Mountain View Voice

Opinion - May 7, 2010

Council bets on high density rentals

In the end, fears of traffic gridlock, impossible parking and an imposing, four-story facade did nothing to scare the City Council as they voted 5-2 last week to approve a 203-unit apartment complex on the Minton's Lumberyard site which sits across the street from the downtown train station.

Whether Old Mountain View residents will pay the price, as they claimed in their strident opposition to the plan, won't be known for several years, when the project is completed. The OMV group strongly objected to a slightly lower parking requirement (1.5 vs. 1.8 spaces per unit) for the complex, fearing residents would park extra cars in their neighborhood. Their cause was taken up by council members Laura Macias and Jac Siegel, who blasted the majority for not listening to neighbors about parking and other issues.

"There was a revolt in the neighborhood over this project. I don't know why we aren't listening to the neighborhood and what they want," Siegel said.

Council members on the winning side disagreed, saying the environmental advantages of building high density near transit made it a perfect location for high-density residential buildings.

The vote was victory for the developer, Prometheus Real Estate Group, which started out seeking 214 units, including 21 units of affordable housing. But the affordable housing was pulled when a recent court decision ruled it was illegal for California cities to require such units in new housing projects. Ultimately, Prometheus agreed to build seven new affordable housing units at 455 W. Evelyn Ave., considerably less than the original offer, but given the court case, a reasonable compromise.

The council's decision was good news for the Eaton family, owners of Minton's, the oldest business in the city. They will lease the 3.5 acres to Prometheus, meeting the intent of the longtime owners to keep the property and an income stream in the family for years to come. Even if the deal with Prometheus did not work out, a lawyer for the Eatons said another lease arrangement would have been sought out, contrary to some reports that the site might be sold.

Conversion of Minton's sprawling complex to a tightly-packed high density rental project illustrates the development vision held by a majority of the current City Council and city staff, partly because residential development is necessary to fuel retail growth downtown. Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga told the council audience that she hopes to see 4,000 to 5,000 residences downtown, which could be enough to attract a full-size grocery store.

"My hope is we will eventually get there and be able to sustain a grocery store," she said. With some 3,400 homes downtown now, it won't take many 200-unit projects to reach the 4,000 mark, and only five after that to reach 5,000. But many other potential sites downtown promise to be an even harder sell to residential neighbors than Minton's.

With a blossoming downtown, and the commensurate pedestrian traffic, other major retailers also may begin to take notice of Castro Street, which attracts a huge following to a wide variety of dining options but lacks one or two destination stores that could bring in more shoppers, in addition to restaurant patrons.

After last week's decision, it appears that at least five council members are ready to do whatever they can to boost growth and retail growth downtown, if it is a project they like.

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