San Bruno tries to carve out a new downtown identity

SAN BRUNO — The city must create a big-picture identity for downtown to make a long-empty spot more attractive to developers, or it will not become a nexus for future development as expected, officials say.

Though the former Wells Fargo site located at 470 San Mateo Ave. is in a visible spot and has few in the community standing against its development, it is hamstrung by its small size, iffy parking situation and a perception among developers that San Mateo Avenue isn’t an “it” place to be, City Manager Connie Jackson said.

The site was set to become a major destination point with retail and housing, but it suffered a setback after a two-year agreement between the city and a developer lapsed in August. In accordance with the game plan following the lapse, the City Council met Tuesday night in a study session on alternatives for redevelopment of the site.

Lack of an identity appears to be a problem hurting other downtown properties like 400 and 551 San Mateo Ave., which are also having trouble attracting developers, Jackson and Community Development Director Tambri Heyden said.

Contracting with retail brokers who have connections in the business and development community may help the city take a more aggressive stance toward filling the spot, according to Jackson.

City staff is planning a study session next year to exploremore ways to create a downtown identity.

“How do we go out and make a vision that’s understood?” Mayor Larry Franzella asked.

The city bought the 7,500-square-foot property more than a decade ago, hoping to turn it into an anchor for downtown. The Wells Fargo building that used to sit on the property was torn down approximately six years ago and the site has remained empty ever since.

The process finally started moving forward in 2004, when the city asked any interested developers to propose ideas for a mixed-use development. San Mateo-based CHS Development Group was chosen as the prime candidate to develop the site into condominiums and retail space, but various roadblocks popped up along the way, including height ordinance evaluations and the sale of a nearby city parking lot.

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