By Sean Howell
A creative proposal by a land developer to clear space for an office building by moving a historic house appears to have the blessing of the Mountain View City Council, at least in concept.
The council reviewed the proposal by developer Roger Burnell in a study session on Tuesday, March 22. Burnell wants to move the dilapidated Pearson House from its present location at 902 Villa Street to the Cuesta Annex, where it would serve as part of a planned 10,000 square-foot Mountain View history museum. That would make room for a 20,000-square-foot office building at the current site of the Pearson House in downtown Mountain View.
Not everyone on the dais or in the audience thought the idea was sound, but most council members seemed to agree with Burnell's assessment of the project as a "win-win-win" — one of the city's oldest homes would be preserved, a "blighted" site would be developed, and the city would get much-needed office space to house some of the companies clamoring to locate in Mountain View.
"902 Villa is a constrained site," said Vice Mayor Mike Kasperzak, noting that the presence of the Pearson House might make development there infeasible. "It's blighted now, and who knows how long it could be blighted" if the house isn't moved, he said.
He added that he's concerned the house, built in the 1880s, would eventually deteriorate into a "pile of compost" if it's not renovated.
But why move it to the Cuesta Annex? Several people who live near the annex said the choice seemed arbitrary, noting that the museum project seems to keep getting bigger and bigger, though several council members said the rest of the museum would have to be scaled back if the Pearson House is to be a part of it.
"It's difficult to escape the thought that the developer doesn't know what to do with the house, so he decided, 'Let's just plunk it in the Cuesta Annex,'" said Councilwoman Ronit Bryant, arguing that the city wouldn't get enough in return under the current proposal.
Expounding on the house's history in the downtown area, Larry Rosenberg asked why anyone would want to move it to "the suburbs."
"Don't exile it," he said. "It belongs where it belongs, and that's downtown."
To Burnell, the developer, incorporating the historic home into a museum dealing with the history of Mountain View seems a natural fit. Doing so would "breathe new life into (the house)," he said, citing examples of similar projects in nearby cities.
And several council members maintained that any time a developer proposes to preserve a historic structure on his own dime, the city should listen.
"We don't get a lot of opportunities where the developer comes in and says, 'I really want to save this, I really want to help,'" said Councilman Tom Means. "There are a lot of people who want to preserve things, but not many of them are willing to put up the money to do it."
Burnell's proposal prompted some council members to wonder whether the city is doing enough to preserve its historic sites.
"We have to decide how important historic preservation is for the city, and realize there's a cost to it," said Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga, noting that there's a reason the city doesn't see more proposals like Burnell's. "I don't think it's really fair to expect private property owners to bear the full cost."
While a majority of City Council members supported the concept, the plan still comes with plenty of contingencies. The Mountain View Historical Association has yet to sign off on incorporating the Pearson House into the museum at Cuesta Annex, a joint project between the city and the association. It should be noted that the construction of the museum itself is no sure thing, with funding not yet secured.
As for the proposed office building, the city still has to review the project in detail, a process that would culminate in a City Council vote. The council would also decide whether to grant the developer's request to provide fewer parking spaces than required by city code, though council members indicated that the request wouldn't be a deal-breaker.
Finally, Burnell has yet to finalize his purchase of the property, he said at the meeting.