Burlingame and Millbrae: An economic tale of two cities

Uprooted: Daland Nissan Dealership in Millbrae

Uprooted: Daland Nissan Dealership in Millbrae

It’s not fair, but it’s the way it is.

Over the past year, affluent Burlingame has attracted dozens of new stores while its less ritzy neighbor, Millbrae, has watched businesses close and flee.

As a result, Burlingame’s second-quarter sales tax revenues were up 11.4 percent this year, according to Economic Development Director Patricia Love. Meanwhile, Millbrae now has the lowest cash flow of any city in the county and is struggling to maintain basic services, according to a Civil Grand Jury report released earlier this year.

More than 150 businesses have opened in Burlingame since January, including Alys Grace women’s clothing, which opened Wednesday, Avenue Pet Salon, ULove Yogurt, La Boulange and a handful of shops and restaurants soon to open as part of its new Safeway-centered shopping center.

Meanwhile, Millbrae employs no economic development director to tally all the business departures or arrivals, but Finance Director LaRae Brown couldn’t recall more than twenty businesses opening up in the past year.

Goodyear on El Camino Real is now vacant, Millbrae Lumber closed this week, Wendy’s is set to close this year and Burger King could soon follow suit. And the loss of Daland Nissan Dealership — which was bought by Putnam and moved to Burlingame earlier this year — trimmed $100,000 from the city’s tax rolls, said Vice Mayor Marge Colapietro.

Perhaps most devastating for city revenues, the Clarion hotel has closed for renovations and Safeway will close for up to a year for remodeling sometime in the next six months.

“We are in big trouble,” said Millbrae Planning Commissioner Lorrie Kalos-Gunn. “We’re losing some of our big tax base businesses.”

Kalos-Gunn said the city simply suffers from bad timing.

Nissan was bought out and Millbrae Lumber closed because the owner passed away, she said. Safeway and Clarion renovations have been a long-time coming, and the fast food market has simply changed, making life tougher for the likes of Wendy’s and Burger King, she said.

The disparity between the two cities raises the question of why Burlingame is doing so much better. One reason is that it already has considerable foot-traffic.

“It’s just a lovely downtown, very walkable,” Love said. “The buildings are old and attractive, and I’m sure the economic demographic helps as well.” Residents of upscale Hillsborough, which has no downtown, frequent Burlingame’s city center.

Burlingame officials say they’ve made their permitting process simple and user-friendly. Meanwhile, Millbrae’s business applicants “feel browbeaten,” said Gunn, who wants to see her city’s permit process smoothed out.

Proximity to shopping malls and a sprawling BART station surrounded by long-unused property may also contribute to Millbrae’s difficulties.

Fighting for life

Possible factors in Millbrae’s woes

  • Losing business to Hillsdale Mall and Shops at Tanforan
  • Permitting process
  • Lack of existing vibrant downtown
  • Lack of civic engagement emphasizing need for vibrant city center
  • Lack of anchor stores such as Pottery Barn to attract more shoppers
  • Hang-ups with development of Site 1 at the BART center
  • Departing businesses

nkyriakou@sfexaminer.com

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