When Joe Welch began building apartments in San Bruno, one of his most frequented establishments was City Hall.
During that time, he had a close friend who worked for the city and building permits were easy to come by.
So he started developing apartment complexes throughout town, first with four units, then with five and eventually up to eight, until he met some resistance from city government.
“They started shutting him down,” said his eldest son, Joe Welch III. “They would say, ‘You’ve sold too many.’”
That would be one of the many examples of Welch’s long—at times, contentious—relationship with the city, and that relationship would continue for years—from the time in 1999 when he unsuccessfully ran for mayor to the many years he spent participating in civic discussions right here in the city.
While he was known for being gruff and unafraid to speak his mind, people who knew him well always will remember him for being a kind, fair man who loved San Bruno—the city he worked in and called home for decades.
Joseph Wilbur Welch Jr., owner of and one of the largest property owners in San Mateo County, died Aug. 17 at his home. According to his family, Mr. Welch, who was diabetic, broke his leg earlier this year and never fully recovered. He was 81.
A native of San Francisco, Welch began his career in the real estate business after getting married to his wife, Ollie Mae. Her brothers were house movers, and when homes were being removed from San Francisco to make way for freeway expansion, Welch worked with them to move the homes to San Bruno.
He started San Bruno Investment Co. in 1958 on San Bruno Avenue and also operated a mortgage company out of the building. On the second floor of the building, he started a travel agency, which he used to pursue one of his hobbies: traveling the world. “That’s how he got all the comps,” Joe III said of the travel agency.
After house moving, Welch began developing apartments, and then in the 1960s he began acquiring commercial property. But he quickly distinguished himself from his counterparts because, while others might sell their buildings, Welch prided himself on knowing when to hold on to one of his properties.
“That’s the difference between him and the other real estate developers,” Joe III said. “He had the forethought to hold on to stuff.”
However, Welch didn’t always have a positive reputation as a developer in San Bruno.
Mention his name on San Mateo Avenue, where his company owns a number of properties, and some folks are quick to blame him for some of the downtown area’s lack of growth over the years because he rarely eased up on lowering the rent on his properties.
Joe III disagreed with that sentiment, saying that high rents have never been the problem in downtown but rather the lack of cohesiveness among all the various buildings that exist along the corridor.
Still, Welch’s family said he was always kind-hearted and willing to help someone who was willing to work hard. He also was fair in making deals and paid all of the people who worked for him.
His only gripe, those close to him said, was when people didn’t follow through on their word.
“If he didn’t like you,” Joe III said, “he’d let you know.”
Bob Marshall, owner of and a longtime friend of Welch, said he never had a problem with him, even when he was mayor.
Marshall said he respected Welch the most for choosing to build his home in San Bruno rather than in a more affluent city, even though he could afford it.
That showed how much he loved the city, not just as a real estate developer but also as a resident.
“When I was mayor, we used to joke and I would say, ‘I run the city,’” Marshall said. “Then he would say, ‘But I own the town.’ I liked that.”
Marshall added that losing Welch, often referred to as Big Joe, is like losing a chapter in San Bruno’s history.
Outside of the real estate business, Welch was an avid collector, and he took a special interest in antique slot machines. He even converted part of the second floor of his business into an immaculate slot machine museum and often referred to it as “the largest collection in the world,” according to the San Mateo Daily Journal.
He also frequently donated money to St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco.
He is survived by his three sons, Joseph III (Rose), Barry (Diane), Greg (June) and seven grandchildren Erin, Lauren, Kimberly, Shannon, Whitney, Wyatt and Chase.