New plans for a large hotel and office building at San Antonio shopping center were met with more shock than support in a planning commission meeting last week.
"To realize we're potentially constructing the tallest structures in Mountain View, I was pretty surprised by that," said Environmental Planning Commissioner Chris Clark.
Developer Merlone Geier has proposed a 12-story, 167-foot-tall office building and parking garage as part of phase 2 of its redevelopment of San Antonio shopping center, an area that encompasses Beverages & More, Ross and Jo-Ann fabrics. To put that in perspective, the city's tallest building at 444 Castro St. is 145 feet tall.
The project also includes a 150 to 200-room hotel, 2,858 parking spaces and 66,000 square feet of ground floor retail facing a park along the Hetch-Hetchy right of way. Merlone Geier is already under construction on phase 1 of the project just south of the site, including a new Safeway, three apartment buildings and dozens of new retail spaces.
Residents packed the council chambers and expressed concern about the project's size and design and about several small businesses, including the Milk Pail Market, at the corner of San Antonio Road and California Street on property that Merlone Geier hopes to buy. The businesses face the possibility of having tall buildings towering in the background.
"I would trade the Milk Pail for this whole development," said resident Stephen Freiberg. "It's much more important to my family and the people that I know."
Merlone Geier's Mike Grehl said the 741,000 square feet of office were necessary to subsidize the construction cost of the hotel, noting the city's longtime desire to have a full-service hotel and how the need for $30 million city subsidy killed efforts to put one next to Google's headquarters several years ago. The developer says several hotel operators are already interested in operating the "high-quality, four-star hotel."
"A building that would be the tallest in Mountain View is, quite frankly, an equivalent gulp moment to a $30 million subsidy," said commissioner Todd Fernandez.
Commissioner Clark said he'd support heights up to seven stories, but "I think this is just over the top in terms of heights that are acceptable," echoing the sentiments of other commissioners. "This just doesn't seem like Mountain View."
He later added that the proposed uses would be "a good mix."
"If you think about it, office is actually the perfect shared parking scenario for retail," he said.
Two of the project's three office buildings are nine stories tall, including three-story parking garages below, while the hotel on California Street is six stories. Garages under the buildings face portions of San Antonio Road and California Street and some of the internal streets. While screened by trees, commissioners and residents said the garages created a wall and a lost opportunity to create a pedestrian-friendly frontage, particularly along California Street.
Downtown resident Julie Lovins called the proposal "mind-blowingly intensive" and instead recommended one-story retail buildings facing California Street that could be used by the surrounding neighborhood and those living in phase one's apartment buildings.
Architect Gilman touted the pedestrian and transit-oriented nature of the project, with Caltrain and major bus lines within a quarter-mile, a promenade running north-south through the center of the the entire project and a park along the Hetch-Hetchy right of way that is the size of two football fields laid end to end. Grehl said the retailers on the project would likely be "high-end but not luxury. We're not targeting the Guccis and Louis Vuittons."
When asked by commissioner Kathy Trontell what the community benefits are for the project, Gilman said, "The four-star hotel, the idea that we are creating what we see as a very pedestrian-oriented environment, a sense of place and high-quality restaurants. We are dedicating over 25 percent of overall site to usable open landscape."
"To me those are not sufficient to justify the heights and intensity proposed," Trontell said later, though she really liked the "flow" created by the promenade bisecting the project.
The proposal is "an opportunity to ask for something of significant community benefit," said resident Robert Cox, saying the project needed to include ownership housing because the 400-plus unit Mayfield housing project was killed in favor of offices. Others noted the city's "jobs-housing imbalance," or lack of housing development amidst massive job growth.
While its common in Mountain View to see Google lease every available large office building, Grehl said "I don't think this becomes a campus where one tenant takes over all three buildings. There are different floor plans for tech tenants, law firms and other businesses." He said that was key to attracting a hotel operator because the concern for the Google hotel site was that Google could command hotel rates by being the main customer.
'Forced out of business'
The developer did not address how the project would accommodate access to the six small businesses at the corner of California Avenue and San Antonio Road.
"We're going to be forced out of business," said Paul Brunmeier, owner of Barron Park Plumbing Supply. His landlord is in contract to sell the building if the project is approved, but "he was kind of bullied, I think," Brunmeier said.
Sara Stoll, co-owner of the International Halal Market at 391 San Antonio Road, spoke in defense of her business, which had its parking lot exit into the shopping center blocked for several days by a fence installed by Merlone Geier to "protect our property rights," as spokesman Greg Geertsen put it last week.
"They need to consider the other businesses," Stoll said. "Since they built that fence I lost three days' business. Our customers cannot park. Customers can come in but there is no way they can turn around and leave. We put our last penny into those buildings. With these conditions, we cannot make a living."
"The developer will buy out that little corner," Brunmeier said. "It's going to be ugly. A lot of people are going to lose their jobs and businesses. And you'll get a hotel. Is it worth it? I don't know."