Despite fervent pushback from nearby residents, a downtown office project that would replace the historic Chez TJ and Tied House buildings received an initial round of approvals from the Mountain View City Council.
The proposed four-story office project at 938 Villa St. emerged the winner at the Nov. 28 meeting despite treading through a minefield of the city's hot-button issues such as creeping tech development, vanishing small businesses and a loss of what many say are the charm and character of the city's historic downtown. A thin majority of four council members signaled that the project should move forward, warts and all.
The project applicants -- who include the owners of Chez TJ and the Tied House along with the Minkoff Group development firm -- had proposed building plans for 41,000 square feet of offices, with space for a ground-floor restaurant. The project reportedly would adhere closely to the city's downtown precise plan, leaving city officials with little justification to shoot down the project, despite its unpopularity, explained Councilman Lenny Siegel. Preserving the historic buildings would be the only issue that could merit rejecting the project, he told the crowd.
"I share your concerns about preserving our downtown and Old Mountain View, but in this instance I feel it's misplaced," he said. "The (restaurant owners) have a right to find a new use for their property so long as it's compliant."
Both restaurant buildings are recognized as historic sites by the city. The Chez TJ building, also known as the Weilheimer House, is a 1894 cottage that is one of city's oldest structures and the former home of Arthur Free, the only congressman to hail from Mountain View. The Tied House building, which was built in 1931, is also recognized as an iconic site, yet it is generally regarded as the less significant of the pair.
At a June hearing, the City Council signaled it wasn't very concerned about the Tied House building, but council members did want to save the Weilheimer House. Following that direction, developer Dan Minkoff on Tuesday presented plans to relocate the old house about a block and a half away to a vacant section of the single-family-home property at 1012 Dana St. The house could be preserved and rented out as a residence, he said.
That concession did little to placate the project's numerous opponents. A huge turnout of residents organized by the group Livable Mountain View demanded an immediate halt to the project as part of what they described as an urgent need to save the city's vibrant downtown from becoming an office park. Members of the group shared their self-produced video and studies showing dwindling downtown commercial activity and "dead zone" office stretches that deterred pedestrians. As a cautionary tale, one speaker read aloud a letter from Sunnyvale City Councilman Michael Goldman urging Mountain View leaders not to make the same mistakes his city made by replacing their downtown with "cookie-cutter" office buildings.
The group went further in flexing its muscles before the council, handing over a petition signed by a reported 2,300 residents calling for a moratorium on all downtown development and for the city to rewrite the 30-year-old downtown precise plan.
Anticipating some skepticism, Livable Mountain View members emphasized that they aren't a faction of NIMBYs opposed to all development.
"The vast majority of people here are not anti-development ... they're unhappy with the quality of what's going on, particularly in downtown," said Alison Hicks, a nearby resident and trained city planner. "You have to listen to your constituents."
Nevertheless, the dilemma was more complicated than small businesses versus corporate offices. Two longstanding restaurant owners who had preserved their buildings were behind the new office proposal, said Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga. She recalled how a few years ago, the city had allowed the demolition of the historic, yet dilapidated, Pearson House for an office project. That project remains intensely controversial.
"It was an eyesore, and I heard from many residents saying just get rid of it," Abe-Koga said. "The Chez TJ owner has done a great job preserving (the Weilheimer House), so do we punish him by not letting him do what he wants with it?"
Abe-Koga was joined by Mayor Ken Rosenberg and Councilwoman Lisa Matichak in backing plans for a "pause" on the project until the downtown precise plan could be updated. It was an approach that Rosenberg admitted was unfair to the restaurant owners, yet he saw it as the lesser evil.
The other side of the council was equally ambivalent. Councilman Chris Clark acknowledged the project's problems, but he described it as the best option available. If the council dithered for too long, the restaurants would likely close up and the buildings would deteriorate, he said.
"I don't think we'll find a better opportunity to preserve the Weilheimer House," he said. "The idea of doing nothing is to have the Tied House and Chez TJ just sit there."
In the same vein, Siegel described the office development as the best opportunity to clean up toxic contaminants in the soil underneath the Tied House. The building, which formerly housed a dry cleaning shop, has significant traces of tetrachloroethene and trichloroethene, according to environmental reports of the site. The levels exceed residential habitability standards, but are within the acceptable amounts for commercial use, he said.
Livable Mountain View members disputed those findings, but a thin coalition on the council coalesced in support of the project. Council members Pat Showalter, John McAlister, Siegel and Clark signaled their support.
"The best way to preserve this house is to remove it," Councilwoman Pat Showalter said, referring to the Weilheimer house.
Considering the toxins at the site, "we have to err on the side of community health," she said.
The Nov. 28 meeting was a study session to determine if the proposal should go forward. The developer will come back to the council at a future meeting with a full project for approval.