Peninsula’s future dwells in the clouds

Imagine the Peninsula borough, circa 2035, the West Coast version of Queens, N.Y. Long rows of residential high-rises sprawl across the skyline, 10- to 15-story complexes clinging to transportation corridors from Daly City to Palo Alto.

It’s not the sleepy commuter suburb of today, but the transit epicenter of tomorrow — where nearly all residents take the railroad instead of the highway.

Imagine all this growth and modernization — with not a single inch of the county’s protected coastline and forestland touched.

That view of San Mateo County is not far off the mark, County Manager John Maltbie said.

“In my experience, as city land becomes more valuable, density goes vertical,” he said. “And the [Peninsula’s] open spaces will remain open space in perpetuity — the vast majority of people here want and expect that.”

With the county expected to pack in 70,000 new households in the next 17 years, many residents fear its vast swaths of open spaces will gradually fade away. But with increasing pressure from environmentalists and locals to keep off that land — and equal pressure from a growing population seeking affordable housing and alternatives to high gas prices and cluttered highways — Peninsula cities are bound to grow skyward rather than outward in the coming years, say county planners, developers and environmentalists. And the residents will rely, for the most part, on public transit, developers predict.

About 74 percent of the county’s nearly 450 square miles remains mostly forest and rangeland, and much of it is under state and federal protection. Building up instead of out has largely been the only compromise between environmentalists, developers and local lawmakers.

But more than a dozen developments in and around Peninsula cities have been vehemently challenged during the last five years, particularly those involving privately owned open spaces.

“I think [building up] is absolutely the way to go and the way smart cities are moving toward,” said David Lewis, executive director of the nonprofit Save the Bay. “I would suggest that the opinion is not limited to environmental groups, but to residents as well.”

According to a recent poll of 238 randomly chosen county residents, 72 percent feel that any new housing should be located in already developed areas, even if it means taller buildings in their neighborhoods. The poll, conducted by the nonprofit group Threshold 2008, also indicates that residents don’t want the new homes built on the county’s open spaces.

“The trend in San Mateo County is to refocus development in downtown corridors … in more transit-oriented centers,” Lewis said.

Save the Bay supports development of condominiums, shops and offices on 84 acres of property formerly inhabited by the Bay Meadows Race Track in San Mateo, he said.

The transit-oriented development would allow residents to leave their cars at home, therefore easing traffic on U.S. Highway 101, one of the most congested Bay Area stretches, developer Adam Alberti said.

“We have to preserve our idea of the Peninsula and protect open spaces, so we need to come up with smart, more efficient ways of moving people around,” he said.

Residents urge responsible growth

Relaxing in Central Park on a breezy afternoon last week, Alex Morgan said his parents moved to Millbrae because it is quiet, safe and near San Francisco, where his father works as an insurance inspector.

“There’s not a lot to do here, but it’s the best place to raise kids,” the 19-year-old student said. “Too much going on in The City.”

But Morgan said he’s well aware that if he continues living on the swiftly growing Peninsula, he might end up raising his future children in a more urban epicenter.

Many locals predict that once-sleepy San Mateo County — now harboring some of the more densely populated suburbs in California — will look more like neighborhoods in The City in years to come.

Some fear it will be at the expense of homeowners, who came here expecting a calmer lifestyle.

“We know we will continue to see higher density living here,” said Linda Schinkel, a San Mateo resident and community activist. “But I think we have to be careful on how we build so we can continue to live this quality lifestyle.”

Schinkel said she’s not against growth, but she fears the county’s history and identity — more than its mild pace — will be lost if taller, more-compact apartment complexes replace its historic buildings. She heads a citizens’ group that is suing the city of San Mateofor its part in allowing for development on the former Bay Meadows Race Track.

While the infill project seems to be a win-win agreement between developers and environmentalists — who say it would alleviate the demand for housing without encroaching on open spaces — Schinkel says the project has torn down a vital piece of the county’s past.

“We can support higher density, but we need to hold on to our historical identity,” she said.

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