Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but Mountain View City Council members spoke out last week against boxy, office-like housing projects, calling for a shift in the city's architectural design philosophy.
The project in the council's cross hairs at the Oct. 24 meeting was the Greystar proposal at the corner of San Antonio Road and California Street, a mixed-use project with 641 homes as well as commercial space. The development site is at a prominent location in the San Antonio area, and has gone through multiple revisions in order to take the edge off the sheer density of the proposed five-story buildings.
While the City Council was tepidly supportive of the changes, council members repeatedly expressed frustration with the larger trend by developers to create the vertical, rectangular "cookie-cutter" style apartment buildings that now pepper the city and other neighboring communities. Public enemy No. 1 in the discussion was the first phase of the San Antonio shopping center -- located at the corner of San Antonio and El Camino Real -- which both council members and city staff agreed had some serious design flaws.
The careful look at Greystar's project comes after repeated concerns by council members throughout the year that housing developments are all beginning to look too similar, said Randy Tsuda, the city's community development director. The worry is that there isn't enough diversity in the architectural style of newly approved housing projects in Mountain View, and that the city might need to take a step back and re-assess what it's looking for in the architectural review process.
This isn't the first time the Greystar project has been subject to the city's scrutiny. The proposal has gone through the Development Review Committee, and the building design has since been adjusted to appear less monolithic, including more step-backs, warmer colors and more "expressions" -- a technique used to break up vertical walls with pop-out features. But city staff conceded that "overall character and massing" of the building at the corner remains the same regardless of the changes, and City Council members agreed that the tweaks hardly address key design problems that they keep seeing time and again.
"I'm happy to hear that my colleagues have said it's a bunch of squares and rectangles, because it is," said Mayor Ken Rosenberg, who said that the project looks more like an office complex than a place where people live.
He said he would prefer architecture with more curves and arches, similar to the Franklin Street apartments, so people can tell the apartments are homes just by looking at them.
"The problem that we're having in Mountain View is all the apartments and all of the new units being proposed are a contemporary design, and I think we need to break from the contemporary designs," he said.
Councilwoman Pat Showalter said it seems like the Greystar project has a bit of an identity crisis: It's not clear if the design is intended to fit in with The Crossings neighborhood to the east or the more urban, dense development within the San Antonio Shopping Center. Even with the revisions, she said Greystar's proposal still looks too sterile, too utilitarian and not very welcoming.
Councilman Chris Clark said the revisions are certainly headed in the right direction, but the gray color and tall, narrow windows make the project look stark and prison-like. He recalled a similar architectural problem with the affordable housing complex at 801 Alma Street in Palo Alto, which has one solid color and only a few narrow windows facing the street.
"I always wonder who Palo Alto has imprisoned there, because it reminds me of a prison," Clark said.
Throughout the meeting, some council members voiced disappointment over the first phase of Merlone Geier's redevelopment at San Antonio shopping center -- which includes Carmel the Village and retail space -- and urged the city to steer clear of repeating the same mistakes. Councilwoman Lisa Matichak said the apartments are too close together and create a "canyon effect," and she found the strange purple, blue and green colors on the buildings unattractive.
Representatives from Merlone Geier did not respond to requests for comment.
Rosenberg said Mountain View continues to catch flak for the poor design choices of the Merlone Geier project, and that residents are rightfully upset with both the architectural design and the layout of the project that makes it hard to get around. He said his worry is that the Greystar project revisions merely soften the blow, but continues to make the same mistakes.
"I don't want to vote for that," he said. "I don't want to vote for Merlone Geier Phase one, part two, but across the street."
Tsuda said there's "no denying" that there are very big weaknesses in the first phase of the shopping center's redesign, particularly the network of streets, the difficulty getting around on bike or on foot, and the lack of a common area for people to gather. But he insisted that the city has learned from those mistakes, and that the second phase -- once complete -- will show huge improvements.
"From a site-planning standpoint and a pedestrian standpoint, this is going to be a far superior project," he said.
Council members agreed to let the Greystar development proceed without upending the architectural design, and are scheduled to have a larger discussion about development design and character early next year, Tsuda said. The study session will give the council a chance to weigh on the design of buildings and architectural styles in general, rather than trying ascertain the council's desire for a specific project.