Work in Progress: 19th Avenue - San Mateo - Page 3

Nineteenth Avenue Park—building community in a hidden Eichler enclave of urban San Mateo

Cheryl Hylton, a former teacher and fundraiser for nonprofit organizations, has emerged as the leading neighborhood activist over the past decade. The challenges she has faced arise because one of the neighborhood's greatest pluses—its central location—has also turned out to be one of its greatest minuses.

resident playing in park

"Because it is such a convenient location, there have been many proposals for development," Yang notes. These have included plans for a large Marriott hotel and for an office park, and plans to widen Delaware Street, which borders the neighborhood.

All those plans proceeded—but not before Hylton won important concessions.

In the case of Marriott, which in 1997 proposed to greatly enlarge an existing hotel, Hylton said, "Not so fast. You'll be peeking into our neighbors' backyards. We'd like you to do something for us."

"At first, with a straight face, Marriott said their neighborhood mitigation would be a fountain in front of the hotel," Hylton says. Her answer was no. "I said, 'Let's start with [nearby] Concar Park.'" Both Marriott and the city of San Mateo kicked in for park improvements.

"The park was horrific," says Joe Cuevas, whose home across from the park has become a neighborhood landmark because of his collection of classic cars. "We had kids drinking, and transients."

But today, the once weedy and debris-strewn park has become an immaculate play lot that attracts folks from miles around and is the neighborhood's central gathering spots—thanks to funding and maintenance from the Marriott.

couple walking

As for the Delaware widening, which was proposed around 2000 and would have pushed the road closer to Eichler homes, increasing noise, and fumes, "I told the city, that doesn't work for us," Hylton says.

Consulting old planning documents, she determined that the city had promised the neighborhood a planting strip between their sidewalk and the street—a strip that had never been installed. But that wasn't surprising; the sidewalk itself had never been installed. In fact, the entire edge of the neighborhood looked ragged, thanks to a hodge-podge collection of fences, some of them chain-link, Hylton says.

Hylton worked out a deal—between the neighborhood, the city, and the developer of a nearby office complex—which had the developer paying for, and the city agreeing to maintain, a handsome fence, a landscaped strip, new trees, and a sidewalk that replaced an informal dirt path.

The neighborhood continues to face development issues, including plans for two office buildings near the Highway 92 off-ramp and Caltrain station, and plans for 'Station Park Green,' a dense retail, office, and 600-unit apartment project on the site of an aging Kmart center.

residents on swings in park

The neighborhood association doesn't oppose development, but is concerned about density and traffic. "We want some development," says Hai Yang, "but we want good development."

Yang may be a newcomer to the neighborhood, but he has emerged as one of its potent forces, serving as president of the association. "He tapped into a latent desire for people to meet their neighbors," says Viv Hwang.

Yang, an affable man who is turning his large yard into an orchard, has spearheaded such community events as barbecues, parties in the park, cookie parties, and bicycle rides. "It was frustrating at first," he says. "Some people were not interested."

resident describing his remodeling plans

About 30 people attend association meetings. A dozen came to the cookie party. "It's a start," Viv Hwang says. Saul and Angela Lewis, who do get involved with the association, understand why many others do not. Like many of the newcomers, they too have children. "We want to be more involved in the neighborhood but it's hard with three kids," Angela says.

Still, having children makes it easy to meet people. Saul and Angela often bike through the neighborhood, heading for Concar Park, their children buzzing along on their Razor mobiles. They meet neighbors walking dogs and stop to chat with Joe Cuevas. "It's not just rushing to the park," Angela says. "It's enjoying the walk to the park."