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Owner: High density housing at San Antonio Center a 'pipe dream'

Original post made on Feb 13, 2009

Fred Thoits, one of two major owners of San Antonio shopping center, injected a dose of reality into the public discussion over what should happen to the ailing San Antonio shopping center during an interview with the Voice on Tuesday.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, February 12, 2009, 4:42 PM

Comments (27)

Posted by Nick Perry, a resident of another community
on Feb 13, 2009 at 1:36 am

We really need to separate our image of "Santana Row" from what a Mixed-Use Center would be like at San Antonio.

Yes, Santana Row is too high-end to survive in Mountain View. However, I see absolutely no reason why a mix of housing, offices, hotel, movie theater, and shopping (especially shopping) can't be integrated into a mixed-use and modern San Antonio Center. Perhaps the retail mix at Bay Street in Emeryville is more in-line with what would thrive in Mountain View.

While the economy is down, the City should create a precise plan that prescribes an overall framework for the center's redevelopment - but also respects existing property lines. For example, develop a auto-circulation system that runs shop-lined roadways along existing property lines. That way, the 16 separate owners can redevelop their individual portion of the center once they find it economically prudent.

As for the Thoits, it sounds like the City really needs to work to help them see past the 1950s-era layout for their portion of the center. They've been sitting on that property for years. Not even a new coat of paint went up on their buildings when the rest of the shopping center was remodeled in 1994.

I saw their Home Depot plan. It would have walled off Sears' mall-facing entrance and completely cut off the Thoit's property from the rest of the shopping center. In other words, you could not walk from Trader Joes or the old Hobby Shop to Home Depot without crossing parking lots and loading docks. It was a step backwards - especially considering how there used to be a nice pedestrian shopping mall stretching from Sears to Meryvns before Wal-Mart plopped its parking lot down.

Allowing the Thoits to simply replace Sears with a new big box store surrounded on all sides by parking - and thus locking it in another long-term lease that could prohibit redevelopment for years - would be severely short-sited. In the long run, it could cost the city tons of lost revenue. While neighboring cities redevelop their old shopping centers into mixed-use retail/entertainment districts and suck away our shopping dollars - we'd be stuck with parking lots and a one-story big box until 2050. I'm glad the City Council resisted.

If Mountain View is serious about smart growth, then the council should adopt a plan for the San Antonio Center that calls for walkable, mixed-use development, with the priority still being retail to expand our sales tax base. Hopefully the current owners will see the light (and the added $$$ from selling some housing units above their stores) and hop on board. If they don't, I doubt they'll have much trouble selling their portion of land to a developer who does.

Keep the big boxes where they belong out along Highway 101 in the industrial side of town. San Antonio Center should return to its roots as a pleasant, pedestrian-friendly shopping area - and the best way to do that successfully these days is to mix in housing, dining, entertainment, office, and other uses to augment the shopping.

Posted by eric, a resident of another community
on Feb 13, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Nick, wishing for it wont make it so. The people that would have to take the risk know that high-density residential isnt in the cards on that scale for a long, long time. Saying that something as "high-end" as Santana Row wouldnt fly in Mtn View frankly shows some ignorance on your part. Mtn View and the surrounding area have much better demographics to support high-end. The problem is scale- you need a huge population base for a Santana Row-- it needs enough synergy to feed itself. MV-LA-PA doesnt have the population, and SA Center doesnt have the access, either.

Talking about how the Thoits' are "sitting on" the property in the same breath as you discuss what the city will "let them" do speaks for itself.

I have to ask-- who exactly is walking from TJ's to Home Depot? Are you bringing your lumber to the produce aisle, or shopping for hardware with 6 canvas bags full of dried pasta?

Forcing Home Depot out of town with the pending shuttering of Mintons is foolish and shortsighted (Please dont talk about "preserving" Mintons-- they dont want to be preserved). City services will suffer from the lost revenue, all because of a very small number of squeaky wheels.

Forcing your mixed use walkable "vision" on the Thoits' guarantees a decline in SA Center, a long term eyesore, a drop in property values in the surrounding area, and a hit to the city's coffers.

