Issue date: July 28, 2000
The changing face of Bryant Street
The changing face of Bryant Street
(July 28, 2000)
City not fulfilling "mixed-use" vision, says Kasperzak
By Karen Willemsen
City Council member Mike Kasperzak charges that the Downtown Precise Plan envisions a mix of retail, office, and residential construction for Bryant Street that is not being realized.
Just four blocks long, Bryant reaches from West Evelyn Avenue to the Mercy Street side of City Hall. The precise plan should serve as a blueprint for making decisions about what to put there, said Kasperzak, but it isn't.
Kasperzak announced at the July 11 council meeting that he has taken a stand against what he calls "the piecemeal fashion" in which the council is redeveloping the west side of Bryant Street. He feels the council may be following the letter of the Downtown Precise Plan, but not the spirit, by consistently approving housing-only proposals for the corner lots.
"I think developers should know there is at least one council member who will vote not to approve 'residential-only' projects on the Bryant Street corners," Kasperzak said.
Kasperzak, who is a member of the Chamber of Commerce and was the 1997-98 chair of its board, said that the chamber wants "to preserve the ability for business to expand onto Bryant in the future."
Carol Olsen, chamber president, and Robert Tysko, chair of the chamber board during the redrafting of the precise plan, wrote as much in a letter to the city dated September 23, 1999.
"Commercial development on Bryant Street and Hope Street would make Mountain View more than a one-street downtown. Without it, we have concerns that a one-street downtown will not be viable, making the future of a vibrant downtown tenuous," they wrote.
Offering a different perspective on the current strategy, Mayor Rosemary Stasek said, "Some projects (including those at Dana and Villa Streets) were already in the works before we really articulated the mid-bloc residentail, mixed-use corners idea. In fairness to the developers, they couldn't read our minds then."
However, she also noted the need to pay close attention to the plan.
"Now that we have the plan in place, we would have to have a very compelling reason to do something different than what's in the plan. It's a consistency issue now," she commented. "If we're not following the plan, why aren't we?" Stasek also disputes the idea that whether or not the downtown consists of one street depends on patterns of development on Bryant Street. "I understand the Chamber's interest in not having a one-street downtown. But I don't think the one-street idea will rise or fall on Bryant Street. There will still be plenty of redevelopment on Bryant from here on."
The 2000 Downtown Precise Plan indicates that development on Bryant should create a transition between the hustle-bustle activity of Castro Street and the quiet residential neighborhood west of Castro. Mixed-use projects with ground-floor commercial activities would do that, said Kasperzak. The last four projects pitched to the council illustrate that the trend among property owners on Bryant's west side is to replace old homes and apartments with new townhome clusters.
Plan favors commercial on Bryant
The Downtown Precise Plan describes the type and density of development desirable for Castro Street and the surrounding area. Each distinct neighborhood of the city has such a plan, which is reviewed every five years and updated if the city council and staff deem it necessary.
Written in 1988, the Downtown Precise Plan was amended last winter after the Downtown Committee--a group of residents, business owners, and city staff--re-visited the city's development goals for Castro Street and the surrounding area.
The revised plan, adopted in February, gives preference to these "permitted uses": "retail restaurants, upper floor offices, art galleries, services, and upper floor residential" projects. Combinations of retail, office, and/or living spaces on Bryant's west side corner lots would fit that matrix.
The plan does allow for housing projects at the corners of Bryant and Evelyn, Villa, Dana, California, and Mercy streets, but only as a "provisional use" for that land. Bars and nightclubs are prohibited.
Downtown Committee chairman Bill Maston, who helped to craft the revisions to the original 1988 plan, said they reflect "the best possible compromise" between "diehard residentialists" and the committee's pro-business contingent.
The amended plan states that "the character of (Bryant Street's west side) will be similar to that of traditional urban neighborhoods, with residential uses on the mid-block properties and commercial uses on the corners."
Maston admits it shows a "minor bias in favor of commercial uses on Bryant."
The idea, according to Michael Percy, senior planner for the city, is that visitors coming to Castro Street will see more businesses than homes as they approach the downtown core.
Financing, parking simpler for residential projects
Easier parking and financing, and less long term commitment, make residential-only projects appealing to developers. Given the strength of the market for housing, said Percy, residential construction poses "almost a zero risk" to build.
Developers Albert Wang and David Lee said he scrapped a plan to build a commercial office/living project at Bryant and Villa streets after he discovered that townhouse communities require fewer parking spaces than offices. Instead, he is building 20 1940's-style condominiums there.
Banks can be paralyzed by the complexities involved in funding mixed-use projects, said Eric Weaver, executive director of Lenders for Community Development.
"Those projects are hard to underwrite, because you need to pool two different cashflows from two different lending funds, commercial and residential real estate. The market for each can be different; one may carry lower risk than the other. Location is difficult, too. The ideal place for shops may not be an ideal place to live," said Weaver.
"Banks aren't opposed to the concept of mixing uses," he added; they've just found themselves in new territory. "People now understand the value of it," he said. Combining multi-family housing with other uses makes it easier to live, work, and shop within walking distance, and reins in sprawl, he explained.
Architect Tony Carrasco, who is building a combined live/work project in Palo Alto, feels he is the exception that proves the rule. "Banks with very creative loan officers are enthusiastic about mixing offices and apartments, or shops and apartments. but often that is not the case," said Carrasco.
Drawing the line
Kasperzak refused to vote in favor of Wang and Lee's Villa Courtyard project, because it was strictly residential. As such it was resubmitted after the Downtown Precise Plan was amended. (See project profile in the July 14 issue of the Voice.) The council voted 6 to 1 to approve it, over Kasperzak's objection.
"Even San Francisco-style homes, that could be converted to shops or offices on the first floor would have been a viable option. But so far the designs we've approved don't allow for that," said Kasperzak. He acknowledges the urgent need to create housing for Silicon Valley employees, but fears it's "imposing a residential will on downtown development," he said.
"The city is not driving development. It's being driven by market forces," he added.
The test for getting the council to approve something other than the plan's six "permitted uses" is very easy, said Percy. Developers need only to prove that housing would be "an equally, not more suitable use of that land" than a mixed use project, he said.
Council member Ralph Faravelli said he's been impressed with the architectural quality of three corner lot projects described below and had no problem with approving them. "We need housing, there's no question about that. And we have to have people living near downtown to support the retail that will come here," he said.
Retail market still immature, says Maston
Maston, a professional architect, argues that "being market-driven is not a bad thing."
For Maston, the real question is when the commercial district will grow too large to be accommodated entirely by Castro Street, thereby creating greater interest in locating more business on Hope and Bryant. The fact that nobody has moved in next to Vivaca Grill in the Clocktower building (at California and Castro) is sending "a subtle signal," Maston argued, that the answer is "not now."
Kasperzak has also argued that there will be no place for a major grocery or clothing store to set up shop downtown. Maston counters that development can adjust to the marketplace.
"If private industry wants to make something happen here, they'll make it worthwhile to the property owners," said Maston. Kasperzak asserts that for each given property, the city should encourage owners and developers to design the uses the city wants.
"Never say never, but I cannot see myself approving something purely residential on any other corner of Bryant," said Kasperzak after the July 11 council meeting, "certainly not at California Street. And that's where the next decisions will be made."