The Mountain View City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday night to approve a four-story downtown office building, but not without serious reservations that the project was a poor fit for the future vision of Castro Street.
Sobrato, the owner of the property, is seeking to redevelop the one-acre site at 590 Castro St., which includes the surface parking lot and former Wells Fargo bank just south of the Civic Center Plaza. The project includes a 105,000-square-foot building with three stories of offices on top of ground-floor retail and restaurant uses.
The project also includes a 50-foot-wide public plaza separating the project from City Hall, connecting Castro Street to Pioneer Park.
A previous version of the project, originally scheduled for a hearing in April, sought a zoning exception to include offices on the first floor as well. Sobrato has since abandoned the idea.
While the proposal meets the letter of the law and complies with zoning rules, residents and council members alike voiced disappointment that another stretch of Castro Street would be devoted to offices instead of housing and other uses that promote a vibrant downtown. Similar concerns are raised each time a downtown office project comes down the development pipeline, with groups like Livable Mountain View warning of "dead zones" created by offices.
Bruce England, speaking on behalf of Mountain View Coalition for Sustainable Planning, said the group is worried that the project doesn't fit the "strong family focus" that the area is supposed to have, and only serves to worsen the city's jobs-housing imbalance by bringing hundreds of additional office jobs to Castro Street. The group has advocated for housing as a stronger fit for the site.
Silja Paymer, speaking at the Aug. 30 council meeting, said the city goes out of its way to zone for housing in industrial zones when it would be much better suited right on Castro Street, in close proximity to services, schools, parks, recreation and strong public transit.
"This is a place that should have residential," she said.
Hanging over the meeting is that the City Council has flagged this area of Castro Street for a zoning update through changes to the Downtown Precise Plan, and city staff are actively working on changes slated for review later this year. But as it stands, the city must adhere to the existing zoning rules regardless of how out of sync they may be with public opinion.
"This is why we're looking at revising our Downtown Precise Plan," said council member Ellen Kamei, adding that she was torn about the project. "We'll get form-compliant projects that are no longer the fit for where the city and the community are going and it leads to, I think, frustration for council and frustration for our residents."
Council member Pat Showalter acknowledged the public's interest in building housing on the site, but said the city hasn't gotten around to updating the precise plan that currently allows for office uses. Council member Sally Lieber, the lone dissenting vote on the motion, said the project is wholly incompatible with the area of downtown and urged her colleagues to reject it.
Mayor Lucas Ramirez said the city would be hard-pressed to justify denial of the project, which would require the council to adopt findings that contradict what city staff have concluded on the record. Denial on shaky ground may not hold up in court, he said, at which point the city would be required to approve the project and may miss out on any voluntary benefits Sobrato is offering.
Several residents also criticized the project's proposal to remove 19 trees, including nine heritage trees located in the parking lot of the existing site. Resident Robert Cox said there are "majestic" redwood trees that deserve to be saved, and that it's a shame that doing so was not a priority for the city. He said the update to the Downtown Precise Plan should include stronger rules for retaining the existing tree canopy.
Limited parking to serve the office building was another sticking point for council members that was ultimately accepted as part of the decision Tuesday. While the project would normally need 314 parking spaces, Sobrato is asking for a reduction to 255 spaces, which will be provided in two levels of underground parking. Doing so requires a parking study justifying the decision, which Sobrato has done.
As a voluntary benefit, the public will be allowed to use the top floor of the parking garage (61 spaces) outside of business hours and on weekends.
Despite the assurances, council member Lisa Matichak worried about adequate parking and the potential for spillover onto Castro and adjacent downtown streets, where parking is often in short supply during peak hours. She urged the city to keep tabs on how well the developer sticks to its traffic demand management (TDM) goals and contains its parking needs.
Representatives from Sobrato agreed that, in the event that documented, persistent parking issues related to the office crop up, they would take steps to encourage workers to stay in the parking structure. This could include things like enforceable lease terms and onsite management to keep drivers from spreading out onto roadways.
Council members Ramirez, Showalter, Kamei and Matichak voted to approve the project, while Lieber voted in opposition. Council members Margaret Abe-Koga and Alison Hicks were recused from the discussion because they live too close to the project, presenting a potential conflict of interest.