"Smart Growth" has to be realistic growth, too.

Posted by Nick Perry, a resident of another community
on Feb 13, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Eric, some might call it "wishing" .....others would call it long-range planning. Both would be kind of right.

With the economy as down as it is, I'd say we have plenty of time to toss around big ideas for San Antonio Center before the owners are ready to break ground. It's a balancing act between what the owners want and what the community wants. That's why we have zoning regulations, a San Antonio Center Precise Plan, and a City Council to make the final decisions about what gets built.

As for my alleged ignorance of the area's demographics - I know there are plenty of wealthy people living nearby. I grew up in MV and went to school in Los Altos. Trust me, I know. But part of San Antonio Center's historic dilemma is that it's down the street from the high-end and well-established Stanford Shopping Center. My statement that high-end wouldn't fly at San Antonio is based on the fact that Santana Row and Stanford have cornered the luxury retail market in the Santa Clara Valley. There's no room for San Antonio to try to break into that same market and attract luxury tenants and high-end customers.

Bay Street in Emeryville has a more mid-level range of stores, restaurants, and a movie theatre. Some buildings have housing above, some do not. Some stores are big boxes, some are not. It's a model that San Antonio Center could look at and improve on - and has a retail mix that would fil a gap in the local shopping scene.

As for Home Depot. That's water under the bridge now - but I'd say the Thoit's property is already an eyesore and has been so for decades. Aesthetically, Home Depot would have been a minor improvement at best. In terms of the center's confusing layout and circulation problems - it definitely would have made things worse. The pod of stores near Trader Joes which is currently attached to Sears would have become completely seperate from the Thoit's side of the center due to Home Depot's truck loading docks. Where the mall-side Sears entrance is now would be a blank wall with parking and loading hidden behind it.

Yes, you're right, only a few would do there two-buck-chuck and hardware shopping in the same trip. But the long term vision for the Center should work to unify it rather than continue to cut it up into little pieces where you have to constantly get in and out of your car and drive from one store to the next.

Posted by Norm, a resident of another community
on Feb 13, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Mr. Perry! Thanks to you we have bike friendly lanes and Row Houses. You have no idea what this city needs to survive in todays economy. Tax base is the answer. Not a bunch of self serving fatheads talking about issues that make them feel good.

Posted by eric, a resident of another community
on Feb 13, 2009 at 7:19 pm

Your high-end comment is a bit revisionist-- "Santana Row is too high end to survive in Mountain View". No mention of competition, just high end<>MV (I hold my town in pretty high regard and dont like that sentiment much)

I dont have a problem with well thought out zoning and planning. I do have a problem with people saying "we" should build this and "we" should bring this or that business to town. "We" arent taking the risks or putting up the capital. "We" dont have the experience or knowledge to develop successful real estate (criticizing the current owners lack of development on the site is to ignore many, many circumstances including the divided nature of the site, long term leases with big tenants, etc. It also ignores their other local developments)

San Antonios 'historic dilemna' has little to do with Stanford and lots to do with a changing bigger picture in retail over the decades.

Holding the Thoits' hostage because of the divided nature of the site is unreasonable-- have you been to the new Ranch 99? The adjacenct, seperately owned shopping center now has a hideous parking problem-- would you (hypothetically) prevent the owner of the latter from creating some seperation, or should they let their center suffer?

Wishing for an anchor like a movie theatre wont make it happen-- the days of the Old Mill are gone. That model has changed-- see Redwood City. Movie theatres will NOT be coming to peripheral locations anymore, and trying to create something big enough to draw one to SA would HAVE to rival Santana Row-- which, as an aside, would certainly turn Castro back into the ghost town it once was-- is that what you want?

"With the economy down as it is..."-- two things. One, Home Depot should be there now, supporting MV in this down time. Two, dumb real estate development gets caught up in cycles. Smart building happens in spite of them. People that dont hold the keys wringing their hands during the apparant luxury of a down cycle is silly.

