By JUSTIN NYBERG

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on July 16, 2004.

REDWOOD CITY — El Camino Real, which means “the King’s Highway” in Spanish, has become more like a royal eyesore in San Mateo County.

It was, in 1823, a 500-mile walking path connecting mission settlements from San Diego to Sonoma.

Over the years, indiscriminate land use has resulted in an unremarkable roadway lined with car dealerships and take-out restaurants, parking lots and strip malls right down the middle of the county.

Dusty storefronts look out on a congested, six-lane roadway without much in the way of landscaping or charm. Pedestrians rarely stroll along its sun-baked sidewalks.

It’s just, well, unsightly.

But that may change, according to an optimistic group of transportation, city and economic planners that has set its sights on a new future for the county’s tarnished centerpiece.

“Right now El Camino Real is really the third freeway in the county. It’s not really part of the community. It’s more of a thoroughfare,” said Deberah Bringelson, president of the San Mateo County Economic and Development Association. “We want to make it part of the community.”

The concept has come to be known as the “Grand Boulevard.” It envisions transforming El Camino Real from a highway into a street — a slower-paced, pedestrian-oriented boulevard packed with affordable housing, small parks and mixed-use retail frontages, and connecting to vibrant transportation hubs in each city.

It’s a utopian vision, and one that will require both plenty of funding and cooperation among cities. Still, local planners say the possibilities are real.

“I think there is incredible potential to have an impact,” said Ian McAvoy, chief development officer with SamTrans, Caltrain and the Transportation Authority. “It will take a long time. This is not a one-year plan. This is a plan that will be ongoing.”

Daly City and Colma have already applied for roughly $4 million in construction funds from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. San Carlos has begun inviting developers to peruse six-and-a-half acres of vacant land near its Caltrain station to see what sort of housing or commercial property can be built there.

The first part of the plan calls for new housing, plazas and shops around transit stations on El Camino Real in Daly City, Colma, Belmont, San Carlos and Redwood City.

Eventually, the improvements will expand to other cities as the idea catches hold, according to Cynthia Nikitin, project manager with Project for Public Spaces, a New York nonprofit working on the Grand Boulevard project.

“Hopefully, this will set up a framework to guide the evolution of El Camino Real over the next 25 to 30 years,” Nikitin said.

Planners say the first improvements should be finished by around 2006.

Who pays for the improvements, which are expected to run well into the tens-of-millions of dollars, is still unclear. At this point, it’s simply a concept that has city planners thinking hard about the future.

Officials are looking at “what sorts of things we might put near the San Carlos station to make it a place people want to get to, to make it a destination,” said Brian Moura, San Carlos’ assistant city manager.

It’s also about cooperation. Until now, cities have generally isolated their planning efforts to their own cities, and left changes to El Camino Real to Caltrans, which owns it.

However, the Grand Boulevard concept has cities working hand-in-hand to improve the road that connects them. State Assemblyman Gene Mullin, D-So. San Francisco, has sponsored legislation that would allow cities to pool their redevelopment money to build common projects like the Grand Boulevard.

Currently, cities may only spend redevelopment funds in specific, blighted areas within their own city limits.

“I think we really have the potential to connect communities together,” McAvoy said.

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