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San Mateo residents, business owners wary of high-speed rail plans

(The following story by Mike Rosenberg appeared on the San Mateo County Times website on August 24, 2010.)

SAN MATEO, Calif. A growing number of San Mateo residents and businesses are agonizing about what will become of their properties and the city's downtown as state officials move closer to building a three-story-high, 80-foot-wide railroad through town.

State high-speed rail planners earlier this month said they won't build the two types of buried tracks -- a tunnel or a covered trench -- that officials and residents wanted for the portion of the 520-mile project that will run through north San Mateo, including downtown.

Instead, the California High-Speed Rail Authority will pick from two alignments for the 1.8-mile stretch of track from the Burlingame border to the Hayward Park station.

The options include an open trench -- underground tracks open to the surface -- or an aerial viaduct, which is a roughly 30-foot high structure similar to a freeway overpass. But even the open trench option seems unlikely. State engineers estimate it would cost $405 million for that area, compared with $238 million for an aerial viaduct, and the city has no money to make up the difference.

"I think all hell will break loose if anything different" than underground tracks are built, said Anna Kuhre, president of the San Mateo United Homeowners Association, a collaborative of neighborhood groups across the city. "This is our downtown. It's sacred to the citizens. I think people will take to the streets."

Meanwhile, the Central Neighborhood Association, which represents the area east of the downtown tracks, is shuddering at the thought of the project.

"Our neighborhood residents are just a block or two away (from the tracks), and I could just imagine what this is going to look like," association President Laurie Watanuki said. "Visually, I think it's really going to be like a wall. And the noise impacts, I think, are just going to be unbelievable. And the eminent domain issues, as well."

Business owners along the line, including several industrial sites such as auto repair shops, say they are operating without any idea of whether the tracks will need to extend onto their property, thereby forcing them to sell the state their land and shut down. Even staging grounds for construction crews would result in similar -- albeit temporary -- ramifications.

Jeffrey Castaline, who owns Aanraku Glass downtown next to the tracks, has put up an anti-bullet train sign on his business.

"It would destroy downtown, and it's going to put me out of business," said Castaline, whose custom-built "dream home" is above the shop. "They'll take my business in the first floor and my home on the second floor."

Richard Izmirian, owner of Izmirian Roofing and Sheet Metal -- which his grandfather founded downtown next to the tracks 86 years ago -- is in the same boat.

"We're expecting to be taken out by high-speed rail eventually. We'll no longer be here. It's as simple as that," Izmirian said. "We really don't know what we're going to do."

But the Cinemark 12 movie theater adjacent to the tracks -- which some consider to be the cornerstone of downtown -- does not appear to be affected by the project, company officials said Tuesday. They are in a "wait-and-see mode" as more details on the project emerge.

It's not just losses of businesses and homes but lower property values that have some people worried.

Eleni Ford, who lives next to the tracks, said she has been "seriously debating" selling her home.

"I do believe that property values will decrease in an area where a train divides us the way it would," Ford said.

City officials have long said they wanted an underground option in the northern half of the city. South of the Hayward Park station, the train will run alongside the current Caltrain tracks for a half-mile and rise to a filled-in raised berm structure to the Belmont border.

The San Mateo City Council, which has been on break since the most recent proposals were released, is scheduled to take up the topic during its return on Sept. 7.

Public Works Director Larry Patterson said officials have been meeting with state engineers and were not yet sure what specifically will be discussed at the upcoming hearing.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

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