Nationally renowned place-making expert Fred Kent presented his plan to the City Council Tuesday for making a "great place" in San Antonio shopping center. Council members largely approved his ideas.
"I don't want to be too critical of this area but there aren't many great places in this region," Kent told the council. "This will be a great place in this region."
"I think it will be better than Santana Row -- there's no real square in Santana Row. People from 20 to 30 miles away will come here," he said. "When people have visitors, this will be one of the places they'll come to to show them."
The plan would provide a number of interesting features for the 50,000-square-foot square, to be built in phase 2 of Merlone Geier's redevelopment of San Antonio shopping center. It includes a "pop-jet fountain" which can turned off and used as a stage or holiday tree location. There are various game tables, movable tables and chairs, a 2,000 square foot "jewel building" where food and drinks can be served, vendor kiosks, a small outdoor library for kids, large chess pieces and an elevated monument to the birthplace of Silicon Valley. The monument compliments another nearby at the real birthplace, William Shockley's former lab building at 391 San Antonio Road, which will be knocked down for the project.
Kent removed half the 39 trees from the square, professing a different philosophy then city staff about how they contribute to place-making. Kent says they can often get in the way.
The most controversial aspect was a large Jumbotron hung on a parking garage wall in the square, which could play movies or show major sports events, or even a live feed of the square so people could look at themselves, Kent said. Fears were expressed that it would become a billboard.
Also part of the 9.9-acre project is 121,000 square feet of ground floor retail, presumably higher-end shops than those found in Phase 1 of the redevelopment at El Camino Real. There's a 397,000-square-foot office building, a 70,000-square-foot movie theater, and the tallest building, an eight-story, 167-room hotel. There will also be a 1,480-space parking garage. No homes are proposed.
Kent's passionate speaking before the council was no less impressive than his resume as founder and director of the Project for Public Spaces, which includes place-making efforts spanning 37 year: plans for New York's Time Square and Rockefeller Center, as well as the transformation of a portion of downtown Detroit using a beach concept. More locally, his efforts can be seen in and around downtown Los Altos, which he says has become quite popular. He said there would be "10 times" as many people drawn to Mountain View's new great place.
"Great places reach out like an octopus" to bring people in and "Great places have at least 10 things to do in them," he said. He showed pictures of people embracing and laughing. "That's what happens when people feel comfortable," he said.
Kent said the plan would encourage regular users who "take charge of it and they make it safe and they make it comfortable." To that end, chairs and tables would be movable so groups could arrange them as necessary.
"There's nothing I love more than a square -- all kinds of things go on in them," Kent said.
Council member Jac Siegel and others said they enjoyed the presentation, though they didn't agree with all of it. Siegel said of the jumbotron, "I think that's a mistake. It's too Disneyland. I don't know, I just don't see it."
Some residents criticized developer Merlone Geier's plans for not including the Milk Pail market, but showing another open air market at the Pachetti Way entrance to the shopping center with outdoor seating. The Milk Pail may be forced from its longtime location at the California Street corner of the site because it lacks adequate parking in the plan. It now relies on a shared parking agreement with the Ross and BevMo property proposed for redevelopment. There are over 700 signatures on an online petition calling for shared Milk Pail parking in the new plan.
While Kohl's, Trader Joe's and Walmart will remain, Siegel lamented the loss of a portion of a regional shopping center of big box stores in favor of smaller, more high end stores.
"A lot of people still need places to shop and buy merchandise -- we're not creating that here," Siegel said.
Others were also not entirely sold. Resident Don Bahl said Kent slaughtered many "sacred cows" in his talk, such as his position that San Antonio Road and El Camino Real be reduced to two lanes in each direction to make pedestrians feel they have more "authority" in the area, following the lead of Vancouver, which he said has only two-lane streets citywide.
Council candidate Jim Neal picked up on Kent's remarks about how rents around one of his places -- Manhattan's Bryant Park -- are now some of the highest in the world.
"(Project for Public Spaces) mentioned this will drive up the cost of rentals -- we really need that, don't we?" Neal said.
"I am concerned about the Jumbotron being turned into an electronic billboard," said resident Nancy Morimoto.
Others liked the idea of the Jumbotron. Council member Mike Kasperzak said Merlone Geier had a right to many of the improvements on the privately owned square without city approval. Merlone Geier had hired PPS to come up with the plan at the request of the City Council.
"One of the things that would draw me there is the movie theater or on Sunday to have brunch and watch" a football game on the Jumbotron, said Mayor Chris Clark. "I hope it wouldn't just become an ad billboard."
Council members also decided to have Project for Public Spaces propose improvements to the project's pedestrian and bicycle paths before the project is reviewed by the city's commissions. Council members will take vote on a final plan later this year. A draft environmental impact report will be released in April.