BY JEN NOWELL
Daily Post Correspondent
One floor less makes all the difference as the Mountain View City Council allows a seven-story office building on a site that includes the former home of the Milk Pail to move forward through the city’s development process.
At a meeting in September, council voted down an eight-story rendition of the project, criticizing its size. However, council had a change of heart at its Tuesday meeting, approving the now seven-story office building proposed for the southeast corner of San Antonio Road and California Street.
Merlone Geier, the firm behind the major redevelopment of the San Antonio Center, not only shortened the building, but also shaved off about 39,000 square feet, bringing the total square footage to 190,000 with ground-floor retail. Council’s approval, however, wasn’t without hesitation. Council members voted 4-2, with Mayor Lisa Matichak and Vice Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga opposing the project and Councilman Lucas Ramirez recusing himself. Ramirez did not participate in the discussion or vote because he lives near the project site.
Councilman Chris Clark said he is “somewhat encouraged” by the direction the project’s design is moving in, but added that the building is still significant in size.
He said he is confident the city’s development review process will make this project work for the site and the city.
The design is closer to what the council is looking for, said Councilwoman Ellen Kamei, but it still needs work.
Kamei said she wants this corner to help “create community activation” so people will want to visit the site.
Councilman John McAlister said the project is still “very boxy,” “very sterile” and “very stark.” He asked for the developer to consider softer edges and to add some imagination to the design, whether it is with lights or something else.
“You can make this a very exciting corner,” McAlister said.
Councilwoman Alison Hicks said she is “uncomfortable” with the amount of office space proposed given the need for housing in the area, but she doesn’t want to oppose the project, throwing a wrench into Los Altos School District’s plans for a school nearby.
Schools sell development rights
As part of its plan, Merlone Geier is requesting to purchase and use 150,000 square feet of transferable development rights, or TDRs, from Los Altos School District.
In 2014, the city of Mountain View gave its support to a new school in the San Antonio Road area, as part of its San Antonio Precise Plan. The aim is to build an elementary school on the 11.5-acre property at the southwest corner of California Street and Showers Drive where Kohl’s now sits.
As part of the agreement with the city, the school district can sell developable square footage (up to 610,000 square feet) that is not needed to build the new school, and Merlone Geier is looking to get a portion of this.
Matichak, who opposed the proposal, said she believes there are other property owners that would purchase the TDRs if Merlone Geier’s project didn’t go through, adding that the city could find a better project for the site. Housing would be a better alternative, she said.
However, Clark said that even though there are other potential buyers, the amount of uncertainty and time needed to secure other buyers is not worth it at this point.
Despite noting an improvement in the design since September, Abe-Koga said she is still worried about the size of the building.
“My concern here is that the entire block has now become this wall,” she said.
Final stage of process
With council’s vote Tuesday, the developer can now submit a formal application to the city for review.
For council’s initial feedback, Merlone Geier submitted an application through the city’s “gatekeeper” process, which allows council to informally review projects, letting developers gauge the city’s interest before submitting an official application to the city.
In January 2018, council authorized city officials to work on five gatekeeper applications requesting additional floor area through the Los Altos School District Transfer of Development Rights Program.
One of these five applications was the proposal from Merlone Geier to use 150,000 square feet of TDR to build a high-rise office building in the San Antonio area. But once a gatekeeper request is authorized by council, the developer has one year to submit a development application, which Merlone Geier failed to do.
The original proposal only included two of the four parcels located at the corner of San Antonio Road and California Street.
Merlone Geier was in negotiations to acquire the other two parcels at the corner, one of which previously housed the Milk Pail. However, the firm was unable to complete those transactions before the gatekeeper application expired in January 2019, so it submitted a new application which included all four parcels.
The proposal for the one-acre site would go along with the firm’s existing Phase 1 and Phase 2 development at the San Antonio Center. The majority of Phase 2 was completed in January 2018, and the Hyatt hotel building was completed in July 2019.