidelines.  All exterior remodels and renovations to individually eligible and contributor buildings within the Historic District were required to comply with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation.  These policies and protections were incorporated into the Downtown Specific Plan.

Throughout the 1990s Community Development, Planning and Housing departments worked together as a multi-disciplinary team to create "revival-preservation" initiatives that expanded outward from the Downtown into the North Central neighborhood.  Initiatives included storefront improvement grants, loans for seismic upgrades, bars off windows, graffiti abatement, juvenile work furlough program, and consistent design for street-lights and bridge designs. 

 

However, the centerpiece of the City's effort was the affordable housing and historic preservation connection.  Much effort went into converting empty second floors and obsolete commercial buildings in the Downtown to housing.  Seventy units of affordable housing for downtown workers were built within vintage buildings such as the Belmont building, the Darcy building, the Vendome, and most notably, the St. Matthews Hotel, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

By the end of the decade, people began to take note of the remarkable turn around in the Downtown.  Admiring newspaper articles* (see footnote below) began appearing, showering praise on the Downtown, its trendy restaurants,  affordable housing conversions, and attractive historic atmosphere.

Then, in 1999, the state-wide California Preservation Foundation recognized the City's preservation efforts by giving it two awards at their annual Design Awards ceremony, held that year in the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.  The first was a Design Award for the rehabilitation/adaptive reuse of the Wisnom Hotel St. Matthew.  The second was the President's Award for the City's comprehensive programs supporting commercial and neighborhood preservation.  Proud of the accomplishment and recognition, the awards were framed and hung in the City Council chamber lobby.

2000 - 2021

The first two decades of the twenty-first century saw significant changes at City Hall.  Virtually all of the staff turned over, as did the City Council and Planning Commission.  Fifteen years into the new millennium much of City Hall's institutional memory had been lost, along with its concern for historic resources.

The tech boom began to pick up speed in 2015, and accelerated at a record pace for five or six more years.  The pressure to 'build, build, build' captured the attention of the new City Hall.  Caught up in the momentum of the tech boom and the Legislative push to build more housing for the newly arriving tech workers, San Mateo turned its back on historic preservation. 

In an effort to capitalize on the 'build baby build' momentum, the City decided to ditch its Downtown Specific Plan with its emphasis on preservation, and to "reimagine" its General Plan.  The new 2040 General Plan was envisioned as a way to accommodate the office and housing needs of what appeared at the time to be the boundless growth of the tech industry.  A new General Plan was also a way of reconceiving any perceived impediments to that growth.

For over two decades the two framed prestigious preservation awards hung on the wall at the entry to the Council chambers, reminding everyone who entered of the important role historic preservation plays in the City of San Mateo.  Then, sometime around 2020-21, the awards were unceremoniously removed, casually tossed in the dumpster, and replaced with a hand sanitizer dispenser.  A fitting symbol for a city that had transformed itself so completely it seemed as if they were terrified that celebrating its past would put an end to its future.

2022 - 2024

The State of California recognizes that historic resource surveys become unreliable if they are not updated every five years.  San Mateo's 1989 survey is long overdue for updating, particularly since it was never a complete survey to begin with, and the potential historic districts west of El Camino Real were never officially identified. 

At the beginning of 2023 the tech boom began to decelerate.  At the same time demolitions of historic resources accelerated.  Tech executives and others with more than average wealth began buying multi-million dollar homes in the un-surveyed neighborhoods west of El Camino, demolishing the historic housing stock and rebuilding to suit themselves.  In response, San Mateo Heritage Alliance was formed, a reminder that neighborhood conservation and preservation of the city's historic resources is important to its residents and should not be forgotten.  

Then suddenly the City Council remembered historic preservation at their "Blue Sky" planning meeting at the beginning of 2023.  They voted unanimously to prioritize historic preservation as part of its future planning. 

Revisions to the General Plan historic resource policies and ordinance were scheduled for the first quarter of 2024, but have since been delayed, possibly until 2025.   

 

In the meantime, historic homes west of El Camino continue to be lost to demolition, facilitated by city staff seemingly unaware that preservation is a planning prerequisite.  Despite daily reminders to the contrary, we remain cautiously optimistic that the outcome will be deserving of San Mateo's dwindling historic resources, and that it won't be too late.  Please stay tuned.

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* San Francisco Examiner, 5/19/1995; San Jose Mercury News, 6/25/1995 and 10/13/1998; San Mateo County Times, 10/25/1996; San Mateo Weekly, 1/10/1998, 7/8/1998, and 1/14/1998; San Mateo County Times, 7/8/1998 and 10/14/1998.

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"A concerted effort to preserve our heritage is a vital link to our cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, and economic legacies - all of the things that quite literally make us who we are."

- Steve Berry, American Author

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