Kent regaled the City Council last week with flashy ideas like a Jumbotron and a "pop-jet" fountain that can be turned off and used as a stage or holiday tree location in the 50,000-foot square that will be built in the 9.9-acre Phase 2 of the center's ongoing expansion.
Kent, who has a long history of designing spaces for New York City's Times Square and Rockefeller Center — even using a beach concept to spruce up Detroit's downtown — has also worked over part of downtown Los Altos.
His concept is making a destination that local residents will want to show off to their visitors, and, of course, attract shoppers to the center. The San Antonio space would have numerous activities, including a number of gaming tables, a 2,000-square-foot "jewel building" where food and drink could be dispensed, vendor kiosks, a small outdoor library for children, large chess pieces and a monument to the birthplace of Silicon Valley. All of this would be placed around tables and chairs with a view of the Jumbotron, which could show movies or major sports events.
The council cannot compel Merlone Geier, the center's owner, to offer such an elaborate "great place" but had urged the firm to view and share a presentation from Kent, who also presented a plan for a Hetch Hetchy Park, which is located in the largely completed first phase of the center project. There, Kent left mostly open space and suggested using it for a farmers market, movie nights, concerts and open play opportunities for children. Outdoor seating and vendor kiosks would be arrayed around the periphery of this space.
Some council members were impressed with Kent's ideas, including Mayor Chris Clark, who said he would be drawn to the center by the 70,000- square-foot movie theater that will be housed near a 367,000-square-foot office building and an eight-story, 167-room hotel and a parking garage for 1,480 vehicles. Member Jac Siegel said while he enjoyed the presentation, he thought the Jumbotron was a mistake. "It's too Disneyland. I don't know, I just don't see it."
Can the large "Great Place" square make up for the massive development of office and hotel space a few steps away? Merlone Geier's first phase is far removed from popular local shopping centers, like Stanford or even Santana Row. Instead, the firm has focused on squeezing tall apartment and office buildings around mostly small ground-floor retail, without a significant anchor tenant, aside from an upscale new movie theater in Phase 2.
One criticism of the Phase 2 plan is including a farmers market in the design of the "square," possibly undercutting the popular Milk Pail Market, which is a "place making" institution all its own. The Milk Pail owns its small site at the California Street corner of the center, but needs a practical plan to share parking after its arrangement ends to use the Ross and BevMo lots. It is a complicated issue, but we urge Merlone Geier to help the Milk Pail stay at its current location with a shared parking agreement.
Time will tell whether Merlone Geier's formula will be successful in drawing the thousands of shoppers needed to provide sufficient business to satisfy the center's retailers. A "Great Place" based on the drawings shown to the council last week could only help, but we wonder if it isn't a Band-Aid fix on a poorly designed shopping center.