San Antonio shopping center is set for a major facelift after a suspenseful council meeting Tuesday in which the project appeared to be doomed for much of the discussion.
With council member John Inks abstaining due to a conflict of interest, the council was split 3-3 on whether to support the project. Opponents Ronit Bryant, Margaret-Abe Koga and Mayor Jac Siegel were eventually won over after several last minute changes to the project were agreed to by developer Merlone Geier and the rest of the council. The approval was unanimous.
Just before the meeting ended at 11:45 p.m. Merlone Geier agreed to pay double the park fees at $5.5 million, accommodate a bike lane on San Antonio Road and work with the city's bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee on bike paths through the project.
"I don't think anyone is happy with the project," Siegel said, after hearing what were mostly critical comments about the project from environmentalists, neighbors, bicyclists and affordable housing advocates, many of whom wanted something fundamentally different that would be more attractive to pedestrians. "The reason I think we should do this is because the property will sit there another 5, 10 or 20 years if we don't."
Demolition will begin next month on the empty Sears and Rite Aid buildings, said Mike Grehl, vice president of Merlone Geier. After the 60-day demolition, construction is expected to take two years.
The project will bring up to 350 apartments and 311,000 square feet of retail to the 16 acres at the corner of San Antonio Road and El Camino Real. It includes a new "urban" Safeway, which will move from California Avenue to the corner, set behind a large parking lot and several small street-front shops. There is space for three large retailers at the north end of the site above first floor garages and dozens of small retailers throughout the southern half, some under the three, five-story apartment buildings. There's also parking on the roof of the Safeway and on the ground floor under the apartments.
"We are going to spend $180 million on this project," said Greg Geertson, managing director for Merlone Geier. The plans are attractive to "a lot of name brands you will be proud to have in your city."
Grehl added that retailers who saw the plans at a recent convention "can't wait to be in here."
While it appeared that certain that retailers liked the project, which accommodates cars very well, it wasn't clear to many whether people would find it a nice place to walk through, like Santana Row or Stanford shopping center, two examples council members frequently cited.
"It's auto-centric, Siegel said. "Everywhere you go you can't get away from cars."
Council member Bryant was the biggest critic of the project, saying that she would prefer that the plans were scrapped in favor of a fresh start.
"Having everything subservient to the convenience of cars doesn't make any sense," Bryant said. "Somebody in the audience said this was a plan for 1990, I think this is a project for 1960, actually."
Bryant said the project didn't allow a place "where I can be a pedestrian and I don't have to look around me all the time. Even the green area is surrounded by roads."
Abe-Koga attempted to remove the northbound driveway that splits the park, but the developer said that property owners to the north had rights to the access provided by that driveway, which connects their properties to El Camino Real. The developer blamed the bad circulation patterns in the plan on such access rights.
With no bike lanes on El Camino Real and popular bike boulevards on the east and west sides of the project (Fayette Drive and Latham Street), bicyclists and neighbors said a "bike bridge" to allow safe cycling through San Antonio shopping center was important. The design presented Tuesday would have required cyclists heading east from Fayette Drive to take a circuitous route on part of the 10-foot-wide San Antonio Road sidewalk and across a busy driveway to bike paths through the Hetch-Hetchy parkway towards California Avenue. City staff and the developer were given carte blanche to fix the bike problem with the help of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
Council members said they preferred Merlone Geier's initial plan for the site, which included a large outdoor mall above a one-story parking garage that took up much of the site. Council members had also criticized that plan for not allowing bike and pedestrian access across the site.
"This project has always been about compromise," said council member Mike Kasperzak, a sentiment that was echoed by Laura Macias, who said the project was "pretty reasonable." Council member Tom Means said it was "fascinating" to see too many people try to design the project, and made a motion for approval.
Kasperzak's only criticism was that there were only 10 units of affordable housing, for buyers making 65 percent of the area median income of $128,000. It's far lower than the 10 percent (35 units) that the city would have required under its below market rate housing ordinance, which was struck down in court with others like it around the state. The developer agreed to abide by the city's ordinance if the court decision is overturned before the homes are occupied.