After an underwhelming performance at the City Council last week, including a request for a long list of changes in the project, developer Merlone Geier was sent away with instructions to come better prepared next time. Council member Ronit Bryant said the requests made it "clear as mud" what the project would be. "The worst thing is to vote on something and we don't know what we are voting on. That I will not do," she added.
But the council may have lost sight of the big picture while they bicker about the small stuff in the mall's plan for the property's 16.3 acres owned by San Francisco developer Merlone Geier. For example:
• For shoppers, instead of finding Santana Row-style boutique shops or a major department store, this remake of the mall will feature a new Safeway store, relocated from California Avenue, along with even more parking than the city requires. In addition, Rite Aid has pulled out of the shopping center plans. And there is a possibility that Target might jump ship and move from Showers Drive, near WalMart, to take up a large chunk of the development.
In the 311,000 square feet of space reserved for retail there is room for a few more small shops and restaurants, but you get the idea. Don't expect Macy's, Nordstrom or Bloomingdales to move in anytime soon.
• And then there is the huge housing component, up to 350 rental units in three, five-story buildings that will tower over the entire complex of almost exclusively one-story buildings. The housing could add up to nearly 300,000 square feet, depending on the size of the units. (For perspective, the transit-oriented Prometheus project under construction now on the former Minton's site is only 203 units.) This concept will squeeze up to 350 families into a mall whose original focus was retail and now will have another purpose entirely.
• One attraction for the housing tenants will be a one-acre park promised by the developer, who envisions a farmers market, a dog park, bike paths and a bocce ball court that would be open to the public. But to help pay for the 10 units of below-market-rate housing that can no longer be required for such projects, the developer has asked the city to reimburse 100 percent of the value of the park, which would substantially reduce the $5.5 million park in-lieu fee the city was expecting.
Given this design, members of the City Council need to ask themselves why this type of project needs to be in the San Antonio Shopping Mall. Its five-story housing buildings along with Safeway and Target and acres of parking could be located in any good-sized strip mall in Mountain View.
It is not easy to remake a 56-acre shopping center by upgrading 16.3 acres, or only one-third of the space. But one thing for sure, Safeway and Target are not going to draw destination shoppers from miles around when the same stores can be found near most neighborhoods on the Peninsula.
The one-acre park is a nice touch, but other than that the Merlone Geier plan looks like just another development that could be built anywhere, but doesn't go far enough to enhance the character of San Antonio Shopping Center.