San Mateo merchants look to create improvement district

The Downtown San Mateo Association wants property owners to pay for taking downtown maintenance into their own hands.

To prepare for what association Director Rob Edwards says is a $10 million rollback of redevelopment-funded services — from police foot patrols and public works to trash pickup and economic development — he and some property and business owners are circulating a petition to create a property-based improvement district.

If the petition is signed by property owners representing more than half the fees the association hopes to raise, property owners will be mailed a ballot. If a simple majority of owners vote to create the district, it would be the first of its kind in San Mateo County.

Such districts already exist in San Francisco in Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square and Noe Valley, and around the state in Berkeley, Ventura and Santa Monica, among other places.

“Budget cuts are going to hit us hard with redevelopment associations going and the general fund shrinking,” said Rob Edwards, director of the nonprofit Downtown San Mateo Association. “We have to batten down the hatches now.”

The costs would be based on parcel size and proximity to the downtown core, building size and commercial or nonprofit status, and would total about $700,000 a year — money that would be added to the nearly $175,000 the association already gets from business license fees paid by city businesses.

Edwards said such districts can get more bang out of property owners’ bucks than the city, since they are not bound by prevailing wage laws or minority contracting guidelines, and need not hire union workers or dally with municipal bureaucracy associated with bid selection and approval.

Paul Barulich, the downtown association member who originally introduced the idea in San Mateo years ago, said it could bring a “renaissance” to downtown, making it competitive with nearby cities such asBurlingame and Palo Alto.

“Businesses need help steam-cleaning sidewalks, graffiti removal and also with marketing downtown, helping existing businesses stay vital, and attracting new businesses residents want to see,” said Kris Cesena, president of the downtown association and owner of Auto Medics near downtown, which she said would owe the district $975 a year.

Tony Musich, past president of the downtown association and owner of various downtown properties, said he’s pushing for the district because he’s unhappy with the condition of the city, which “lacks some luster.”

Musich predicted that most landlords would pass the costs along to their tenants if the district is ultimately created.

Edwards said downtown property owners would get to volunteer to serve on a district board, but did not specify how they would be chosen.

“The issue always comes to the forefront sooner or later, who controls it,” said Barulich.

“But if we don’t do something to secure the homefront against erosion and deterioration, then [property] values will go down,” he said.

Concept works  in SoCal city

Ventura created such a property-based business improvement district in 2009. And Susan Kazarian, the owner of Beading Frenzy, located in downtown San Mateo, said “the difference between what it was before and what it is now is 180 degrees.”

“It was like a ghost town before,” Kazarian said.

David Armstrong, president of the group running the district, admits that there were a number of debates on how to use the money. But the district is “absolutely working, based on input from people paying for the service,” he said.

Merchants or property owners can log in and issue work orders that are “usually” responded to within 15 minutes, Armstrong said, and before-and-after pictures are taken as evidence of the work done.

The district’s five full-time employees carefully tally their work.

Between January and July, they swept the block 2,865 times; cleaned fountains 313 times; removed human or animal feces 584 times; cleaned parking meters 4,102 times; pressure-washed the parking garage 10 times; made 106 dump runs; cleaned public restrooms 484 times; cleaned up blood 35 times; retrieved 340 shopping carts; emptied 320 trash cans; removed weeds 93 times; cleaned trash cans and newspaper racks 3,496 times; and removed 1,067 pieces of graffiti, 3,456 pieces of gum and 474 trash bags. — Niko Kyriakou

Steps to creating district

Support needed to create a property-based improvement district:

  • Property owners responsible for 51 percent of the $703,750 the district would raise must sign a petition in favor of the district in order to get it to the next phase, a Proposition 218 vote-by-mail ballot.
  • To create the special district, a simple majority of property owners must vote for it in the mail-in election.

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