The Ice Chalet, part of the long-defunct Fashion Island shopping mall, closed in 2013. Famed skaters such as Kristi Yamaguchi and Peggy Fleming trained at the site. (Courtesy Dina Artzt)

San Mateo ice rink imbroglio isn’t cooling down

A multi-year fight over San Mateo’s only permanent ice-skating rink is heating up in anticipation of a hearing next month regarding the owner’s plan to replace the facility with retail stores.

Formerly known as the Ice Chalet, the ice rink was originally part of San Mateo’s Fashion Island mall, which closed in 1996 and was later demolished and replaced by the Bridgepointe Shopping Center. The city’s master plan for the site prohibits any use other than an ice rink, but the shopping center’s owner, SPI Holdings, has other ideas.

SPI purchased the shopping center in 2005, and wants to replace the rink with more profitable retail spaces. The developer has suggested various proposals to compensate the city in exchange for being let out of its ice rink obligation.

SPI’s latest application, which the Planning Commission will discuss Dec. 8, includes giving the city $3 million, which could be used to incentivize the construction of an ice rink elsewhere in San Mateo.

Some expect the upcoming meeting to be packed with residents furious with the developer for closing their beloved ice rink.

Dina Artzt and husband Len Rosenduft, founding members of the Save the Bridgepointe Ice Rink Committee, say they will be among those unhappy residents. Artzt and Rosenduft claim SPI acted in bad faith when it abruptly closed the rink June 1, 2013.

They say the facility’s closure has left a void not easily filled by other Bay Area ice rinks, which are too small or too far away.

The rink was a training ground for Olympic skaters Peggy Fleming, Kristi Yamaguchi, Debi Thomas, Brian Boitano and Rudy Galindo. Advocates say its closure was a setback for young, local athletes who dream of following in those Olympians’ footsteps or playing professional hockey.

Rosenduft declined to speculate on why SPI would invest in Bridgepointe and then balk at a requirement it knowingly took on. The activist noted, however, that according to the textbook, “Guide to California Planning,” some developers employ a business model of purchasing land with use restrictions and then increasing the land’s value by persuading local governments to lift those restrictions.

Rosenduft lamented the fact that the San Mateo City Attorney’s office recently told SPI it was under no obligation to reopen the rink, and could legally allow the space to sit unused.

City Attorney Shawn Mason explained the master plan merely limits the use of the land to an ice rink, but does not impose a legal requirement to actually use the land for any purpose, so the city can’t legally force SPI to reopen the rink.

“Imagine if one of the big-box retailers at Bridgepointe closed and the store was vacant,” Mason said, “We wouldn’t be suing the owner to get another big-box store in there.”

That comparison doesn’t work for Artzt and Rosenduft, who vehemently disagree with SPI’s claim the Ice Chalet’s operator just happened to leave because the business wasn’t profitable.

Their reading of the master plan’s spirit and intent is different from the city attorney’s.

“The rink was a community benefit that offset the negative impacts of a big development,” Rosenduft said, “The bottom line is the clear intent was for there to be a recreational benefit for the community.”

Planning Director Ron Munekawa noted the Planning Commission only makes recommendations to the City Council, and does not itself have authority to decide the rink’s fate.

Mayor Maureen Freschet and Councilman Rick Bonilla both declined to comment, because they expect to eventually vote on the matter.

SPI spokesman Adam Alberti said the developer’s only comment was “The application speaks for itself.”

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