PENINSULA INSIDER — It’s No Picnic, Putting the City Into Foster City

PENINSULA INSIDER — It’s No Picnic, Putting the City Into Foster City

By Mark Simon Aug 16, 1996

At a recent meeting of the Foster City Rotary Club, a speaker made a passing remark about downtown Foster City.

The audience of leading city volunteers, government officials and business leaders burst into hearty laughter.

“When you find it, let us know,” said one woman.

There are a handful of Peninsula communities that have no downtown. In Woodside and Portola Valley, residents go to some lengths to convince themselves that they live in the country, and a downtown would be contrary to their efforts.

In Foster City, the working fiction is that life is a marina, and the city’s lagoons and proximity to San Francisco Bay and its nautically named streets, like Bowsprit and Pitcairn, serve to mold perception into reality.

But beyond the imagery, Foster City is the prototypical planned community development, and it was planned to be the suburbs — non-city living for a generation of homebuyers who wanted to escape the grit and grip of the big city.

Interestingly enough, the plan included a downtown. And even more interestingly, the city has carried out the plan.

In the last decade, Metro Center, a major commercial and retail area, has grown up, complete with leading businesses, shopping, recreation and community facilities.

Bounded by the city buildings and the city’s main lagoon at the south and Highway 92 to the north, Metro Center has everything a downtown has. The prospect is for more growth in the area that will contribute to making the Metro Center a true center of community life.

It’s just that it is so untraditional in appearance and location that a lot of people who live in Foster City — including a room full of community leaders — just don’t see it that way.

“Yes, we have a downtown,” said Rick Marks, for 12 years Foster City’s community development director. “Everything you would find in a traditional downtown, you find in Metro Center. . . . It doesn’t look like your typical downtown,” he said.

MARKET TOWNS: The Peninsula is a classic example of how downtown communities evolved — residents were connected to downtown by a major thoroughfare, in this case El Camino Real, and they were drawn downtown for all their purchasing needs, from a new suit to a washer.

The towns were laid out like grids, and the downtown was at the heart of the city.

But most of those cities were built early in this century, whereas Foster City was the first major Peninsula community to develop in the second half of the century.

Because people wanted to escape city life, Foster City was designed to confound a traditional sense of a city — the streets are long and curving, not linear. Anyone who has been in Foster City can tell you there’s no gridlike pattern to the streets.

“In 1960, the suburban movement was still a strong, healthy movement and everybody wanted to be a part of it. And that meant fleeing big city experiences,” Marks said.

In Foster City, there are distinct neighborhoods and the city is neatly split by Hillsdale Boulevard — north is commercial, south is residential.

Each of the five major residential neighborhoods has a small shopping center, where residents were meant to take care of service needs like groceries, dry cleaning and banking.

It hasn’t really worked, according to City Councilman Marland Townsend.

Townsend, in many ways, is a quintessential Foster City resident. A retired Naval officer and executive with Arabian-American Oil Co., he has owned a home in Foster City since 1978, using it as a Stateside residence for months at a time.

But he moved permanently into the city only in 1990, emulating a highly mobile population that comes and goes as life or business dictates.

On a driving tour of his hometown, Townsend pointed out that three of the five neighborhood shopping centers are struggling, with at least one significant, prominent vacancy.

But on the same tour, you could see people living the Foster City life — jogging on the bay levee, riding bikes, enjoying the unique, seaside-like atmosphere of the city.

That’s the way people like it. They live their lives within their own neighborhoods and the context they have created.

“We have people who live in some parts of this city, who, in years, haven’t gone over to the other side,” Marks said. “That’s the ultimate suburban dweller. They have found what they want within a close radius of where they live, and they can’t find a good reason to go elsewhere.”

OFF-CENTER: That makes it a hard sell to persuade people there is a place that provides all the things one might find in a downtown neighborhood.

Metro Center is a 100-acre area that includes 300,000 square feet of small and bulk retail — everything from Safeway and Longs to a deli and a cleaners to Costco and Orchard Supply Hardware.

There is a 150-room Marriott Hotel; 265 town homes and 40 more under construction; and 60 low- and moderate-income senior citizens apartments scheduled to open in October.

Across the street is the city government complex — City Hall, the fire station, the police station, a new 18,500-square-foot library that’s under construction.

Down the street from there are four new dining spots — Noah’s Bagels, Starbucks, Jamba Juice and Boston Market.

Behind the row of city buildings is the site of a new Jewish Community Center and a new, private high school, which are both expected to provide a swimming pool, a gym and sports fields, possibly for the use of city residents.

At the heart of the civic region is the lagoon and Leo J. Ryan Park.

Directly across the street — and the way is pointed by a wide pedestrian concourse — is Town Center, a substantial park at the heart of the housing and commercial and retail businesses.

“If there’s going to be a concentration of interests, it’s going to be here,” said Townsend. “This is going to be a downtown for us. . . . I don’t see a need for it.”

A REASON TO GO THERE: And that’s the frustration for Marks, who has spent a good portion of his career laying out “downtown” Foster City.

People like Townsend, who can go by boat to Edgewater, the other successful neighborhood shopping center, aren’t sure why they need to go to Metro Center.

Metro Center is also at the north end of town, which means, Marks acknowledged, that it doesn’t draw people downtown, in the manner of the more traditional market town.

Foster City has a lot of people who don’t go downtown anywhere.

“They don’t go to downtown San Mateo, or Burlingame, either,” Marks said. “The curse of suburbia is that it provides so many different things outside of the urban context that you have to find a reason to go downtown.”

There are plenty of things to do in Metro Center, but the community has yet to put it at the heart of the civic events that might cause people to go there.

The city’s annual birthday party and Fourth of July celebration, two huge events, are spread out along the central lagoon at Ryan Park, facing south. It’s as though the community is turning its back on Metro Center.

“It has the potential to become a downtown if the city makes some decisions, which include including Metro Center in those public events that we celebrate — as a main staging area, rather than something on its periphery,” Marks said.

But that’s not how Foster City grew up, and in a young city only 25 years old, Metro Center is its newest neighborhood.

This could change.

The land where many of the city’s community events are staged is likely to be developed, pushing the events onto the open space in the Metro Center complex.

The hope is that as more people become aware of what’s available in Metro Center, more of them will use its services.

And it’s no longer the 1960s.

The generation that fled the city is being overtaken by a generation that is pushing for a neotraditional downtown and the revitalization of central, core commercial neighborhoods.

‘The one thing you are struck with is that the street system doesn’t function in any patern you’re familiar with’
— RICK MEARS Foster City community development director, on his town’s nontraditional layout.

Aug 16, 1996
By Mark Simon