The third and final redevelopment phase of Mountain View's San Antonio shopping center is nearing the finish line, after the city's Environmental Planning Commission voted unanimously Wednesday, April 20, in favor of the seven-story office project proposed by developer Merlone Geier.
The project, if approved by the council next week, would replace two commercial buildings at the corner of San Antonio Road and California Street -- including the former Milk Pail market -- with a 95-foot-tall office building. Though hulking by comparison, the building would rival the size of the neighboring offices and an apartment complex across the street.
Merlone Geier has long sought to develop the corner property and complete its vision for the shopping center, called the Village at San Antonio Center, which has rapidly grown in density to include taller office buildings and housing over the last decade. In this case, the developer used an unusual strategy to cram so much square footage -- in excess of 180,000 square feet -- onto just under an acre of land.
By purchasing development rights from the Los Altos School District in order to finance a school nearby, Merlone Geier obtained permission to build 150,000 additional square feet above and beyond the 32,352 square feet typically allowed on the property. In other words, the development rights are boosting the density of the project more than five times higher than what's normally allowed.
Merlone Geier is asking the city to waive its 75-foot height limit without providing public benefits, normally a requirement, with city staff noting that the developer's purchase of development rights from the school district amounted to nearly $20 million and can be interpreted as a public benefit.
The City Council hasn't exactly been in love with the project. The original eight-story version put forth in 2019 failed to win enough votes to proceed through the planning process. It didn't fare much better in 2020, when council members complained about the box-shaped nature of the building and described it as a missed opportunity to build more housing.
Still, others were willing to stomach the downsides if the project helped finance expensive school construction on the east side of the shopping center.
The latest iteration looks radically different from the previous proposals, with a curved frontage and a glass facade that the developer says will create a "unique architectural expression" for the site that cuts down on the perceived visual size and scale of the building. Given its prominent location, previous feedback from the city called for an "iconic" design.
The planning commission was mixed on whether Merlone Geier met the mark. Commission member Chris Clark said he wanted a design that doesn't look like "another box next to a box," and that the developer did a good job addressing his concerns. Commission Chair Bill Cranston said the redesign improved the building setbacks and provided ground floor space for retail uses, but questioned whether the building looks any less imposing.
"I don't personally feel that the visual size and scale of the building feels any different than the earlier one did," he said. "It looks different, the curves certainly make it more interesting, but I don't know if the feeling of scale has been achieved yet."
Merlone Geier is asking for a steep reduction in parking, just 283 of the 637 spaces normally required, arguing that the larger network of parking infrastructure built in the shopping center will be able to accommodate the future employees. The full tally of parking spaces across the phases would be 2,866, according to a city staff report.
Residents of the nearby Crossings neighborhood raised concerns that the project, along with the heavy load of residential development in the San Antonio area, is going to worsen traffic woes that have increased in recent years. Michelle Ohye told council members that the "explosion" of development means San Antonio Road is now backed up outside of peak commute hours, and that an entire 1.6-mile stretch of the thoroughfare is now congested.
"This is what we experience on a daily basis," she said.
Tim Mather, also a Crossings resident, said the city and its traffic consultants have unrealistic expectations that public transit will lower vehicle trips to a tolerable level.
But Clark said these concerns have been vetted. The city's San Antonio Precise Plan analyzed traffic impacts for future development in the area, and the plan took into account a level of office development that is consistent with the project. He also noted that there were promising signs that employees working in the nearby offices -- leased by Facebook -- were taking transit instead of driving to work before the coronavirus pandemic.
The Mountain View City Council is tentatively scheduled to hold a public hearing on the project on May 24.