Home Depot is NOT water under the bridge, as the city will be paying for that mistake for a long, long time as San Antonios tax revenue dries up as a result of blight-creating "long-range planning"

Coincidentally, I was in Emeryville a few weeks ago. If you wish that sort of nightmarish traffic on my community, well, frankly, I'm glad you arent an elected official anymore.

Posted by Smart Growther, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 13, 2009 at 8:48 pm

The problem is that we have a couple of council members that have no clue how land development works. They have no problem telling landowners what they think they should do with their property and of course they wouldn't dare risk their own assets. Mr Thoits just provided a little reality check. It's amazing how some individuals think that they know best how to develop a piece of property and yet don't have the courage to be a real stakeholder and risk their own assets.

Posted by KJ, a resident of another community
on Feb 15, 2009 at 8:02 am

Once you start to consider building housing in that area, you must review where any children who might live there will attend school! Don't forget the situation we're in now with families in parts of MV going to school far from their homes.

Posted by Nick Perry, a resident of another community
on Feb 15, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Eric- Call my comment about Santana Row revisionist - but it's truly what I meant. It was not meant as a slight on MV's demographics. Mountain View is my hometown. My family has been living within its borders since only 6,000 people called the town home. I love the city - so, let's not argue over who holds MV in "higher regard". On a related note; you're confusing me with a former Councilmember with the same last name. No relation. I enjoy discussing planning issues here - but the personal stuff is a waste of time.

So, on to the new points brought up.

-Emeryville's traffic problems are due to the horrendous layout of the streets and the convergence of all the freeways and Bay Bridge in one spot. It'd be hard to replicate, but of course we should avoid that. I wouldn't blame it on Bay Street though. Besides, I only use Bay Street as an example of model for a mixed-use shopping area with a collection of stores that aren't as exclusive as Santana Row - not as a model for traffic engineering.

- The Redwood City Century Theater off of 101 has been replaced by the Century Theater in Downtown Redwood City. AMC is building a multiplex at the Sunnyvale Town Center site. Stand-alone multiplexes like Mtn View's are going out of style. The new trend is to surround theaters with stores and restaurants people can stroll to before and after a movie. I wonder how long Century/Cinemark is going to want to keep Mtn. View's theater up in North Bayshore all by itself and resist the temptation to sell to someone like Google when the economy recovers. San Antonio Road and El Camino Real is a high-profile location - especially with theater-less Los Altos across the street. So, it's not far-fetched to think that San Antonio might be able to attract a new multiplex with stores and restaurants around it. Best place would be downtown - but we really don't have a big enough space anywhere on Castro Street.

-As for Castro Street - Downtown Mountain View thrives on being full of restaurants with some independent stores. Only a few unique retail items can be bought downtown - books, some clothes, pet fish. The truth is, a lot of Mountain View folks are leaving town and going to other cities to do their non big-box shopping (and we've got almost all the big boxes). A good thing for MV's tax-base would be to plug that retail leakage.

I wouldn't want to see Castro Street lose it's unique flavor and become filled with the Gaps, H&Ms, Pottery Barns, and Urban Outfitters of the world. On the other hand, there's a lot of underutilized land in San Antonio Center and with a better layout and structured parking you could free up dozens of acres, build around the big box stores that are still there, and create a walkable shopping area with those types of retail tenants and restaurants that won't fit in the spaces available Downtown but still want to be somewhere in Mtn. View. Mix in some housing and office uses, and you've got a full-service neighborhood (i.e., a built in customer-base) with good access to transit.

-The school capacity issue is a major problem in Mountain View that must be addressed. But of all housing types, mixed use probably has the least impact on it. One-to-two bedroom apartments/condos/lofts over retail are less likely to attract young families with school-aged kids who want the single-family home and yard. Mixed-use developments are more geared toward 20-somethings, empty nesters, and retirees who are downsizing their homes and want to live someplace where they can walk to a restaurant, Safeway or Trader Joes. Not saying school capacity isn't a problem, but it's not as big as problem with mixed use as it is with the types of single-family homes being built over at the Mayfield site.


