Owners seek shelter from CS zone

They tell council Old Middlefield Way is in big trouble due to city regulations

Likening the Commercial Service zone along Old Middlefield Way to a dying coral reef, property owners of offices, repair shops and commercial supply houses appealed to the City Council on Tuesday for some relief from the city's land use regulations there.

The owners found a sympathetic ear in the council, which directed city staff to study the problem.

"I don't think it is often that we get that many landowners to show up and say 'Something is not working here,'" said council member Tom Means.

About a half dozen property owners talked about having major problems bringing in tenants since 2001, then the city cracked down on the dot-com real estate boom in the neighborhood. At that time, the council wanted to prevent auto shops and other lower-rent uses from being pushed out of the area, but the owners say the dot-com bust quickly solved that problem. Today, they say, the policy has backfired, causing new office buildings to remain vacant for years while strict parking regulations and expensive conditional use permits are threatening the existence of small retail businesses.

"The dot-com scare never happened, it was a chimera," said property owner Gary Cook.

Council member Mike Kasperzak was on the City Council in 2001, and says there were several auto shops seeing their rents raised at the time. Many said outcry from Larry's Autoworks almost single-handedly brought about the change after his landlord wanted to raise rents to $6 a square foot to bring in offices, even as nearby auto shops were paying 70 cents a square foot. Larry's eventually moved to Leghorn Avenue, and his old building remained vacant.

Times have changed, Kasperzak said, and "another dot-com real estate boom is probably not going to happen again in our lifetimes."

City attorney Michael Martello explained that the 2001 City Council direction wasn't a new policy, but that for years the Planning Department mistakenly interpreted language in the CS zone, previously known as the CG zone, to mean that commercial (including offices) and retail uses were allowed. But actually the zoning ordinance said "commercial retail," he said, which is exemplified by places like Kelly Paper and Baron Park Plumbing Supply.

So several restaurants and non commercial retail stores went in, and large office buildings were built mistakenly, such as the Kobza building on the corner of Rengstorff and Old Middlefield Way.

"To me that seems like a pretty big mistake," Means said, pointing to the Kobza building.

The owner of the building, architect Dennis Kobza, said he built it 23 years ago.

"We're talking about fairness here," Kobza said, adding that he pays $1,700 for a conditional use permit every five years to stay in his own building.

Owners of a small TV repair shop on Rengstorff Avenue complained that business is down significantly after the city told them to remove signs from sidewalk. Now, he said, they can't pay their conditional use permit, which allows them to sell the TVs they repair.

Property owners also said they want more "flexibility" in what is allowed in their buildings, as they can't afford to rebuild them to suit the current zoning requirements. Charles Gardyn, owner of the La Costena building at Rengstorff Avenue and Old Middlefield Way, said many small businesses that will fit in some places can't afford the studies the city is requiring for conditional use permits in the CS zone.

"I've had to forgo rent for months," said building owner Russ Chagal. "I've had tenants have to move out after they were shut down," by the city.

The Peninsula Youth Theater had slightly different concerns. PYT rents an industrial building on Old Middlefield Way, as it is affordable and located in the only zone that allows them to construct theater sets.

"If the zoning changes, where would we go?" asked executive director Karen Simpson. "Because there is no place else."

Council member Jac Siegel shared the concern that the areas zoned CS were already relatively small, with a small area on Yuba Drive being the only alternative to Old Middlefield Way for construction- and repair-related businesses. But, he said, "If we don't do anything we're essentially putting them [office owners and retail stores out of business, and I don't think that's right."

The council found difficulty zeroing in on what exactly should be done, but voted to have the Planning Department study whether it is possible to provide some emergency relief for the owners. The area will be studied in depth for the ongoing update to the city's General Plan, which guides future development in the city.


