The owners of several small businesses say a cyclone fence went up behind their properties the evening of May 10 with no real purpose other than to cut off access to their shops and force the sale of their properties.
"All our customers are shocked and amazed," said Paul Brunmeier, co-owner of Barron Park Plumbing Supply. "The fence makes us look closed. There's no reason to have this fence there. It was a tactic designed to intimidate the owners."
The fence, put up by developer of the adjacent property, Merlone Geier, isn't there to block off a construction site, but did block customers of the businesses from using the large parking lots near Ross and Beverages & More, which remain open.
Fence portions near Barron Park were removed by irritated customers, Brunmeier said, while a cardboard sign tells customers that the plumbing supply shop is still open.
Greg Geertsen, managing director for Merlone Geier, denied that his company was putting on the pressure for owners to accept his company's offers to buy all five properties on the corner.
"That is not the intent at all," he said. "The intent is to protect our property rights."
The customers and employees of the businesses at San Antonio Road and California Street, with the exclusion of Milk Pail Market, "do not have the right, by agreement or easement, to park on San Antonio shopping center," Geertsen said. "We have to enforce these rights."
If the five owners don't sell, "the project will be built around them," Geertsen said. "They won't have future access to the parking lot. I believe they'll have parking on their own parcels."
Zoning Administrator Peter Gilli said the fence isn't allowed by the city
"Putting up a fence requires planning approval," Gilli said. "There was no planning approval. I don't know if we would have necessarily approved the permit." He added in an email that the developers "were unaware of the requirement, and they will follow up on it immediately."
Gilli added that Merlone Geier does not yet own the property, but is in contract to buy it.
Dave Pilling, owner of an office building next to Baron Park, said the fence was over his property line by several feet, so he took matters into his own hands and took the fence apart last Saturday and moved it off his property.
"My tenants were very disturbed by it," Pilling said. "Cosmetically, it looked awful."
"I'm in the middle of negotiating a two-year lease with my tenants, who were essentially saying, 'How stable is this whole thing?' with people putting fences up and all this other stuff," Pilling said.
Merlone Geier did have a gate installed in the cyclone fence to allow people who use a nearby bus stop to walk through Pilling's property and onto an easement at the shopping center, Geertsen said.
"It killed my business," said Mehran Farshad, co-owner of the International Halal Market, neighboring Barron Park Plumbing Supply. The market had its driveway's exit into San Antonio shopping center blocked by the fence, he said.
"People saw they could not exit, so they did not enter the property."
The fence blocking the driveway at the International Halal Market was allowed to be moved by Fire Marshal Jayme Wentker for fire safety reasons, Farshad said, though Wentker could not confirm this by press time.
Developer Merlone Geier is planning development of a hotel and office space next to the small businesses, replacing Jo-Ann Fabrics, Ross and Beverages & More. The Environmental Planning Commission is set to discuss that project Wednesday, May 16. Meanwhile three five-story apartment buildings, ground floor retail and a new Safeway are under construction by Merlone Geier at the former Sears site next door.
The firm is offering to buy all five properties at the California Street corner, but so far only the owner of the building housing Barron Park Plumbing Supply is under contract to sell, said Greg Geertsen, managing director for Merlone Geier.
Brunmeier said he had offered to buy the Barron Park Plumbing Supply building himself, but says his landlord wouldn't sell. "It's hard to believe he sold it for $1 million, which is what I offered, unless he was intimidated," he said.
Pilling said he was offered $1.1 million for his building, which he said made little financial sense compared to his rental income.
Milk Pail Market owner Steve Rasmussen said he didn't want to sell his property, which recently underwent a $1.7 million renovation, but "life doesn't have any absolutes. Milk Pail has every intention of continuing for years into the future whether we stay there or locate to another building."
Only the Milk Pail Market has an agreement to use the parking lot behind the businesses, which expires in 2016. Those parking spaces "will all be redeveloped," Geertsen said.
When asked if his business would have enough parking on his own property to meet city requirements, Rasmussen said, "No, I won't."
"I think the community will be hugely interested in preserving the Milk Pail," Rasmussen said. "That is all part of the discussions that are no doubt going to start going on."
Farshad said that Merlone Geier removed 14 trees from his property that were shading cars in his parking lot, but Geertsen disagrees, saying the trees were on Merlone Geier's property.
"They don't own that property, that's ours," Geertsen said.
Farshad also says the fence should not have gone up against his back wall, and after having checked with the city's planning department, he insists that his property line is back far enough to allow a car to drive from his lot and along the back wall and back out to San Antonio Road on the other side of his building. But it appears that at some point an agreement must have been made to allow his parking lot to instead exit into the shopping center, while the car circulation around his building was blocked by cement islands.
Without some sort of parking lot exit, there's little room for a u-turn in his lot and so far, the planning department can't find evidence of an agreement to allow the driveway to exit into the shopping center, said Planning Director Randy Tsuda.