That was the situation in the 1960s when the city's tallest building — Mountain Bay Plaza at 444 Castro St. — was first envisioned. The 12-story office building was to form the nucleus of a new revitalized downtown, providing hundreds of thousands in property tax revenue in the bargain. Unfortunately, its grand opening was delayed a bit longer than expected — by about 10 years.
Bill Jelavich was a council member at the time, and as mayor in 1969 he broke ground on the project.
"I said when I became mayor that there would be a lot of emphasis on getting downtown revitalized," Jelavich said. "There were about 40 vacancies in that downtown area. We had started the revitalization district and this was going to be a key part of it."
Developer International Environmental Dynamics, or IED, had initially brought the building proposal to Los Altos, but "Los Altos, in their own snotty way, wouldn't even let them have it on the agenda," Jelavich said.
In Mountain View the plan didn't just make it on the agenda, it was approved.
Residents were amazed when construction began. Each floor was built on the ground, then hoisted up and stacked top-down around two towers that housed the elevators and utilities. The unique design was said to be able to withstand large earthquakes.
But before the new building could help energize the downtown it came to symbolize its stagnancy. One reporter would call the building Mountain View's "most ambitious disaster."
Soon after the groundbreaking in 1969, construction stalled, leaving an 18-foot hole in the ground. But IED eventually picked up the pace, completing the project in 1971. That's when the real trouble started.
Shortly after construction was completed, IED went into foreclosure on the building, beginning a decade-long "soap opera" that San Jose Mercury News reporter Scott Herhold called "As the IED Building Turns."
IED sued its mortgage company, leading to a legal battle that lasted for eight years. Former council member Angelo Frosolone accused the attorneys involved with dragging out the legal battles in order to collect more legal fees.
Interested buyers ended up bidding on the building in bankruptcy court in 1979. After some "wild" bidding, one newspaper reported, the building was finally purchased for $8 million by John Damavandi of Los Altos and Dutch-based Granny Realty Corporation. But the deal — along with several others — fell through when an agreement with the city could not be reached over parking requirements.
In that episode, the city required that space be made for 500 cars. But the building had only about 300 spots in its underground garage. The situation became so dire that then-city manager Bruce Liedstrand suggested using eminent domain to buy nearby property for parking. The city eventually came up with an arrangement where the city would use special tax district money to acquire the parking.
All this time, while lawyers and others wrangled over its fate, 444 Castro remained vacant — except for a pack of dogs.
Dog City lives
For 10 years after it was built, the big office building on Castro Street was empty, prompting owners to worry that it would become targeted by thieves or squatters. Their solution was to let a pack of Doberman pinchers run loose on the building's ground floor.
The dogs barked from the lobby at anyone walking down Castro Street, leading to nicknames for the structure like "Dog City" and "White Elephant." Some called it the largest dog kennel in the world.
Meanwhile, the dogs had nowhere else to go, and so they soiled the building, leaving an increasingly horrible mess. According to recently retired finance director Bob Locke, city officials joked that it took years to get rid of the smell.
The building was eventually bought by Perrini Land and Development Co., which spent $5 million refurbishing it in 1981 and 1982 and changed its name to Mountain Bay Plaza. There was a reported $25,000 worth of broken windows, graffiti damage, and roof damage caused by huge amounts of pigeon feces.
After all the ink spilled, dreams deferred and money spent on legal battles, the building opened in 1982. Today it's home to numerous tech companies and law firms, and was even home to the city government for a short period while City Hall was rebuilt in the 1980s.
The success of the downtown today may be attributed, in part, to 444 Castro Street. The building contributed property taxes to sidewalks, lights, parking garages and the civic center.
"I never dreamed it would change the way it did," Jelavich said of the city's downtown.