A proposed seven-story office building on the site of the former Milk Pail Market in Mountain View could soon cap off a yearslong efforts to redevelop the San Antonio shopping center. But it's hard to find any fans of the finale.
Developer Merlone Geier is seeking to build the offices at the corner of California Street and San Antonio Road, squarely in the middle of some of the city's newest and most dense projects to date. In what is now being dubbed "Phase III" of Merlone Geier's redevelopment of the shopping center, the 182,000-square-foot project would be crammed into the small 1-acre property, demolishing the now-shuttered Milk Pail Market.
Merlone Geier has been redeveloping the western half of the San Antonio shopping center for the better part of a decade, but only recently acquired the corner property. The office project is likely the final chapter in the company's development plans, as the eastern half is owned by the Los Altos School District and Federal Realty.
The proposal got a cold reception at the Dec. 1 City Council meeting, however, with council members criticizing the design and questioning the value of a stark, box-shaped office building at a corner that was meant to be a pedestrian-friendly gateway to the retail hub. Others insisted the spot should be for housing, or at the very least something smaller, and wondered whether the project is beyond fixing.
"If we can salvage this, that's fine, but I will be honest and say this is not at all what I was looking for here," said Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga. "I almost feel like we should start from step one again."
Council members reluctantly allowed the project to proceed through the city's planning process at the meeting, which was a study session and did not include a formal vote.
The proposed office building has a storied history and is unusual in many ways. The outsized project, which would stand at 111 feet tall, is able to pack so much office space onto the small property through a complex deal with the Los Altos School District, whereby Merlone Geier agreed to purchase bonus density for the project in exchange for nearly $20 million.
Last year, the school district bought just over 11.6 acres of land east of Merlone Geier's proposal for a new school. In order to defray the eye-popping $155 million cost of acquisition, the school district is purposefully underdeveloping the property and "selling" to developers the remaining density -- roughly at a rate of $130 per square foot. Merlone Geier bought 150,000 square feet from the school district, and intends to use it all on the corner property.
Though council members have previously been willing to stomach projects using the transfer of development rights (TDRs) in order to help pay for a new school, Merlone Geier's proposal has been less successful. An earlier iteration of the project, which stood eight stories tall, was rejected by the council last year, forcing the developer to go back to the drawing board.
The project includes 15,000 square feet of ground-floor retail under 167,000 square feet of offices, along with four levels of underground parking, and asks for several exceptions from the city's development rules for San Antonio. It breaks the area's setback rules and is pressed up right against the sidewalk, is too tall and is too close to the adjacent office buildings from Merlone Geier's Phase II projects. What's more, the city would have to abandon its previous cap on office space on the northwest portion of the San Antonio shopping center, which previously only allowed 400,000 square feet of offices.
The northwest corner is only allowed to have an additional 39,000 square feet of offices, requiring an amendment to the city's San Antonio Precise Plan.
Resident Albert Jeans said the proposal amounts to "just one more monolithic block building" that has come to define Merlone Geier's development at San Antonio over the years, and that the series of rectangular box buildings create a sort of concrete canyon effect.
"I'm just sorry to see San Antonio center turn out the way it did," he said.
Councilwoman Lisa Matichak said she was disappointed that the project was an office building, and that she would have preferred housing. Removing the cap on office space at the corner also runs contrary to the city's plan to spread out office space and achieve an even mix of office, residential and retail development, she said.
Matichak said she also worried the council was poised to repeat past mistakes and allow the project, with narrow sidewalks and packed buildings, to be anything but pedestrian friendly.
"I think we learned a lot of lessons from Phase I, and when you know better, you do better," Matichak said. "Let's do better, let's not repeat the mistakes that were made in Phase I, and one of the mistakes is having the buildings too close together."
Councilwoman Alison Hicks said the corner property should be a "signature building" and a key location that defines the area, and that it will be the most prominent thing people see coming down San Antonio Road. She said the building needs to be rounded out and softened, and could use some kind of pedestrian-friendly designs like arcades. She said she would support moving some of the TDRs off the property if it meant improvements to the project.
Council members agreed at the study session to let Merlone Geier further refine the project's design and take into account some of their concerns, and agreed to allow a parking reduction for the site. Merlone Geier is planning to link the proposed underground parking to the much-larger Phase II office project, which has a massive 2,586 parking spaces and makes up for the shortcomings of the proposed project.