I maintain that there's nothing wrong with at least having the Planning Department and Council look at a mixed-use retail area. It could be one of a number of options that are permitted via zoning and each individual owner of San Antonio Center can decide which option works best for them. The top priority, though, should be an over-arching development framework for the entire site that leads to cohesive (rather than piecemeal) redevelopment. My point in even posting here is to say that just because 1 of 16 property owners says mixed-use is a "pipe-dream" for the entire shopping center - doesn't mean it should be the end of the community's discussion.

Posted by Matthew Footer, a resident of North Whisman
on Feb 15, 2009 at 10:59 pm

It was with much sympathy that I read the recent article outlining the woes of real estate investor Fred Thoits. I was floored that the City of Mountain View prevented him from developing his land at the San Antonio shopping center into a Home Depot. Ok, I'm being ironic. The reason why Mr. Thoits is so angry is that he wasn't able to make millions for himself while making things worse for the rest of us. And now, with the economic downturn, Home Depot certainly isn't going to be signing any new 35 year leases—so he's upset that he wasn't able to tie someone's hands so they could lose their cash before he lost his.

As it turns out I'm also a real estate investor, but I actually have to work for and at it. I purchased a multi-unit complex because I plain and simply couldn't afford a single family house. I wasn't interested in a condo so a duplex made sense and then I traded that for my current 5 plex in Mountain View. Of course, if it wasn't for the fact that I'm a carpenter's son that would have been much more difficult since I can only afford "tear downs". Nothing is more terrifying for me as an apartment complex owner than seeing another Home Depot in the local area. Here's why.

After conducting numerous repairs I've come to avoid the big box stores. They either don't have what I really need or the quality is too low. They cater to people who shop with an eye on price alone. Here's a classic example, the last time I was looking for 1/4 inch plywood I left Home Depot/Lowe's and had to go to Minton's. Yes, I had to pay a lot more at Minton's but if you can't tell the difference then you have no standing when it comes to a discussion about preserving locally owned small businesses and keeping Home Depot out. It's not like I have unreasonable requirements, the stuff from the box stores was just plain garbage, it wasn't always that way but it is now. I now travel as far as Redwood City and San Jose to purchase building materials, I use the box stores as suppliers of last resort—I really can't afford to do business with them if I don't absolutely have to. I finally opened up accounts with Minton's Lumber and Barron Park Plumbing Supply. You might conclude I have expensive taste, actually I'm quite stingy and can't stand wasting a penny . . . so I avoid the box stores. I prefer to deal with people who actually know their product and who are accontable to me, not some mid level manager. Like when I called a local lumberyard with a list of materials and they showed up two hours later with what I needed so I didn't have to stop working. That's what I need, quality and service. What I don't need is another business dedicated to putting all the competition out of business thereby requiring me to seek what I need in other cities and driving up my costs. I'd like it if my city kept business around that were worth what I pay them.

As for the assertion that there is significant "retail leakage" out of Mountain View from "building materials" I would beg to differ. Home Depot caters to those seeking the lowest price. Contractors (who are worth anything) avoid the place and either use smaller local yards for better quality materials or go to companies that prefer to avoid the DYI crowd (White Cap for example). The last 2 roofing jobs I did included no materials from a box store but rather small local businesses. Ditto for the 5 toilets, 4 sinks, 75 feet of steel railings, 70 gallons of pavement sealer, landscaping materials, and countless board feet of lumber. And now for some some hard facts off the ledgers. Last year I spent $11,733 on materials and supplies for repairs alone to keep my small business going. Yes, I do most of the work myself on top of holding down a 40+ hour a week job. Only $753 of that went to Home Depot and Lowe's combined, a whopping 6 percent. So there you have it, you might have kept a grand total of $753 in Mountain View had you gotten a Home Depot into the San Antonio Shopping Center. Of course, you would have eliminated all the revenue from those businesses that Home Depot would have driven out of business. I spent $894 at Barron Park Plumbing Supply alone. But I don't think that Mr. Thoits cares about that, I don't think he cares about the facts, I don't think her cares about what I need, I don't think he cares about any business that isn't his own and I don't think he cares about what a community really needs. I suspect he cares more about his 85 million than about me trying to keep my head above water. And if you think that the lumber and fixtures for his house come from Home Depot you should probably think again.

