Fred Thoits, one of two major owners of San Antonio shopping center, injected a dose of reality into the public discussion over what should happen to the ailing San Antonio shopping center during an interview with the Voice on Tuesday.
Thoits leveled criticism at the City Council, city staff and the Voice for not informing the public that a Santana Row-style mixed use development is not possible at the shopping center. San Antonio will be a focal point as the city revises its General Plan over the next two years, and in General Plan "visioning" hearings, residents have expressed desire for such a development, saying they want "walkable" and lively streetscapes with housing situated over retail.
"We can envision the Taj Mahal too -- it's not going to happen," Thoits said. "If [Santa Row is their vision we just can board up the stores and look at vacant property with no revenue and no sales tax." That's because such a development is not "financially feasible," he said.
Thoits added that "high density residential is the farthest thing from our minds." For the owners, the goal is to "establish a precise plan for the next 20 years to give us flexibility" in how the site is developed.
"If 15 years from now there's a huge demand for residential, we can include that."
City planning director Randy Tsuda didn't totally disagree, but said housing has not been ruled out for the site.
There is a "possibility of housing and office," Tsuda said. "But retail would still be a major use on the site. It would be tough to create a Santana Row on that site. It wouldn't be realistic. We have to see what's feasible there."
Much of the problems Thoits cites revolve around Walmart, which is the shopping center's largest tenant. Thoits said Walmart, which is on property owned by San Antonio Center LLC, has a lease for 50 years or more.
The shopping center has 16 landowners in all. So far, only the two largest owners of the center, Thoits Brothers Development and San Antonio Center LLC, have proposed redevelopment. Thoits indicated that two other key owners, Diana M. Santos and Machado San Antonio Parts LLC, have yet to join the fray. The four owners control 50 of the center's 57 acres.
"We talked with the developer of Santana Row -- we've talked to some very large developers," Thoits said. "One hundred percent of them have told us with 16 owners you can't possibly do a Santana Row-type project. With Walmart in your backyard nobody in their right mind would.
"Agents, lenders, everybody has told us that site is not big enough. It's just a pipe dream. To get the community thinking Santana Row will be in the shopping center ... It's a disservice to us to get the community stirred up."
Still sore over Home Depot
Last year the City Council rejected a proposal for a Home Depot at San Antonio Shopping Center to replace the Sears, which is on property Thoits owns.
"That cost the family $85 million," Thoits said. "That was the revenue we would have had with this Home Depot lease for 35 years. The city cavalierly denied the project and said 'We want a Santana Row here.' Now no major retailers are doing deals and Sears is about to go under we think."
"They weren't addressing reality," Thoits said of City Council members. "We're pretty frustrated, quite frankly."
Thoits said he was especially miffed when the city released a report on the city budget two weeks ago that identified "building materials" as one of the top two areas of "retail leakage" in the city, which means that the city is losing significant sales tax revenue to hardware stores outside of the city, like Home Depot.
Council member Ronit Bryant continued to be optimistic last week about the opportunities for redevelopment at San Antonio. Council member Jac Siegel was as well, saying the shopping center was a "gateway" to the city on El Camino Real and should look the part.
"San Antonio Shopping Center is clearly underutilized at this point," Bryant said. "Mixed use would be great. That's as far as I've gotten. I'm thrilled that some of the owners, Thoits included," want to redevelop, she said.
"It seems clear to me it could be used better and bring in more revenue for the owners. Let's go forward, let's go forward."
Mountain View currently faces a $6 million budget deficit in 2009-10, and the January report points to new retail development as a major strategy for increasing the city's revenue stream in the long term.
"These are not good times," Thoits said. "There could have been a brand new Home Depot in that center generating a lot of business and a lot of sales tax. It's frustrating to see the city come out now with all these findings."