The 30-year-old precise plan guiding all development in Mountain View's bustling downtown will be heading back to the drawing board. The decision came at a Tuesday night study session in which all members of the City Council agreed the downtown plan was showing its age and needed a suite of updates.
Council members said they had no interest in completely gutting the precise plan and starting from scratch. Instead, they highlighted the need to address the most pressing issues where the downtown plan was showing signs of inadequacy, including insufficient rules for parking, housing and preservation of historic buildings and retail shops.
Even with that tailored list, the commitment of time and money would be high. City staff estimated a downtown-wide update would cost about $1.75 million and take up to two years due to the need for a consultant and full-time employee to work on the plan.
It was a complicated discussion made even more difficult by the entrenched and conflicting politics of downtown. The area is the city's focal point for small businesses, mass transit, historic preservation and parking problems.
In last year's election, the group Livable Mountain View proved itself a formidable political force by helping elect Alison Hicks to the council on a platform largely centered on so-called "smart growth," looking for quality of life through more rigorous downtown development standards. Yet Hicks had to recuse herself from participating in the study session on the downtown precise plan. As downtown residents, Hicks and Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga are both prohibited under conflict of interest rules from making land-use decisions near property they own.
At the discussion Tuesday night, council members tried to figure out which issues could be isolated for specific areas of downtown in order to allow Hicks and Abe-Koga to participate. In particular, the council decided the issue of historic preservation could be sequestered to the northernmost blocks of Castro, Bryant and Hope streets.
But other issues were more challenging to disentangle. Parking, building standards and zoning rules would inevitably bleed into other areas no matter how the council tried to divide it up, said Councilman John McAlister.
"How can you look at just one point, and not see how it's going to affect another part?" he said. "To slice and dice this up doesn't make any sense. We need to take a holistic approach where you can't limit it to certain areas."
Parking could be the most divisive topic in this regard. Small business advocates and nearby residents have said for years that the city's downtown parking supply was woefully inadequate. Yet other environmental-leaning factions have urged the city to shift from a car-centric model by reducing free parking or adding a paid parking system. Speaking at the meeting, former councilman Lenny Seigel pointed out that the downtown area's requirements for parking in effect were telling developers to build more offices because it made housing too expensive.
While the downtown-centered groups didn't agree on parking, they were in alignment in other areas. Sarah Astles, owner of the Opal nightclub, offered an idea to turn the northern blocks of Castro Street into a pedestrian promenade in tandem with the street closure at Central Expressway. Among the priorities highlighted by the City Council, city staff will look into ways to encourage more ground-floor retail, perhaps through some form of subsidy program.
There are currently many projects that could impact the future of the city's downtown. In particular, the city is planning to redesign its downtown transit center to prepare for increased Caltrain ridership and the distant possibilities of statewide high-speed rail or a local automated transit system. In addition, the California Legislature is revisiting policies to force cities to allow dense housing to be built near mass-transit stations.
Meanwhile, Mountain View planning staff already has a hefty workload, including ongoing work on precise plans for the North Bayshore, Terra Bella and East Whisman neighborhoods.
Mountain View city staffers say they will return to the City Council with a work plan and better cost estimates in the next few months.