San Mateo marks completion of first phase of North B Street improvements

Civic leaders in San Mateo recently celebrated the completion of the first phase of the North B Street Improvement Initiative, which they say has transformed a blighted street into a safe, family-friendly shopping and dining destination.

Hoping to address problems with crime, loitering and public drunkenness, community members pushed for physical enhancements to the street, as well as improvements in cleanliness, safety and identity, according to San Mateo Economic Development Manager Marcus Clarke.

Clarke, who noted that the street has many businesses catering to the local, multiethnic immigrant population, said the initiative's goal was to improve the street without displacing the businesses and people already in the neighborhood.

Some beautification measures conducted during the first phase included the cleanup of litter, removal of security bars from storefront windows and the addition of sidewalk planters full of flowers. And in keeping with the project's stated values, the improvements have not displaced businesses such as taquerias, thrift stores, small produce markets, hair salons and notary publics.

The street even has a mascot of sorts: Yarn bombers have transformed a tree near Tilton Avenue into a sky-blue, bug-eyed, multi-armed squid that provokes a smile from many a passer-by. The sense of quirky fun continues with graffiti monsters adorning a side wall of the former Blu-White Laundry & Cleaners building. The mural was designed by a local artist and painted by youths participating in a Police Activities League program.

The long-vacant Blu-White building might be the closest thing to blight remaining on the block, but San Mateo spokeswoman Rebecca Zito says the owner of the Carniceria Mi Rancho Market across the street has agreed to redevelop the space and move into it. In the meantime, the dilapidated building is being used to display two large posters — one in English and one in Spanish — that explain the improvement initiative to residents.

At the suggestion of Police Chief Susan Manheimer, the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center came on board to help facilitate discussions on the effort between merchants and the city.

Center Executive Director Michelle Vilchez said the most common concern among the merchants was “a general fear of the unknown” regarding how they might be impacted by changes to the street. However, she said the business owners found common ground and began to explore ways to support each other and increase foot traffic on the street.

Manheimer said public intoxication, drug dealing and street prostitution used to be commonplace on the block, but an increased police presence was just part of the solution. Other efforts involved police working with local alcohol sellers and providing training on how to recognize when customers shouldn't be served. Police also advised business owners on adequately lighting their buildings and controlling access to their restrooms in order to discourage illegal behavior, she said.

Manheimer noted that although police patrols have been stepped up, the community is also learning to police itself, which has dramatically reduced the number of complaints the Police Department receives.

“The merchants are so proud of what they've done,” Manheimer said, “We're seeing a real sense of ownership.”

The next phase of the project will involve pedestrian improvements. Clarke said because North B Street is essentially one long city block that's not broken up by intersections, many residents have suggested adding a pedestrian crosswalk to the middle of the street. Along with that addition, he said the city also plans to install new streetlamps.

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