As to what kind of business you should put within walking distance of a train station? Well, I'm not 100% sure. How about a big bottom end box store that sells warped plywood, refrigerators, plants and barbeque grills--too bad Home Depot is closing 17 stores and is terminating plans for 50 new stores. They would have been perfect, the nearest ones are 5 and 7 miles away with mostly vacant registers, I can't imagine they would have pulled out leaving the city high and dry for the tax revenue everyone is clamoring about. OMG what WILL we do!

Matthew J. Footer, resident and landlord in Mountain View.

Posted by smart growther, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 16, 2009 at 8:21 am

Mintons is closing. I agree that most contractors do not shop at HD, but that's because the store is more for weekend do-it-yourselfers. Mr Thoits is not that upset about HD, he's upset about council planning his area and not knowing what they are doing. Mixed housing/retail may work but lets see if any private parties are interested before we rezone and no on shows up. It's in no ones interest to force something upon landowners that will not work. It's easy to talk about what should happen to someone else's property. If you have such a good idea, buy out Mr. Thoits and develop your idea.

Posted by MV_Res, a resident of Waverly Park
on Feb 16, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Luxury is dead. Santana Row is on its way to becoming an iconic dinosaur of bygone era of flash, overspending and self indulgence. Besides, I think we here are in Mountain View are too smart and sensible to preen up and down some faux-facaded, Euro-copycat theme park for fun. Any makeover of San Antonio Center should be a serious attempt to simply improve what we already like at that location.

Trader Joes, Walmart, and Target are all very practical places to shop, but they are just hard to access. The layout is outdated. There are too many obstacles and wasted space. The center has to make the shops more accessible so that people will find it easier to shop at multiple locations during their visits. I still think Home Depot was a bad fit for that location. A big messy store like that belongs on the fringes of a city, not in the heart of a family shopping center. Put Bed, Bath and Beyond at San Antonio and put Home Depot over there next to Pet Smart and REI.

Posted by Peter, a resident of The Crossings
on Feb 17, 2009 at 11:46 am


Posted by Peter, a resident of The Crossings
on Feb 17, 2009 at 11:47 am

It is very interesting that the Clty of Mountain View killed the Home Depot deal that was underway betweenthe Thoits and Home Depot. Now that the city has spend our tax dollars to determine what retail areas are needed in Mountain View, the study find that the city is in need of hardware stores. Wake up Ciy Council and realize what you have killed and the tax loss you have incurred.

Posted by JO, a Mt View resident & business owner, a resident of Monta Loma
on Feb 17, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Property owners have rights too. In this case, the owner is dishing out some very deserving criticism. I'll give the MV Voice credit for finally bringing to light an unpopular reality. The fact of the matter is Walmart, Walmart, Walmart; and it will be for another 50+ years. I'm not saying Walmart was a mistake. Its revenue for the City clearly shows otherwise. It is simply an undeniable reality. Unfortunately, a few City Council members insist on living in a fairy tale world. It's ironic that the most vocal and most quoted voices on the City Council when it comes to land use are the ones with the least real world experience outside of City politics. You know who you are! In retrospect, the owner deserves some credit for lining up a solid revenue source like Home Depot, something to remember when City officials start making decisions on which programs/staff to cut because of the budget shortfalls.

A "Santana Row" or "mixed use" type project at San Antonio Shopping Center is unrealistic for countless reasons. If it could be done successfully then the owners would happily pursue it instead of box stores. It is an idea that would create a much higher land use and profit scenario, but a highly improbable idea at best. At the end of the day, it's a bad business decision for the owner, city, and residents. If you disagree then form your own LLC, get some investors, buy it, and do it yourself. Until you've walked a mile in those shoes, as I have in other redevelopments projects, one ought not to throw so many rocks. Everyone's entitled to an option, but please put aside the drama. The unfortunate reality is that 2 or 3 inexperienced Council members and those "few squeaky wheels" that someone mentioned above scare off many no-drama, business minded, entrepreneurs and investors. Other surrounding cities are the all-too-happy recipients of our missed opportunities.

