Cool things are happening in San Mateo. To understand how a sleepy suburb spawned start-ups like YouTube and food truck restaurants like Curry Up Now, it helps to know where San Mateo's economic development manager learned about cities.
Marcus Clarke has a master's degree in city planning from UC Berkeley, but his street smarts were honed in bankrupt Detroit. He spent two years living in the manifestation of all that can go wrong with a city.
Clarke, 40, took a leave from his San Mateo job to assist in engineering Detroit's revival. His project aimed to create 7,700 jobs and $2.5 billion in local business revenues.
And before moving to San Mateo, Clarke lived in San Francisco — branded by SF Weekly as “The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.” for being “spectacularly mismanaged.”
Clarke already knows what not to do when it comes to planning San Mateo's future.
Yet suburban sprawl, gridlocked freeways and a chain store culture challenge San Mateo. Meanwhile, large segments of the population — millennials and retiring baby boomers — want walkable neighborhoods and unique businesses near public transportation.
“San Mateo has the opportunity to get super out of the box to solve these problems and be an oasis,” Clarke said.
The first task was making downtown a place people wanted to be. Start-ups were encouraged in empty second-floor office spaces. More workers increased the demand for interesting restaurants and stores below. Now San Mateo is home to arguably the best ramen in the Bay Area and cutting-edge companies like GoPro.
Public art was fostered. A citywide Innovation Week celebrating “artists, creators and visionaries” was created to coincide with the Maker Faire, which started in San Mateo before spreading globally.
Clarke said he treaded carefully when improving a section of downtown with high crime. He wanted to preserve the area's viable family-run businesses, which had been around for decades.
“Instead of displacing people, my goal was to support longtime neighborhood businesses and connect them to the change,” Clarke said.
Some growing pains are easier to manage than others. When Internet service proved too slow for the influx of tech companies, San Mateo quickly partnered with Comcast to upgrade the downtown infrastructure.
But there's nothing Clarke can do about downtown height restrictions. Companies can't physically expand after a certain size, which means they will eventually be forced to leave San Mateo. Height limits also mean less people can live downtown, where they could walk to work or use the Caltrain station connecting San Mateo to San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
That's why Clarke is focused on convincing voters to allow taller buildings. He is hopeful, despite neighboring San Francisco's continued rejection of height and density to solve its housing crisis.
“People want to live in urban areas with good transportation,” Clarke said. “But there's no room without building higher.”
For now, San Mateo is taking advantage of its other two Caltrain stations outside downtown where there aren't height limits. New developments close to the train that combine housing, offices and retail are popular. San Francisco should take notice.
“If San Francisco doesn't start building a lot more housing, its limited supply will only get more expensive,” said Jeffery Tumlin, a transportation consultant who works with San Mateo. “San Francisco is having a hard time with its conversation about density. The more walkable urbanism San Mateo and other Bay Area cities can build, the better it is for everyone.”
If only Clarke could be persuaded to bring his planning sensibility back to San Francisco.
“I'm happy I moved. Everything I need is in San Mateo,” said Clarke, who wants to raise a family there. “San Francisco is grappling with a lot of issues and I don't envy it.”