The County of San Mateo is building a campus where adults experiencing a severe mental illness can receive care in setting that feels more residential than institutional.
This new campus will replace a concrete colossus that first housed tuberculosis patients during the Truman Administration. The design — small-scale buildings, open-air courtyards and communal spaces — reflects advances in treatment with a focus on recovery and well-being.
On April 12, 2021, advocates for the mentally ill, treatment providers and local officials celebrated the groundbreaking for the new $105 million Cordilleras Mental Health Center, located on 20 acres of unincorporated land between San Carlos and Redwood City. When it opens in 2023, it will replace the current facility that opened in 1952 as a tuberculosis hospital and transitioned to a mental health facility in the 1970s.
The new facility will include four new 16-bed mental health rehabilitation centers for 64 adults with severe mental illness and separate supported housing that includes a community kitchen and dining area for 57 adults with a lengthy history of mental illness. Once complete, the old facility will be torn down.
“Our job is to take care of the most vulnerable,” San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine said at the groundbreaking. “And the folks here are really the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.”
The design of the new campus includes a central courtyard with sheltered outdoor seating, a community garden and recreation courts.
Wellbeing by Design
The current building is costly to operate and its cold, blocky design “is poorly suited to current treatment practices,” according to a County staff report. A 2014 assessment found the building needed significant and expensive repairs and upgrades.
In addition, sending local residents to facilities in other counties is costly. Importantly, out-of-county placements limits the ability of local health professionals to monitor clients and makes it more challenging and costly for family members to visit.
County officials decided to start fresh. The project design reflects the following principles:
► Focus on wellness
► Promotion of respect and optimism for clients, their families and staff
► Building of community
► Healing through nature
► Striving for recovery through world-class model of care
“I think just about every one of us, through a family member of through a friend or through a friend of a friend, has been touched by mental illness,” Supervisor Carole Groom said at the groundbreaking. “Now we are going to have this incredibly fine facility … so we will know that if that family member or that friend needs help, it’s here at Cordilleras in San Mateo County.”
In addition to housing and treatment facilities, plans call for a new Campus Center that will include a chapel, medication room, art center, exercise room and volunteer center. It will also house a commercial kitchen where clients can learn culinary skills and a retail store that will sell food prepared in the kitchen and art work created by clients.
The site is largely out of the public’s view, nestled in a valley just north of Edgewood Road on Edmonds Road between Alameda de las Pulgas and Interstate 280. The design includes ample use of nature light and for views of the surrounding woods.
County Manager Mike Callagy summoned up the philosophy that guided the buildings plan for both client care and design.
“One of the hallmarks of the County is that we care. And in caring, we create that remarkable experience for others.”
The new center will be California’s first net-zero carbon emissions mental health campus. Solar panels and engineering and mechanical systems, consistent with the County Municipal Green Building Policy, are expected to help the building achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
The $155 million cost is expected to be paid for through the sale of bonds.
When the original tuberculosis hospital opened in 1952, Dr. Harold D. Chope, the County director of public health, called it “probably the most modern in the state.”