City Council members voted Tuesday to allow a downtown property owner to convert five retail spaces at 783 Castro St. into offices.
The switch to higher-paying office tenants would allow owners to pay for building upgrades, including a new roof, facade and electrical systems, said investors and representatives of the Mancini family that owns it. But those concerned with downtown's walk-ability were not pleased, as the loss of retail would "deaden" that portion of the street, as council member Ronit Bryant put it.
City planners were apparently concerned as well, bringing the conversion to the council's attention, even though ground-floor office use is allowed by that portion of downtown's zoning.
"I find those stores make it more interesting to walk on Castro Street," said Bryant. "The rendering here is of a fairly blank facade. It makes it even more different to walk up the street to whatever businesses are trying to stay. It is part of deadening Castro Street. I don't find this an enhancement to the street."
Likely to be displaced is a law office, a travel agency, a Moroccan gift shop, a salon, an acupuncturist and a chiropractor.
"I don't want to offend any existing tenants but these are lower-end retail uses," said Bob Odelay speaking for the Mancinis, a family that's had a major presence in Mountain View's business community for nearly a century.
"To do a renovation you'd have to easily double rents. You can get higher rents for office than you can for retail," he said.
For some council members, it came down to "an element of fairness" to the owners, as member Chris Clark put it. Odelay said city planners knew about the project months before they decided that "the plan might be changed retroactively" at the council's discretion, he said. City planners said they thought that public input should be the "deciding factor" in such a major change downtown.
"I'm big believer in retail on Castro Street, but that's not the rule here," said council member Mike Kasperzak. "I don't think you can change the rules without letting people know the rules have changed so they can make decisions. The rules in this area are very clear."
To potentially change the rules now does not set a "great tone for the city," he said.
Odelay said the building provided the sole income for four members of the Mancini family, and that not allowing the change in zoning would mean hurting their income stream. Council member Jac Siegel sympathized with the owners. "You got to do what you have to do to keep the building, otherwise you are in trouble."
The switch from retail to offices downtown isn't the first in the new tech industry boom that has the vacancy rate for offices downtown near zero.
In 2011, Rick Meyer of Meyer Appliance obtained a change in zoning to allow his building at 275 Castro St. to become offices and he moved his appliance store to El Camino Real. Once the city's J.C. Penney, the building has an imposing presence downtown and is now occupied by a tech startup.
At a Zoning Administrator meeting June 22, 2011 there was no opposition to Meyer's request and it was approved, said zoning administrator Peter Gilli in an email. "The relationship between the basement and the ground floor area made it difficult to market the space as retail, except for something like an appliance store," Gilli said of 275 Castro St.
A small gym was forced out of 650 Castro St. last year by Prometheus Real Estate Group, which started charging Custom Fitness $12,000 a month, up from the $5,500 owner Dale Dunlap had been paying for the 2,200-square-foot space. Gilli said ground-floor office use is also allowed in that portion of the downtown.
Elsewhere downtown, a five-story office building is under construction to replace the Pacific Inn hotel on Evelyn Avenue and another office building will soon replace the historic Pearson House at 902 Villa St., once home to a toy store.
"I would prefer retail but Mountain View doesn't attract retail at any kind of rate downtown," Siegel said. "When people want to buy shoes, they want to go into a place that has a thousand pairs of shoes. We just don't attract that in Mountain View."