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Posted by Joe Cree
a resident of another community
on Mar 11, 2009 at 2:30 pm

One reason this area lost so many tenants is the property owners wanted such high rents, Larry's Auto is one example of this. His old location is now full of offices by the way. When we had to relocate a couple of years ago we wanted to stay in Mtn. View but with the only allowable zoning area being Old Middlfield and the extremely high rents the property owners wanted we were forced to move to San Jose where both the city and the property owners have made it somewhat affordable for our type of business. The city needs to either keep that area as CS or find another suitable zoning area for the businesses that are forced to stay in the CS zones. The city has allowed far too many areas to be re-zoned as residential or mixed use and won't allow CS types of owners to use open space. I understand the property owners want to rent their spaces but in numerous cases they're not renting because their asking price is just way too high for this type of business. In 2007 we spent almost a year looking for space and never saw one location in the CS zone for $1 a foot or less, most were closer to $2 a foot.

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Posted by Brad Kellar
a resident of North Whisman
on Mar 11, 2009 at 3:09 pm

This would be a better location for the Day Worker's Center of Mountain View than the residential neighborhood they are looking at. A property owner could offer free or reduced rent to the DWC and write it off their taxes as a charitable contribution. The DWC will enjoy better operations, given Old Middlefield Way's freeway access and commercial traffic. The City of Mountain View won't have to bend its residential zoning definitions, and Mountain View's residential neighborhoods will be protected from commercial incursion. That's a win-win-win-win for everybody.

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Posted by Madison M.
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 11, 2009 at 4:08 pm

I think that's a great suggestion, Brad!

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Posted by Larry Moore
a resident of Shoreline West
on Mar 11, 2009 at 5:31 pm

In 2001 I and many other business owners on Old Middlefield Way appeared before the City Council to speak in favor of a five year moratorium on a zoning change and the stronger enforcement of the existing zoning regulations. The result today, based on my conversations with property owners on the street, is an ordinance that apparently has made it very difficult to use buildings in that area for anything but precisely what the CS zone allows, even if a building existing before that time did not fit those zoning requirements. Our intention was to assure that buildings that had been built specifically to house our type businesses not be leased for other uses unless in fact there were no legitimate renters of this type available at the current prevailing rate for that type of space. We did not wish to see buildings legally constructed for office space be forced to convert to CS usage, only that rates that were excessive for CS usage could not be quoted to discourage renting a space that had been designed for that purpose. At that time several developers were purchasing the CS property and then extensively reconstructing buildings to a higher lease rate use. At that time many shops and businesses were being forced out of the area as a result of being quoted office rates (competing with high tech businesses) to continue in their space. Our desire was, and is, to see the existing zoning enforced by the city and to not allow significantly non-conforming uses to replace conforming use.

I believe Mountain View should not be overly zealous in using zoning laws to counter the natural movement of businesses into or out of an area that could easily be made suitable for their usage. Penalizing or forcing owners of non-conforming buildings that predate a rezoning change to pay substantial fees for non-conformance is not in the best interest of the community. Buildings should be allowed to remain for the use they were designed unless it is clear that no tenants of that type are available.

As I argued at that original meeting, I believe strongly that there needs to be a place for businesses wishing to provide services for local vehicle owners, and history has shown that those areas will typically be lower rent areas than those zoned for office, R&D or retail space. By having that space available on a “going rate” basis, conforming business owners wishing to provide those services can factor those costs into their business model and decide if it makes financial sense. If no conforming businesses are available to take that space, building owners should be allowed to make reasonable modifications to their buildings to provide space for other similar but not identical businesses. Varying the ratio of office versus storage is not something that would preclude ever having non-load bearing walls removed or added in the future. Converting CS space to a space that could not accommodate CS usage in the future, such as fully built-out office space, almost certainly assures that it will never again be used for CS businesses.

I know this is a difficult issue that pits the rights of property owners against the “good of the community” and can be very difficult to oversee, however an outright ban or artificial cost inflation through the assignment of fees to existing non-complying structures does not seem to be in the best interests of the property owners or the community-at-large. Neither is allowing developers to purchase property that currently supports the best use of the area and convert it to a use that will bring more money but eliminate the possibility of conforming or nearly conforming businesses ever using that property again. Just as converting business to housing precludes the likelihood that business will ever again occupy that property, allowing a currently “hot” business, but very different business type, to displace a necessary but not “hot’ business can preclude that space ever being used for the original purpose again. Decisions of that magnitude need to be made by city leaders, not city staff. I believe leadership in Mountain View needs to assure that space is available in the city for all types of services that are likely to be needed by the local populace. It is up to those businesses whether they wish to take advantage of that space, individual economics of property and business owners will decide that in the long run.

