Over a dozen small businesses on Mora Drive, facing an April deadline to leave their buildings as a 25-year-old agreement with the city ran out, will now have more time to relocate. The City Council on Tuesday granted an 18-month reprieve so the businesses can find new buildings.
The extension will save a raw food processing business called Freeland Foods, but the owner of Simon Printing, profiled by the Voice in December, says it may still go out of business if forced to move. Nevertheless, a council majority pushed ahead with the city's 25-year-old plan to build housing on the 17 parcels, with only Laura Macias expressing support for allowing the businesses to stay indefinitely.
In 1987 city officials struck a deal with 14 property owners on Mora Drive, requiring the strange little 5-acre pocket of small industrial businesses in the middle of a residential neighborhood be vacated and scraped in 2012 to make way for housing. But that was made difficult as the April 2012 deadline loomed and businesses struggled to find new locations and a realtor struggled to find a residential developer to buy the property. A 10-year cleanup of toxics in the ground at the property concluded just a few weeks ago.
"Finding another food plant has been very challenging," said Robert Freeland , who co-owns Freeland Foods with two family members. Since receiving notice of the deadline in May of last year "I've been scouring the earth," visiting places like Ontario, Seattle and Utah.
While the Freelands are from Mountain View and Freeland said the location made sense, he had to go to San Diego to find a new location.
Not having another six-to-eight months to move would have killed his business, he said.
"We need this extension to survive," Freeland said of his business, which manufactures such items as organic ginger snaps.
At least one other business may not be so lucky. Simon Printing founder Vernon Simon said that the family business he started may go under if forced to move.
"We feel it would be very costly for us to move," he said Tuesday. "The economy has hit the printing industry very hard."
While the council appeared to be split over whether to give the extension during its Dec. 13 meeting, council members present Tuesday voted unanimously 4-0 to approve the extension, including Ronit Bryant, who was previously undecided. Members who expressed opposition before, Tom Means and Margaret Abe-Koga, were absent, while John Inks stepped off the dais because he owns property nearby.
Macias urged the council to allow the small businesses to stay as long as possible, but the other three council members present said there would not likely be another extension.
"We've built far more residential homes than anyone thought possible," since 1987, Macias said.
"I believe we should be promoting our small businesses here and not standing in their way. I would like council to consider putting a pause on this and let the business run their course. I'd like us to see as many small businesses growing and succeeding here as possible."
While businesses say the street is quiet and they get no complaints from their residential neighbors, council member Bryant said the buildings were a bad fit for the residential neighborhood that developed around it over the years.
"I love mixed-use neighborhoods but it is not a mixed-use neighborhood," Bryant said. "It is like another world dropped into the middle of a residential neighborhood. In the long term it doesn't make sense for Mora Drive to stay the way it is."
Bryant encouraged the business owners to "get organized and start your lives again rather than doing it on a temporary basis."
Business owners expressed concern about several recommendations from the city's Environmental Planning Commission, which supported the extension only if vacant buildings would be demolished in 30 days at the property owner's expense and that all buildings be brought up to code in 60 days. The council did not support those provisions, despite concerns about squatters in vacant buildings, which owners would be responsible for securing.
"I see no reason to penalize this group of small businesses in a way I've never seen in my time on council," Macias said of the commission's conditions, which Freeland called "really scary" because he was unsure whether his building was up to code.
City Attorney Jannie Quinn clarified that the city's primary concern was illegal construction, including the construction of a residential dwelling in one of the industrial buildings. Other violations code enforcement officers are aware of are un-permitted outdoor storage -- "those types of things," Quinn said.
Resident Don Ball described the situation as a cautionary tale after he presented the council with a 1950s aerial view of the neighborhood when Mora Drive was surrounded by undeveloped lots, including one to the north against the railroad tracks, which was also to be industrial. But its conversion to residential put pressure on Mora Drive to convert as well.
"This is a concrete example of what happens when you mix residential with any other use," Ball said. It is like "a jealous lover."