Finally, it is not wise to force unnecessary risk upon property owners, certainly not at in this economic environment. Albeit trendy for some, we don't NEED a Santana Row or mixed use project. We don't NEED another movie theater or more traffic on San Antonio Road. We DO need more retail revenue and housing, but not necessary on top of one another. The City Council should be providing flexibility and letting businesses assume the risk of redevelopment, as Home Depot was willing to do. Whether you think Home Depot was a good fit or not, it was a good business decision for the City and the owner. Since when did good business decisions go out of style???

Posted by UA, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 17, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Stores like HD and Walmart should be closer to 101 and not in the middle of the cities.

Posted by Awalt Native, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Feb 18, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Ahh, wouldn't it be great if redevelopment could bring back the Menu Tree, Liberty House, and the fountains?

Posted by MV Native, a resident of Shoreline West
on Feb 18, 2009 at 2:28 pm

They can also be closer to 85 or 237 not just 101 !!

Posted by tinker, a resident of Jackson Park
on Feb 18, 2009 at 4:34 pm


Posted by tinker, a resident of Jackson Park
on Feb 18, 2009 at 4:34 pm


Posted by smart growther, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 19, 2009 at 11:33 am

Why should these stores be closer to freeways? If you think they would make more money , dont you think they would take advantage of changing location? Why do think you can figure this out and the owners cannot? It's fine to have an opinion, but show a little humility.

As for low income housing, this means subsidized housing.

Posted by MV Native, a resident of Shoreline West
on Feb 20, 2009 at 3:07 pm

Obviously my opinion does not take into account the profit margins of the owners, who are probably multi-millioniares. My opinion has to do with the neighbourhood and the community...

Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community
on Feb 23, 2009 at 3:23 pm

Like i said a nice mix of housing types, i am too a native of mtn view, haven't lived there for the last 20 years but i know we do need housing for both low, middle and upper incomes just like shops and services If you ever go to Brigton England they have in a section of town called The Lanes, 2 to 3 story buidlings with housing on type of small stores

Posted by smart growther, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 24, 2009 at 8:35 am

And maybe some in the community and neighborhood would prefer stores closer to their neighborhood and not just along the freeways. Even the big stores.

Posted by Lynn also MV native, a resident of another community
on Feb 24, 2009 at 6:17 pm

MV Native--are you suggesting that the owners shouldn't make any profits? Perhaps they should redistribute some their earnings back to you. Then they should be forced to reopen Nornies and Phillips Bootery---and pass out wooden nickels for everyone.

Posted by MV Native, a resident of Shoreline West
on Feb 25, 2009 at 2:26 pm

Very funny Lynn. They will make profit anyway. There are several reasons to keep big stores near freeways for starters traffic within the city. Go to any new or newly planned city and see the location of the big stores. Mountain View is an older city so all of us need to take that into account when there is an opportunity to re-design our city. I have a feeling the some of the people like Lynn work for the owners. The land that they own in of itself is worth millions and they will make profit no matter what is built there - I guess even millionaires want to get every extra penny that they could...

Posted by neighbor, a resident of another community
on Apr 26, 2011 at 10:49 am

Thoits is counting the $85 million, perhaps he could remember to offset that by all of my Los Altos and Palo Alto neighbors and myself who still get our insurance with his company, who would have gone elsewhere if he'd brought Home Depot to San Antonio.

Posted by long-time res, a resident of another community
on Apr 26, 2011 at 10:54 am

We don't need more nail salons and boutiques. We need Sears back (in a better facility), and a good pharmacy, and other decent retail for regular people. Last I checked, Target and Walmart and Trader Joe's were doing just fine, and everyone I know (up the income scale) shops at one or all. Giving the shopping center a more community feel plays better for the area than providing more outlets for facials.

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