The buildings and parks that are replacing the Bay Meadows racetrack in San Mateo show how far suburbs have come in adjusting to 21st century lifestyles — and how far they still have to go.
The housing in the middle of the 83-acre site could be several stories taller, providing shelter to hundreds of additional residents, and nobody outside the neighborhood would notice. When the project is complete, no more than 15 percent of the 1,000-plus apartments and town houses will be priced at below-market levels, in a city where the median price for a single-family home tops $1 million.
Now the good news: What’s emerging is yet more proof that old-school suburbs can evolve and still feel suburban — even if all the housing is attached, even if some buildings are five stories tall, even if one park features raised vegetable beds and another comes with a bocce court.
Density does not bring dystopia.
This observation runs counter to the doomsday rhetoric that can engulf any suburban development proposal where multistory buildings billed as transit-friendly are involved. At the very least, there are warnings of traffic gridlock; the most extreme foes portray “stack and pack” as a socialist plot.
That’s the cultural context for Bay Meadows, an approved plan for 1,100 housing units, 820,000 square feet of commercial space and 18 acres of parks next to a Caltrain stop roughly midway between San Francisco and Mountain View. A handful of opponents battled the plan for more than five years, giving up only after the aged grandstand for the racetrack was demolished in 2008.
Construction of the first batch of townhomes began in 2013. Now, a visit reveals the beginnings of a semi-urban district, one that ups the development ante in ways both meticulous and serene.
The five residential blocks already complete line the sidewalk with beds of drought-tolerant shrubs, domestic but snug. Threaded amid them are three parks, one geared toward families and another centered on the community garden, with its communal dining table. The final space has hipster aspirations — here you’ll find the bocce court — and eventually will stretch for three blocks.
On weekends, as gardeners tend their plots, you might encounter a birthday party near the playground. On weekdays, most people on the scene are construction workers. Some are erecting a pair of buildings with housing above storefronts that will frame a “town square.” Others are busy on a four-story structure that, when it opens next summer, will house the tech firm SurveyMonkey — the first of five office buildings planned by Bay Meadows developers Wilson Meany and Stockbridge Capital Group.
If this sounds alien to the midcentury housing tracts that define much of San Mateo and other communities on the Peninsula, early residents have no real complaints.
“I like it because of the suburban feel,” said Rebecca Oraha, who works in Palo Alto and moved to Bay Meadows with her husband last year after nine years in San Francisco. “It’s low-stress.”
Oraha was tossing treats to her dog, Sadie, in one of the parks. Her only complaint? “It’s so quiet. We expected people to hang out together more. … I think everybody’s busy, trying to pay their mortgages.”
Parks worth using
The architecture is nothing special, product and mood more than actual design. I’m partial to the block of 80 town houses called Brightside by KTGY Architects, Spanish revival with wooden trellises deployed to maximize the rake of shadows across colorful walls that could almost be adobe, while the vaguely colonial town houses designed by William Hezmalhalch Architects left me cold. You might vote the other way; in truth, they’re all pretty much the same.
The network of parks and open spaces designed by San Francisco’s CMG Landscape Architecture, thankfully, pushes the envelope a bit. It provides the expected — play structures and picnic tables — but also responds to ever-more-varied notions of the role that common ground can play in contemporary life.
For starters, the parks within the neighborhood humanize the scale and create pedestrian-friendly paths to the Caltrain stop (just beyond the town square-to-be). Some parts of the landscape play an ecological role, such as the reed-lined park near the eastern entrance that does double duty as a storm-water retention basin.
The most exotic stop is Persimmon Park, home to the community garden and its 99 plots. It blends suburban order with bohemian flair: One edge is lined with concrete steps leading up to front doors, young plants on either side, while the entry is marked by a low hillock displaying three Evan Shively sculptures — thick slices from hollowed-out trunks of salvaged eucalyptus, visually startling and ideal for adventurous toddlers.
Less successful is the linear park with the bocce court, and such touches as the slatted wooden lounge chairs that try too hard to be “now.” Those chairs arranged oh so casually? Look again. They’re bolted to the pavement.
The underlying frustration at Bay Meadows is that it could be much more.
Even though the racetrack grandstand was 90 feet tall, Bay Meadows has a 55-foot height limit. That’s as much as politicians were willing to accept without taking the project to a vote, and you can read the zoning in the new roof lines. There might be a turret here or a steep peak there, but flat is flat.
It’s not that Dubai-scale towers should loom above nearby El Camino Real. But a handful of eight- or 10-story buildings would strengthen the sense of a distinct place — and provide extra housing and jobs near transit — without any negative effect on the older neighborhoods elsewhere in the city.
Realistically, though, Bay Meadows was ahead of its time when conceived and approved a decade ago. Compared with the transformation of the track’s 75-acre practice area to the west, completed in 2002, things feel more experimental.
Here’s one way to gauge the change: The shops in the first phase sit along an artificial stream now dry because of the drought. The commercial strip for Bay Meadows 2.0 will line Delaware Street, which is being marketed as “the Peninsula’s newest urban retail street front” and will include such ain’t-we-cool amenities as ping-pong tables and a BBQ shack.
Nobody will ever mistake Bay Meadows for the Mission, and that’s fine: Metropolitan regions need physical as well as ethnic and income diversity. When you consider its setting in the suburban heart of the Peninsula, the makeover of the onetime racetrack is a step in the right direction — one that, with luck, will lead to more adventurous transit-oriented projects in the Bay Area down the road.
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