The largest shopping center redevelopment in decades came closer to fruition Tuesday night when the City Council expressed support for the general design for phase 2 of the Village at San Antonio -- but with changes to improve the experience for bicyclists and pedestrians, and to create a unique "sense of place" in the center.
With Mayor John Inks having to recuse himself from the study session because of the proximity of property he owns, the remaining six council members found themselves narrowly coming to agreements to move forward on Merlone Geier's proposal for 405 San Antonio Road. Members Chris Clark, Mike Kasperzak and Margaret Abe-Koga were the most supportive of the project, but often butted heads with the project's bigger critics on the council, Ronit Bryant, Jac Siegel and John McAlister.
"If we're at the point where we have three people saying this isn't working, I think this project is dead," said council member Kasperzak at one point.
Ronit Bryant -- the council's most vocal advocate of pedestrian-friendly design -- was in the driver's seat as she provided her requirements for being the swing vote to move forward. And Bryant was not thoroughly impressed.
"I don't think this is going be a regional center," said Bryant, who said her support was contingent on better bicycle and pedestrian experience as well as the hiring of a "place-making consultant" -- such as Project for Public Spaces -- to make the center unique. "I think this is going to be an office with a Starbucks -- I'll be really happy if I'm wrong."
If approved next year, Merlone Geier would build a seven-story hotel and conference center with 167 rooms, a six-level garage for 1,480 cars, make space for 1,468 office workers in two, six-story office buildings and create a new 70,000-square-foot movie theater along California Street. It would also bring in 121,000 square feet of ground floor shops and restaurants around a 25,000-square-foot plaza and several new streets. The site is now home to Ross and BevMo on California Street, as well as the now-vacant buildings that housed Barron Park Plumbing Supply and the International Halal Market on San Antonio Road.
Bryant joined the more supportive members of the council in giving thumbs up to the general layout of the six proposed buildings on 9.9 acres at San Antonio Road and California Street.
"Frankly, I didn't really hear from the rest of council an interest in moving buildings around -- I didn't hear that so I left it," Bryant said, explaining why she hadn't pushed for substantial redesign, though she did express support for consolidating building heights into one taller building.
Siegel said he thought there was "too much trying to be put on this parcel -- it's overstuffed, is all I can say." He reiterated his concern about the impacts of the density, which he and some residential neighbors say will add to traffic jams on San Antonio Road.
"Big buildings -- that's usually what regional shopping malls usually have," said council member Abe-Koga. "A lot of people come by car -- that's still the reality. There are parking structures at every shopping (mall) I can think of. I think this really what a shopping center is -- and we have to come to terms with it."
"Overall I'm pretty impressed with how the architects have improved from what the original plans were," said council member Kasperzak.
A chief complaint among the council members and the public was pedestrian access to the center's plaza for those coming from California Street and Pacchetti Way, including those coming from the San Antonio Caltrain station. Merlone Geier's plans had created a sort of "tunnel" that pedestrians and bicyclists would have to use to enter the center from the northeast, along an access road to the parking garage.
When entering a shopping center, "Why do I need to walk in a tunnel looking at electrical panels and utilities? That makes absolutely no sense," Bryant said.
Merlone Geier's Mike Grehl pitched the benefits of the redevelopment, including $2.5 million in revenue for the city in new sales taxes and property taxes, a long-desired convention and meeting space, a movie theater, bike lanes and "over 2,500 jobs created at the project" and "800 construction jobs."
Merloen Geier said the 25,000 square foot plaza -- about the size of Mountain View's Civic Center plaza -- would double in size on nights and weekends when a street through it would be closed to car traffic, and offered the site for public events.
Several residents and council members said the plaza should always be closed to car traffic.
"I see no reason for cars to have to circulate through this place," Bryant said, adding that car traffic should be directed to the garage in an effort to make the area pedestrian friendly. Merlone Geier representatives said that could hurt daytime business for their tenants, which some residents hoped would be higher-end retailers than those in phase 1 of the project.
"I'm looking forward to the theater, I'm looking forward to high-end retail," said resident Susan Hamilton. "This will be our chance to be a shining star in Silicon Valley."
There would also be a "monument to the birthplace of Silicon Valley," to commemorate the historic building Merlone Geier proposes to demolish at 391 San Antonio Road, the former site of William Shockley's laboratory where semiconductor technology was first developed.
"In the late '50s and '60s I worked there," said Andy Ramans to the council on Tuesday. "The first semiconductors were manufactured at that site."
He said that he and his former colleague Jac Beaudouin appeared before previous City Councils and had some small successes in memorializing the site, including a plaque placed on the walkway in front of the building, most recently the home of the International Halal Market.
"We are very, very pleased with this approach Merlone Geier has taken," Ramans said. "We have worked with them last six to seven months. I believe the monument will be historically and technically accurate and artistically attractive."