Mountain View City Council members gave tentative approval to an office project Tuesday night, the latest in a spree of high-density projects at the San Antonio shopping center.
The 4-2 vote allows the developer, Merlone Geier, to move forward with a proposal to build a seven-story, 190,000-square-foot office building at the corner of San Antonio Road and California Street. The building would be slotted into a 1-acre parcel currently occupied by the Milk Pail Market, which closed in June, and single-story commercial buildings.
If approved, the project would complete a decade-long effort by Merlone Geier to create a more dense, urban western half of the shopping center. But despite the Dec. 3 vote to let the proposal move forward, council members warned that the building needs to be further refined to avoid feeling like a towering, box-shaped monolith at a corner that's meant to be pedestrian-friendly.
The proposal Tuesday was the second attempt to redevelop the corner property. In September, Merlone Geier presented a proposal to build an eight-story building with nearly a quarter-million square feet. Council members balked at the sheer size and the number of special zoning exceptions requested, and rejected allowing it to move forward on a 3-2 vote.
Since then, the building has been sanded down and adjusted to win the favor of the City Council. Overall square footage dropped by 40,000 square feet, the street-facing portion of the building was reduced to six stories, and enlarged covered walkways around the building have been added to make it more pleasant for pedestrians at one of the the neighborhood's major intersections.
The project would have ground-floor retail space and three levels of underground parking, which would be connected to adjacent parking lots built by Merlone Geier in past development phases.
Even with the adjustments, council members who voted for the project had significant reservations. Councilman John McAlister called the proposal boxy, stark and sterile, and badly in need of some kind of aesthetic improvements to the corner.
"If they come back with this I would not be very happy, to see the same square edges," he said.
Other council members in support of the project said they were willing to let the proposal move forward because of its importance to the broader development plans for the San Antonio shopping center. The Los Altos School District is planning to purchase 11.65 acres of land near the corner of Showers Drive and California Street for $155 million, and is relying heavily on developers to offset the staggering cost.
Through a process called the Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs), the Los Altos School District would under-develop the property as a school campus and sell to developers the remaining density rights -- about 610,000 square feet. Nearly one-fourth of that development, 150,000 square feet, was sold to Merlone Geier, which seeks to use all it to boost the density of the office building at the corner of San Antonio Road and and California Street.
Councilwoman Alison Hicks said she was uncomfortable with the amount of office space in the face of the regional housing shortage, as well as with the appearance of the building, but she wasn't ready to deny a project so integral to the school district's plans.
"I feel like as this point I want to see a school and a park, and don't want to throw a wrench in it," she said.
Mayor Lisa Matichak, who voted against the proposal, said she wasn't sold on the idea that the school district's plans would be in limbo without the seven-story office building. She said she would prefer to see housing instead of offices, and that other developers are likely willing to buy the development rights if Merlone Geier decides to pull out.
"We all want to support having a school in Mountain View, but I can do better than this when it comes to how those TDRs are used and where they're used," Matichak said.
Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga also voted against the proposal, which she said would turn the entire block of San Antonio Road into a "wall" of tall buildings, which wouldn't be appropriate for the California Street intersection. Housing is under construction across the street in two directions, and her hope was to reduce building heights around residential uses.
"I'm not convinced yet that this is the best use of this corner," she said.
Councilman Lucas Ramirez recused himself because he lives near the project, a potential conflict of interest.
With Tuesday's vote, City Council members have now given the green light to four projects that are seeking to use development rights purchased by the Los Altos School District. Other projects include a 460-unit housing development on East Middlefield Road and an 11-story housing development on Logue Avenue, as well as office buildings on Fairchild Drive and N. Bernardo Ave. -- all four located within the East Whisman area. Other buyers of development rights have yet to submit formal development applications.
The school district is seeking to sell 610,000 square feet of development rights for a total of $79.3 million. The district is also planning to immediately resell 2 acres of the land it purchases to the city of Mountain View for $20 million -- to be used as a city park -- and will receive $23 million in park funds from the city to operate joint-use open space adjacent to the school structures.
Add in expected developer contributions, and the school district is bringing down its share of the costs from $155 million to an estimated $27.7 million.