Through the debate on Tuesday night over redeveloping the sites of Chez TJ and the Tied House, everyone in the room agreed on what they didn't want to see happen. That would be another office complex like the one right next door at 900 Villa Street, currently occupied by WhatsApp.
The 900 Villa Street property has become local preservationists' lead example of how developers allegedly broke promises and eroded the charm of the city's downtown core. For them, the building represents another walled-off tech compound, creating what they call "dead zones" -- stretches of downtown with scant public appeal. Even worse for local history buffs, constructing that 900 Villa Street building led to demolishing the 130-year-old Pearson House.
In 2013, when the 900 Villa Street project was approved, it was supposed to be something very different. Developer Roger Burnell pledged his project would have first-floor retail space that he described as perfect for a public cafe. But today that space is not open to the public -- one speaker on Tuesday shared a video of a security guard closing the door in his face as he tried to enter.
Burnell did not respond to the Voice's interview requests. Previously, he told city officials that he couldn't find any coffee shop to move into the space, in part due to its size and parking constraints.
Downtown preservationists remain miffed over the news.
"Every time I walk by the 900 Villa building I get a pang of sadness -- now we have this building which is a broken promise to the community," said Old Mountain View resident Tracy Chu. "Now the adjacent buildings are moving in that direction; one by one, our heritage is slipping away."
The dismay over the 900 Villa Street building was shared by many City Council members -- more than one of them described it on Tuesday as a mistake.
Asked about this, city staff say that the developer and WhatsApp are technically abiding with the city's rules. The 900 Villa Street complex is built out with downstairs retail space, as called for in the city's approved permits, said Planning Manager Stephanie Williams. The problem is WhatsApp is currently paying to rent it out and keep it vacant for its private use, she said.
Nothing in the city's rules prohibits property owners from doing this, she said. In what might seem like a doomsday scenario for downtown preservationists, Williams said any other commercial space along Castro Street could do the same thing.
"In theory, someone could pay to rent out every building along Castro Street and keep it empty. They could do that," she said. "We can't regulate how people who own their property use it,"
Other nearby cities do take more forceful action to regulate how developers use their retail space. In Palo Alto, city officials have imposed $700,000 in fines against the Sand Hill Property Company for leaving vacant a grocery store space after the initial grocery tenant left. To be clear, providing that grocery store was a specific condition of approval for that project, putting the development in violation.
Nevertheless, Williams described the 900 Villa Street building in Mountain View as an anomaly, and she gave assurances that developers weren't breaking their promises throughout the city.
But would the 900 Villa Street project at least lead city officials be more skeptical of future promises by developers?
"No, we don't hold vendettas," she said.
Clarification: added more information about Palo Alto's action to penalize the Sand Hill Property Company