News

Next door to Chez TJ, critics see a cautionary tale

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.

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"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,"

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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

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Next door to Chez TJ, critics see a cautionary tale

by / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Thu, Nov 30, 2017, 7:10 pm

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

Comments

MV Mom
Shoreline West
on Dec 1, 2017 at 5:52 am
MV Mom, Shoreline West
on Dec 1, 2017 at 5:52 am
18 people like this

Thanks for writing this article and bringing light to this unfortunate situation. I think the WhatsApp team isn’t housed in that office anymore.. they were absorbed into the the Facebook Mothership in Menlo Park. Do you know if the space was leased or subleased to another tenant? Facebook/Whats app can afford to pay more for this cafe space to keep it empty that what an actual cafe could afford.

The fact that this was all within the rights of the business demonstrates that the Downtown Precise Plan needs to be revisited to include protections for retail and historic preservation.




Reader
another community
on Dec 1, 2017 at 6:40 am
Reader, another community
on Dec 1, 2017 at 6:40 am
42 people like this

@MV Mom (resident of Shoreline West):

"Do you know if the space was leased or subleased to another tenant?"

Re-read the article.

"The problem is WhatsApp is currently paying to rent it out and keep it vacant for its private use, she said."


A Talking Cat
Old Mountain View
on Dec 1, 2017 at 7:22 am
A Talking Cat, Old Mountain View
on Dec 1, 2017 at 7:22 am
27 people like this

But would the 900 Villa Street project at least lead city officials be more skeptical of future promises by developers?

"No, we don't learn from our mistakes," she said.


Old Mountain Viewan
Jackson Park
on Dec 1, 2017 at 2:37 pm
Old Mountain Viewan, Jackson Park
on Dec 1, 2017 at 2:37 pm
21 people like this

Isn't it the City's responsibility to ensure that the developers do what they promise. Typical City, just caring about the money.


Rodger
Sylvan Park
on Dec 1, 2017 at 3:10 pm
Rodger , Sylvan Park
on Dec 1, 2017 at 3:10 pm
4 people like this

The way to handle this is to require ground floor be retail, no exceptions and let the developers come up with a plan and plus a requirement to provide enough parking for the retail.

The risk is on the developer if you want to build in downtown than you have a risk, if you don’t attract retail then the space will remain empty for years, no whining to city staffers or officials.

Employees break rooms are on the floors above the retail floor, in fact let’s designate the name of the first floor as Retail!


MVFlyer
Monta Loma
on Dec 1, 2017 at 3:15 pm
MVFlyer, Monta Loma
on Dec 1, 2017 at 3:15 pm
5 people like this

Yes they can do something moving forward. It's called a "contract".


Cogito
Monta Loma
on Dec 1, 2017 at 3:24 pm
Cogito, Monta Loma
on Dec 1, 2017 at 3:24 pm
30 people like this

I am stupefied by Stephanie Williams' comment: "No, we don't hold vendettas" re whether the city will be more skeptical of future promises by developers.

That's either an incredibly poor choice of words or just an incredibly dumb comment. It isn't a "vendetta" to learn from your mistakes and to be wary of smooth talking shysters promising whatever you want to hear in order to get what they want. I'm reminded of the parable about the venomous scorpion stinging the frog trying to help him cross a river. As they're both drowning, the frog asks why the scorpion would do that, and the scorpion replies it's in his nature.

Refusing to be a dumb, sucker, and soon to be dead frog isn't the same as holding a vendetta.


Unhappy
Old Mountain View
on Dec 1, 2017 at 8:57 pm
Unhappy , Old Mountain View
on Dec 1, 2017 at 8:57 pm
22 people like this

When the office tower was built at the corner of Castro and Church St a couple of years ago, we were assured that the first floor would be retail. So the company that moved in opened an employee only cafe. I asked about this at the MV building department. I was told that this meets the definition of retail. In my opinion, the city’s definition of retail needs to be changed so that retail means “open to the public”.


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