Mountain View Voice

News - September 10, 2010

Council lukewarm on shopping center plans

Developer offers another redesign of San Antonio center

by Daniel DeBolt

After being "underwhelmed" by the plan in May, a majority of the City Council did not entirely reject revised plans to revamp a major portion of San Antonio Shopping Center at a study session on Tuesday.

While a majority of the council still had complaints, Mayor Ronit Bryant remained the staunchest opponent of the newest plan, saying that it had only "minor" changes to the general configuration compared to the one the council rejected in May.

"I was not impressed with the plan in May and the plan comes back to us exactly the same," Bryant said.

"This does not look like a neighborhood," Bryant said, adding, "It does not look faintly like Santana Row," a San Jose development which has been held up as a model for the project.

Replacing 233,000 square feet of retail on 16 acres, including Sears, Rite Aid, Burger King and Sports Authority will be 311,000 square feet of commercial space and 325 to 350 apartments above parking garages and ground-floor shops in five-story buildings. Safeway will move from its California Street location to anchor the southern half of the center, along with a new Rite Aid and numerous small shops and restaurants, for a total of 35 retail tenants.

New additions to the plan are three major retailers along the north side of the Hetch Hetchy aqueduct's right of way (a strip of San Francisco-owned land that can't be built on), elevated on a second story above smaller shops below. Also added was ornate paving nearly everywhere.

A 'magical' place

The council received the most dazzling presentation to date from developer Merlone Geier, which included a virtual tour. A landscape architect said the goal was to create a "magical" place where people would want to get out of their cars "as fast as possible" and walk. A restaurant-lined parkway along the Hetch Hetchy right of way is "two football fields long," including a fenced dog park and lawn areas. It could be the new site for the city's farmers market, the architect said.

"We want this to be the center of the town," said architect Marty Buckenmeyer.

A Whole Foods-like "new urban Safeway" will target a "15-minute" customer who will be able to buy prepackaged meals and eat on tables out front, where produce will also be sold for a "farmers market feel," the developer said.

Bryant pressed other council members to support her idea of having the main apartment building trade places with the major retailers set for the north side of the Hetch Hetchy right of way. Instead of having the main entrance dead end at an apartment building, she said it should take customers into the parking garage of the major retailers. No one agreed, with some saying it would not be fair to have people living near a grocery store to have to walk further with groceries in hand, or worse, encourage them to drive.

More changes sought

Jarrett Mullin of the Mountain View Sustainability Coalition called for several changes to the proposal, including a more "impressive" gateway structure at the corner of El Camino Real and San Antonio Road, and better access for bikes coming from Fayette Drive onto the Hetch Hetchy parkway. But the top concern was the need for a stronger presence of storefronts along El Camino Real and the removal of some low walls in order to make the sidewalk there more inviting for pedestrians. Some council members, however, said it was unrealistic to expect people to walk along the busy street.

Margaret Abe-Koga continued to be critical of the parking lot in front of Safeway as a barrier for pedestrians, despite some new pathways to connect Safeway to the buildings at the corner of San Antonio Road and El Camino Real.

"I'm a shopper. When I go to the mall, I go to every part of the mall. This just isn't working for me to walk to every part of the area," she said.

To address that problem, Planning Director Randy Tsuda said the city had tried placing Safeway in various positions on the site, but every alternative created more problems than it solved, putting the main parking lot entrance on the same side as truck loading docks, for example.

The 16-acre site has many things working against it: a Hetch Hetchy aqueduct right of way that can't be built on, a stoplight at Fayette Drive that limits where the main entrance can be, neighboring buildings (Trader Joe's included) that limit where driveways can go and a difficult lot size and shape.

Despite imperfections, some council members said they were grateful that they had a developer who appeared to have the funds to build the project.

"I'm pleased we have a developer ready to go with it," said council member Jac Siegel.

Councilman Mike Kasperzak went from being "underwhelmed" by the project in May to supporting it along with member Laura Macias, who called the design "captivating."

Kasperzak said that if the shopping center were "nuked" and all 57 acres redesigned at once, the plan could be improved.

"We could wish for the world, but I don't see it happening in our lifetime," Kasperzak said.

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