The Milk Pail is one of a handful of heirloom city businesses that has managed to not only survive, but continues to provide its customers top quality produce and dairy products at low prices that are competitive and often lower than giant retailers like Safeway. And a major reason why the Milk Pail has low prices is its very low overhead at the small site it owns. By owning its own space, the Milk Pail can insulate itself from rent increases that can put small merchants out of business.
The crux of the discussion Milk Pail owner Steve Rasmussen is having with shopping center developer Merlone Geier is parking, and whether the green grocer, which does not fit the image of the new San Antonio Center, will be allotted enough parking to make up for the leased spaces it will lose in two years. Merlone has offered the Milk Pail two locations, neither of which are satisfactory to Rasmussen, who fears the parking would be taken by nearby restaurants and other high-traffic retailers.
The only option left for the Milk Pail is to accept the developer's offer to buy the property and compensate Rasmussen for relocation and set-up costs in a new home. But in many ways that would spell defeat for the Milk Pail. It would lose its well-known location and its ability to control costs by not being subject to runaway increases in rent that are sweeping across the city.
City officials have offered various reasons about why they cannot come to the aid of Milk Pail, which has the support of more than 700 people who signed an online petition. Council member Jac Siegel says he and most other council members would like to see the Milk Pail stay in its present location, but to force the issue could open the city up to a major lawsuit from Merlone Geier. A similar position is taken by top city officials, who invited the Voice to city offices for a wide-ranging discussion about what can legally be done to find a compromise that would work for both parties.
When all the options are taken into account, the city believes that it does not have the authority to mediate disputes between two businesses. And while the city says it has urged the two parties to come to an agreement, so far nothing has happened.
One lever that friends of the Milk Pail have mentioned frequently is for the city to simply require Merlone-Geier to provide parking to the Milk Pail as a condition of city approval of Phase 2 of the development project, which includes 400,000 square feet of office space, a hotel and movie theater as well as more than 1,400 parking spaces.
At this stage, it is not clear what strategy the city could or should use, but there is no doubt that many Mountain View residents are questioning why a solution cannot be found. The City Council and city administration have a substantial say in how Phase 2 of the shopping center is developed. And in our view, the council has an obligation to preserve a landmark business like the Milk Pail that has served local residents for 40 years.
Another fact for the city to consider: Saving the Milk Pail in its present location would retain the option for residents to purchase healthy, fresh food and vegetables at reasonable prices. This is a challenge that cannot be met in many communities, but in Mountain View the Milk Pail has been in the forefront of this trend for years.
After listening to city officials wring their hands and cite numerous reasons why there is no way for them to help the Milk Pail survive this David vs. Goliath struggle with Merlone Geier, we fear that the groundwork is being laid for the end of this popular market on California Street. If that happens, it will be one more example of how Mountain View is rapidly losing its soul.