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The Mirabella blues

By Aaron Kinney
Monday, February 9th, 2009 at 4:35 pm in Aaron Kinney, Activism, City Council, Foster City, Planning.

You get the feeling Foster City officials wish that critics of Mirabella San Francisco Bay Parkview Plaza, a major development planned for 15 acres next to City Hall, would just kind of fade away.

But that seems unlikely, especially now that Foster City parents are clamoring for the construction of a fourth elementary school on city land. Some of these parents are well aware that four acres of the 15-acre Mirabella site remain available, since plans for a public charter high school there fell through last summer.

The Foster City Council was never particularly fond of the charter school idea and its backer, the Foster City High School Foundation, so it’ll be interesting to see how it reacts if and when parents of children in the San Mateo-Foster City School District suggest the eastern corner of the Mirabella property as a possible school site.

Regardless, the small but committed group of residents who oppose Mirabella is not going anywhere. In fact, they may be about to amplify their message.

Let’s put aside the questions of the moment — those pertaining to traffic and construction noise and other issues covered by an environmental impact report that the city is currently reviewing — and step back for a look at the bigger picture.

The City Council pitched Mirabella in 2007 as a chance to create a community gathering place, a “village square” flanked by a continuing-care retirement community for seniors and bolstered by a retail complex. Besides creating a home for aging residents, Mirabella would give Foster City something it lacks, city officials said: a true downtown.

But the plan has changed since then, slowly but significantly. The proposed high school is gone. The retirement community has grown in size. And most of the retail space within the complex, according to the current incarnation of the plan, which remains fluid, is located on one side of the public plaza.

The City Council voted 3-1 last July to approve increasing the number of independent residential units in the continuing-care facility from 251 to 350. City officials also allowed the developer to increase its maximum building height from 10 to 15 stories. The development now will be able to hold a total of 490 people, including the residents of 70 affordable housing apartments for seniors.

From the start, the council took a cautious approach to the amount of retail space in the project, not wanting to risk creating a ghost town. One of three finalists to win the bid for the development proposed including a movie theater on the site, but the council turned it down.

In its current form, the project calls for 31,300 square feet of retail space, which will likely be filled with one or more restaurants, a café or two, and shops. There’s room to increase that square footage to 50,000 in a second phase of development.

(As a point of reference, Talbot’s Toyland, the big toy store on B Street in downtown San Mateo, is about 25,000 square feet in size.)

Resident Linda Haskin, of Foster City Friends, who’s emerged as the most vocal critic of Mirabella, worries that the retail will be overshadowed, literally and figuratively, by the retirement community, which will occupy several buildings.

But here’s the question we’re interested in, one that city officials never seem to have discussed. And before we raise it, let’s acknowledge that seniors are indispensable members of any community and that creating a home for seniors in Foster City is in itself a laudable goal.

But here, again, is the question we’re entertaining: If you’re trying to create a bustling city center, do you really want the dominant feature of the area to be a retirement community?

When Mirabella was first conceived, it seemed incongruous that seniors and high school students would be its primary inhabitants. It was hard to reconcile the mental image of seniors quietly taking a stroll or reading the paper with a vision of teenagers slouching on benches, smoking cigarettes and yelling at each other across the plaza.

But at least there would have been a mix of generations. Now Mirabella seems homogeneous. A gigantic retirement community surrounded by a Jamba Juice, a Starbucks, a restaurant and a few stores. That’s your dynamic downtown?

Maybe the residents of Mirabella and visitors to the Peninsula Jewish Community Center will be able to provide enough demand on their own to keep the retail area humming. Perhaps city employees and others will flock to the area for lunch, and special events and concerts will pack the plaza at night. Maybe Gary Danko will open a restaurant and put Foster City on the culinary map.

Or maybe the new heart of the city will wind up being little more than a nice place for Mirabella residents to stretch their legs.

None of this will matter, however, if Mirabella’s developers can’t find the money to build it. Since they asked for a delay in their schedule in December, citing a lack of funding, the economy has gotten worse, not better. We’ll find out soon enough whether all these questions are moot.

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One Response to “The Mirabella blues”

  1. Peter Loranger Says:

    I attended the FC board meeting last night where there was an organized, but with redundant messages, group of parents crying for the old saw of a 4th elementary school in Foster City. They spewed against a large school at present locations as a breeder site for bullying and increased crime. One of the speakers seemed to recognize the problem with Mirabella as a still looming competitor and suggested that Booth Bay Park be chopped up for the new school location. This may have been a tactic to galvanize the pro-park/tennis people against Mirabella or similar multi use project. Regardless, the impact on the council seemed real and effective. Too bad because Mirabella will last for years and this group of parents will go on to rally for a high school and more places at Cal and then fade away into complaining tax payers. I am from a generation who saw our excess elementary schools bulldozed over for housing in the 60’s.
    I was impressed by the group’s solidarity and they had an organized message. This is democracy in action – a very good show of power.

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