Burlingame’s industrial sweet spot could become Bay Area’s next creative mixed-use neighborhood

Burlingame’s Rollins Road, the flat industrial neighborhood squeezed between Highway 101 and the Caltrain tracks, is not the prettiest part of town. But it might be the sweetest smelling.

Amid bus storage, airplane meal production, electric car battery research and development, and manufacturers of everything from spicy snacks to hot tubs are two candy factories: See’s Candies dips its butterscotch lollipops at 1760 Rollins Road, and across the street Guittard churns out its couverture chocolate.

“Especially on a warm summer day you can smell the Oompa Loopas down there swirling the chocolate,” said Eric Brand, an interior designer and furniture maker who has had his headquarters at 1675 Rollins Road since 2000.

But while neither See’s Candies or Guittard is likely going anywhere, the neighborhood they call home is set to be transformed over the next five years with thousands of new residents as housing developers flock to the area to take advantage of a rezoning that will allow single-story warehouses to be replaced with six-story apartment buildings.

The North Rollins Road plan, which covers an 88-acre area a 10-minute walk from the Millbrae BART and Caltrains stations, is a centerpiece of Burlingame’s strategy for meeting its state-mandated housing requirements. The vision is seen as a suburban answer to San Francisco’s Dogpatch or Oakland’s Auto Row — a half industrial, half residential enclave where artists and apartment dwellers co-exist with light industrial companies.

In a city with a median single-family home price of $2.4 million, a dense “NoRo” neighborhood will offer something more affordable and less car-dependent than the typical ranch with a backyard, according to Burlingame City Councilmember Michael Brownrigg, who said the plan would help increase the city’s population by 20% over the next decade.

“We are very quickly going to create a lot of additional housing by rezoning this light-industrial neighborhood,” said Brownrigg. “Cities have to adapt to how people want to live, and there are not as many people fixing cars and packaging food on the Peninsula these days. We are trying to supply what the market needs — and it needs housing.”

The area was targeted for housing in the city’s 2019 general plan, while an “overlay” district that further defines things like open space and streetscape is set to be finalized in early spring. The 2019 general plan called for about 1,200 units of housing in NoRo — about 40% of the 2,951 contemplated for the whole city — but developer interest looks like it will easily exceed that number. In order to comply with the state-mandated Regional Needs Housing Allocation requirement, Burlingame will need to permit 3,257 units of housing between 2023 and 2031.

“We are getting more larger projects in the Rollins Road area than we are in the downtown,” said Burlingame Community Development Director Kevin Gardiner. “There has been more interest than we initially expected. We are already bumping up against the 1,200 and there are plenty of more opportunities.”

A construction site at 1 Adrian Court, part of Burlingame’s plan to upzone areas near Rollins Road to allow housing to be built on what is currently an industrial and commercial zone.

Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

So far three major housing developments are in the works in the plan area, which stretches along Rollins Road and includes three dead-end streets to the west. At 1-45 Adrian Court, construction has started on a 265-unit apartment complex with 38 affordable units and a privately owned public park. On the east side of Rollins Road, at 30 Ingold Road, SummerHill Apartment Communities plans to start construction in the late spring on 298 units, 43 of which will be affordable. That complex will also have a park. A third application has been submitted to construct 420 units at 1855 to 1881 Rollins Road, 35 of which would be affordable.

The below-market-rate units in both projects will be affordable to families earning less than 80% of area median income, about $117,000 for a couple or $146,000 for a family of four.

Summerhill Homes Senior Vice President Elaine Breeze, who worked on both the Ingold Road and Adrian Court projects, called Burlingame “the best of both worlds.” It has the strong public schools and open space associated with well-off suburbs and a quaint downtown, while being within walking distance to Millbrae BART and Caltrain, where Republic Urban properties is building 400 units and a hotel.

“We love Burlingame — it’s a great town,’ she said. “We would definitely go after new projects in the Rollins Road area.”

Marshall Hydorn, a senior vice president with commercial brokerage CBRE, said the North Rollins Road plan has set off a land rush as housing developers look to assemble sites large enough for 200 or 300 units. Initially some longtime property owners rebuffed offers because the area has strong rents and low vacancies, but that is starting to change.

“There have been multiple offers made on every single property on Rollins Road,” Hydorn said. “The values have gotten so astronomical that many of those families have begun to sell.”

North San Mateo County has about 25 million square feet of industrial space, about 4 million square feet of which is in Burlingame, according to CBRE. The current vacancy rate is 5.1%.

“Slowly but surely industrial properties and industrial jobs in San Mateo county are dying off,” Hydorn said, pointing to rezoning in South San Francisco and Brisbane. “You see it all over the Peninsula: Industrial is on the way out.”

Much industrial land along Rollins lacks docking and parking space, he said. A 52-foot truck has to squeeze into narrow loading dock areas, often blocking some or all of the street, leading to traffic headaches.

While the Rollins Road plan cuts the amount of land zoned exclusively for light manufacturing, the southern end of the area will remain exclusively industrial, as will the land east of Highway 101.

For more than a decade, City Council member Donna Colson owned Burlingamer Futsal, an indoor soccer center at 1864 Rollins Road. The facility is one of a handful of recreation-focused businesses in the NoRo area; others include a trampoline place, a gymnastics training center and a batting cage.

As part of her work on the NoRo plan, Colson met with nearly all the current tenants in the area.

“All the businesses down there have common themes,” she said. “They want places close by for their workers to live. They want to be able to get out of their cars and walk or bike to work. They want places for their workers to eat. The sad thing is right you can’t get lunch anywhere or go to a park and have an outside meeting.”


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