If the current ordinance, which I have not had the opportunity to fully review, does not support the use of Old Middlefield Way properties in the manner I describe above, I would support the repeal of that ordinance.

Larry Moore - Larry's AutoWorks

PS - I find it interesting that the old middlefield area is not available to choose as a neighborhood. What does that say about it's status as a special area in Mountain View?

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Posted by Daniel DeBolt
Mountain View Voice Staff Writer
on Mar 12, 2009 at 12:18 pm

Daniel DeBolt is a registered user.

Thanks for your perspective Larry - I don't think it was well represented at Tuesday's meeting.

Staff here at the Voice agree that the neighborhood selection tool for Town Square is less than desirable and we hope to expand it in the future.

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Posted by MC
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 12, 2009 at 3:05 pm

I think the big problem here is that the city is lumping together two disctinct issues with very different answers. I agree with much of what Larry has to say-- penalizing property owners for building or improving structures WITH THE PERMISSION OF THE CITY is ludicrous. The Council should grandfather in the current use for any building or existing use that exists *today* in the CS zone.

Rezoning the area is a completely different issue. I personally think that the CS zone is something that should be maintained in Mtn View- there really is nowhere else for vital service businesses to realistically locate in Mtn View.

Any property owner that in good faith has developed what is now considered a non-conforming property and is, as a result, being penalized has a very legitimate gripe with the city. Anyone else who owns a building in the CS zone bought it based on the current laws (or very similar ones) and should have no expectation that they would be able to substantially alter their property.

The City Council needs to sort out these two issues and deal with them appropriately. Preserve the CS zone as-is, but grandfather in currently non-conforming buildings

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Posted by Louis Meadows
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 13, 2009 at 1:02 pm

I have noticed most if not all buildings are single store along Old Middlefield Way. I suggest that the zoning for the first floor remain CS zoned supporting the service sector and 2nd and above floors zoned for office and residential use.

I agree with Larry

"I believe Mountain View should not be overly zealous in using zoning laws to counter the natural movement of businesses into or out of an area that could easily be made suitable for their usage. Penalizing or forcing owners of non-conforming buildings that predate a rezoning change to pay substantial fees for non-conformance is not in the best interest of the community."

With this in mind the compromise would be that the landlords could improve the building, but keep the existing first floor CS zoned space. The end result would be new mixed use buildings. On the first floor you would have service business, contractors, auto repair, restaurants, which by the nature of the business are most effected by high rent rates which must be passed on to the community which gets the befit of the services. However the property owner does need to be able to profit as well, so they should be able have office/residential space above the CS zoned first floor. As for parking several companies produce parking elevators. Due to noise from service business landlord should construct the building so that it does not transmit into office or residential use space. As we know the auto service business can be very noisy. By allowing office and residential use above the first floor, many folks in these offices, and residential space would use the service businesses. I not in favor of restricting business, but a requirement for a six foot side walk with new construction would be great for the community that walks along Old Middlefield Way as I like to do when I go to Fred's to watch a 49ners game.

Best Regards

Louis Meadows

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Posted by Bernie Brightman
a resident of North Whisman
on Mar 16, 2009 at 3:53 pm

'Kasperzak said, and "another dot-com real estate boom is probably not going to happen again in our lifetimes." ' There we are. Once again the uninformed and unaware lack of intelligence which, Greg Perry apart, has always characterized our public officials and likely always will. Companies like Google and Facebook that are leading the world right now, where do you think they are located? Mountain View officials are just the tail on the dog that is the Silicon Valley high tech sector, which is the engine makes all of our lives possible. You'd think by 2009 the city officials would have learned to study and understand something about it, but no, they just go blithely along in ignorance, mere re-actors to whatever happens.

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