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RESIDENTIAL HISTORIC DISTRICTS

San Mateo's residential neighborhoods define its character and identity.  Charming tree-lined neighborhoods and enchanting architectural diversity chronicle the city's growth from a small town to a bustling suburb, making San Mateo one of the Peninsula's most desirable and livable communities.

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San Mateo is known for its charming neighborhoods with homes of enduring beauty and classic-architecture built a century ago.  Some of San Mateo’s oldest neighborhoods are among the most beautiful and desirable neighborhoods on the Peninsula.

 

To walk along the streets of Baywood, Aragon and San Mateo Park, for example, is to be both delighted and inspired by the authenticity of the architecture.  A treasure trove of classic homes of exquisite quality and architectural detail built in the first few decades of the Twentieth Century.  

Collectively, these largely still intact neighborhoods tell the story of how residential development in California, its architecture and history, unfolded in San Mateo before and after the First World War.  For this reason, these San Mateo neighborhoods were determined by the State Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) to be National Register or California “Register-eligible" historic districts.

 

These neighborhoods attract residents and visitors alike, but are now threatened by the piecemeal demolition of these homes without adequate environmental review and public notice under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  By including the SMHA's Recommended Alternative Historic Resources Element as part of the General Plan, the City can help protect historic resources and encourage appropriate new infill development while avoiding negative impacts to our most treasured neighborhoods.

 

BACKGROUND

 

As part of its General Plan update thirty-two years ago, San Mateo adopted a Historic Building Survey.  That survey serves as a basis for review, regulation and management of San Mateo’s historic resources, including the City’s Historic Preservation Ordinance, the Zoning Code, and CEQA.  The 1989 Historic Building Survey was a significant achievement, but also limited in budget and scope. The survey concentrated its attention on the downtown commercial district and the oldest residential neighborhoods, mostly east of El Camino Real where historic resources were most threatened with demolition and redevelopment.  Neighborhoods west of El Camino Real were not documented, but noted as deserving additional study.

 

The California State Office of Historic Preservation (SHPO) and the Survey author determined that the best approach to documenting the west of El Camino neighborhoods of “Baywood, Baywood Knolls, Aragon and San Mateo Park would be as potential historic districts because these neighborhoods contain a large number of older buildings that relate historically and have a high degree of architectural consistency.”  In a 1990 letter to the City of San Mateo, SHPO characterized neighborhoods west of El Camino Real as containing "...at least two huge (five hundred + resources) Register-eligible historic districts."  

 

According to the Historic Building Survey, it was when these neighborhoods developed in the first few decades of the early 20th century that “the patterns for the community’s development took shape,” and “the community began to follow a typical pattern of suburbanization.”  The long range preservation goals of San Mateo, the report concludes, should feature “future study of these neighborhoods as either local or National Register Historic Districts.”  To date, these neighborhoods and others have not been surveyed.

In addition to Aragon, San Mateo Park, and Baywood Knolls, the survey singles out Baywood, which developed in the late 1920s and 1930s, as “a neighborhood of large, period revival residences” that today “remains intact.  Wide curving streets are lined with well-maintained Tudor Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival homes.” Therefore, Baywood appears to qualify as a district because of its “contribution to the broad patterns of local or regional history,” the California Register’s first criteria for significance.  It also appears to meet criteria three because it “embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, region, or method of construction,” as exemplified by the “rich assortment of historically important architectural styles,”  predominantly intact Spanish Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival homes.  

The criteria to assess historic significance under the National Register of Historic Places include properties: A. That are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or B. That are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; or C. That embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.

 

A Baywood Historic Asset Analysis report prepared in March of 2022 by Richard Brandi, a professional architectural historian, determined that "the Baywood study area does meet the requirements of a historic district under the criteria A and C of the National Register of Historic Places and does appear to be eligible for listing."

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Much has happened in the intervening three decades since the 1989 Survey was done, and it now needs updating.  Neighborhoods that were not considered thirty years ago, such as neighborhoods west of El Camino Real and San Mateo's midcentury neighborhoods should now be evaluated for significance.  Neighborhoods east of El Camino, such as Hayward Park, San Mateo Heights, Central and North Central should be revisited and updated.

 

Keeping the survey up to date is supported in San Mateo's current 2030 General Plan. GP Policy C/OS 8.4: Inventory Maintenance (page VI-30) recognizes that "without maintenance, the inventory becomes unreliable and unusable," and directs the City to "Establish and maintain an inventory of architecturally, culturally, and historically significant structures and sites.

 

The 2030 General Plan also considers the creation of "future historic districts." Policy C/OS 8.2: Historic Districts (page VI-29) says "Consider the protection of concentrations of buildings which convey the flavor of local historical periods or provide an atmosphere of exceptional architectural interest or integrity, after additional study...In consideration of future historic districts, specific regulations to maintain historic character shall be developed." 

San Mateo Heritage Alliance believes these policies must not only carry through to the 2040 General Plan, but must be strengthened, enhanced, and supported by additional policies.

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"Preservation is simply having the good sense to hold on to things that are well designed, that link us to our past in a meaningful way, and that have plenty of good use left in them." 

- Richard Moe, former President, National Trust for Historic Preservation

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