A developer has proposed 400 homes and 225,000 square feet of new retail space for the San Antonio shopping center — the topic of a three-hour City Council study session Tuesday evening.
San Francisco based developer Merlone Geier Partners is in contract to buy a 16 acre portion of San Antonio Center where Sears, Rite Aid and other stores now sit. The firm's proposal includes a 60,000-square-foot grocery store, several shops, a courtyard-style "Main Street" along the Hetch Hetchy right of way, podium parking and two large apartment buildings, one of which is 10 stories tall. An alternative plan includes a 2,200-seat movie theater instead of the housing.
Several council members noted that the proposal for what has been called the "gateway" to the city along El Camino Real was much better than the Home Depot development considered for the site a few years ago. A council majority appeared to support the overall concept, but cited concerns with some "auto-centric" design elements.
Even some of the council's biggest opponents of large housing developments in the past were relatively supportive of a pair of tall apartment building set to the north of the new shopping center. Merlone Geier managing director David Geier said the firm took a cue from Mountain View's Avalon Towers on El Camino Real and the shopping center's tall office building in coming up with the height of the 10-story apartment building, which sits next to a six-story apartment building.
If it were "five to six stories, I could live with that," said council member Jac Siegel of the tall building, adding that "my preference would be cinemas" or some combination of both.
Council member Ronit Bryant agreed that there was potential for housing.
"If it's permeable, well-designed and green, I'll look at it again," she said.
Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga said she was fan of Avalon Towers and went so far as to say "I would consider something larger."
While the alternative proposal for movie theaters may not be feasible, Siegel said he didn't want to lose the sales tax revenue the city now gets from the Shoreline Century 16 movie theaters.
Council members seemed irritated by a proposed solar-powered auto "service station" and a drive-through pharmacy along El Camino Real in the development. Members said the features made an "auto-centric" statement that was contrary to the "walkable" and pedestrian-friendly theme the community has been asking for in recent General Plan meetings.
Planning director Randy Tsuda said his department was working to overcome a difference with the developer over design philosophy. City officials want the buildings to be "porous" and "permeable" so pedestrians can walk in from wherever they please along El Camino Real and San Antonio Road. But the proposal appeared to be designed around a parking structure that seems to place convenience for cars as a top priority.
"The success of our development has a lot to do with how comfortable people are with that parking structure," Geiser said, adding that it was the sort of design that retail tenants wanted.
The city also has an outstanding concern over a lack of adequate bike paths in the proposal, said city planner Nancy Minicucci.
Council members raised concerns that there were already three grocery stores next to the site, but Geier said his firm's economist believes there is definitely a market for a fourth because people tend to shop at different grocery stores for different things.
While cities such as Sunnyvale struggle to develop large shopping centers in the current economy, Geiser said his firm was in early discussion with a grocery store and several other restaurants and retail stores that want to move into the proposed shopping center.
Merlone Geier claims the development would bring the city $1 million a year in new sales tax revenue and produce 800 new jobs. The 16-month construction time could generate another 700 jobs, the firm says.