Council members said they weren't interested in approving the project Tuesday after a representative for the developer read a long list of changes that they wanted to be made to the project. The changes made it "as clear as mud" what the project would be, said council member Ronit Bryant. City staff had also proposed a number of changes to the project just days before the meeting.
The developer nearly talked the council into approving the project, saying the changes could be worked out with city staff after the project's approval.
"What you are asking is for the council to "give carte blanche to staff" said Mayor Jac Siegel. Council member Ronit Bryant was also opposed. "The worst thing is to vote on something and we don't know what we are voting on," Bryant said. "That I will not do."
In the most ambitious redevelopment of San Antonio Shopping Center since it was built in the 1950s, San Francisco-based Merlone Geier has proposed the redevelopment of one-third of the 56-acre shopping center, a 16.3-acre portion that extends from Sears to Rite Aid at the corner of San Antonio Road and El Camino Real.
The "Village at San Antonio Center" would include a one-acre park, 325 to 350 rental apartments and 311,000 square feet of retail space, including a new Safeway grocery store. It was announced Tuesday that Rite Aid is no longer part of the project.
In the last 40 minutes of the four-hour discussion, at around 11 p.m., council members gave some feedback on the project, adjusting building locations and street frontages, moving driveways and increasing park and sidewalk space, but not making the fundamental changes to the design that a number of residents suggested.
Lots of comments
"We feel the project has been really poorly designed and mismanaged," said Forest Linebarger, CEO of Vox Design Group, calling the project "another strip mall" dominated by parking lots and cars. Another resident said the city could expect as much traffic from the project as the parking lots could accommodate and another praised the council for making "walkability and bikeability" a priority. Council members have also been less than enthusiastic about the large parking lot Safeway requires right at the "gateway" corner of San Antonio Road and El Camino Real.
Steve Rasmussen, owner of the nearby Milk Pail market, said he was worried about being squeezed out of business by major parking restrictions, as overflow parking could take up the spaces his customers use.
Resident Sandy Berry advocated for the newer-style Safeway as a cheaper alternative to driving to various specialty stores. She said she didn't "have that kind of time" to not drive a car to the supermarket. She urged the council to listen to the developer and the retailers because "they are the experts." In response to calls for a wider sidewalk and building frontages along El Camino Real, she said "I don't care what anybody says, El Camino Real will never be a nice place to walk."
"El Camino Real can be a perfectly pleasant place," Bryant said, citing a popular cafe in Menlo Park as an example. "Saying this is the way it will always be... will not work."
Several council members supported an opportunity to implement the "Grand Boulevard" vision for a walkable El Camino Real with a 15 foot wide sidewalk along the project's shops, replacing the less-than-10-foot-wide sidewalk proposed. Resident Jarret Mullin suggested a 24-foot-wide sidewalk.
A 54-inch high wall at San Antonio Road and El Camino Real, designed to enclose a seating area from the busy intersection, was noted by Abe-Koga to be about as tall as she was. "Frankly, I think that's offensive," Bryant said of the height. "Three feet should do it."
Council members also supported an Environmental Planning Commission recommendation for shop entrances along El Camino Real, or at the very least, "something alive" such as store display windows, Bryant said.
Apartments and park
The project includes three, five-story apartment buildings, with either parking or retail on the first floor and with recreation areas in each building. The developer proposed on Tuesday to rent 3 percent of the units at below market rate, less than the 10 percent the city required before such "inclusionary zoning" was ruled illegal in Palmer vs. the City of Los Angeles. It was noted that Prometheus Real Estate Group eventually agreed to include below market rate units in the Minton's redevelopment through the use of a development agreement.
In return for the 10 below-market-rate apartments offered, the developer requested that the city reimburse 100 percent of the value of the one-acre public park in the project, rather than the typical 50 percent. That could lower the $5.5 million park in-lieu fee that would otherwise be required.
The one-acre park, dubbed "San Antonio Green," would bisect the property into northern and southern halves. The developer claims there is space in the park for a farmers market, a dog park, bike paths and a bocce ball court.
Abe-Koga and others questioned the need for a one-way driveway circulating around the park, which several members said would not encourage use of the park. Some called for a two-way driveway on one side of it.
It has been suggested that Target may wish to move from Showers Drive into the northern portion of the site, where there would otherwise be space for three, 40,000 square foot retailer stores above a street-level parking garage.
There was intense discussion about how to direct pedestrians through the Safeway parking lot, which had the developer defending a sidewalk-free design in the name of pedestrian safety, while some council members said there was room to remove a few parking spots to allow for pedestrians to comfortably walk through. Abe-Koga and others noted that the project already had more parking than the city requires. The Safeway would also have rooftop parking.
The manager of Safeway on California Street said their land lease ends in 2016, and the store is counting on the new location. Resident Doug Delong said it made more sense, traffic-wise, for Safeway to move to the California Street side of the shopping center, and said there was no good reason to have Safeway in the project, it just happened to be a place where a piece of real estate became available. Several union representatives and Safeway employees were there to defend the 200 "good jobs" slated for the new Safeway, an increase from the current 120 jobs at the California Avenue store.
Merlone Geier said the new development would employ 900 people, and provide a "net increase" to the city's sales tax revenue of $1.2 million. All of those employees would receive subsidized transit passes for three years from Merlone Geier.