Can this downtown be saved?

Mountain View’s Poor growth planning can be stopped.

Downtowns are to our cities like kitchens are to our homes — the heart. Downtowns are gathering places for our community. Downtowns are where we discover a new book or the perfect outfit. Downtowns are where we can bump into a neighbor while walking our dog and decide to stop for a cup coffee or a glass of wine.

My family and I moved to Mountain View six years ago after falling in love with the wonderful downtown. We loved the quirky, one-of-a kind shops and restaurants housed in historic buildings. We loved the small-town accessibility, knowing we would walk to downtown for restaurants, coffee houses, bookstores, live music, and specialty shopping. We loved the vibrant streets and ambiance.

At that time, it was clear that the downtown reflected the diverse interests and vitality of its neighborhoods and we wanted to be a part of it. We also recognized that growth was inevitable, but were confident the city management would protect the assets that made the downtown unique. It appeared that the City Council had not sold out to developers and large ubiquitous, box and chain stores. We believed we had found our dream town.

For a while, our downtown appeared to avoid the pitfalls of poorly planned growth. Then slowly, one by one, pieces of our history and Mountain View’s public usability began disappearing.

One of these fatalities was the destruction of Pearson House at Villa and Bryant Streets, a very important historical building that residents fought to preserve 12 years ago.

It was taken down by the City, only to be replaced by a closed-to-the-public, 24 hour-guarded office building.

That plan was approved by the City Council with the Developer’s commitment that the first floor would be designed for public use. That promise was broken.

Why ruin the historic charm of Villa Street, part of our walkable downtown welcoming people to Mountain View?

See those tables / umbrellas? No one uses them. The landlord and WhatsApp refuse to put in the cafe they promised.

Office buildings create “Dead Zones” in our downtown.

Dead zones and dark windows on Castro Street (our main st) at Quora HQ.

These Dead Zones discourage us from exploring other open businesses further down the street. Almost overnight, a number of new office buildings have sprung up on Castro Street, some with opaque windows, some with no name, providing no public access or interactivity, and creating more Dead Zones.

Now we are faced with the imminent threat of losing Chez TJ and Tied House on Villa Street to another office complex again, with the promise to build a restaurant on the first floor. Tied House and Chez TJ have been recognized by the City Council as historic buildings.

WeilHeimer House, now and for the past 30+ years, home of Chez TJ.

Chez TJ has capitalized on this historic designation, using the history in its advertising materials for years! Structures of historical, architectural, and cultural significance enrich the quality of life in Mountain View. They provide the unique character that draws residents and visitors downtown.

The popular Tied House is proposed for demoliton.

Growth is not inherently bad, in fact it can be welcome, but only when it is well planned. Office buildings as part of smart growth are welcome as they bring jobs to our community, but our downtown center is not the place to build them. “For Lease” signs are seemingly everywhere. “Public Notification of Building” signs are popping up, construction cranes are towering over St. Joseph Church.

This lovely church is now blocked from pedestrian view from Castro Street.

I found myself asking what is the vision for our wonderful town? Is there a plan? It looks like Mountain View is for sale to the highest bidder.

How can our Council permit the destruction of our downtown’s assets and replace them with office buildings? How are these office structures affecting our cherished businesses, the lifeblood of our downtown?

Over the past few months, I visited many of our downtown businesses. Shockingly, I learned that many are not thriving at all! The few that are surviving do so because they own the building and don’t have to pay exorbitant rent. All the businesses I spoke to reported that for the past two years their revenues have dropped, and many question if they can survive another year.

The downtown assault began with the promise that corporate expansion would provide more foot traffic for our restaurants, cafes and boutiques. Instead, what happened was that these corporate offices provide their own food, which keeps employees sequestered in their buildings.

23 & Me right off Castro across from the Train Station.

Restaurants such as La Fontaine, which has been serving MV residents for 16 years, told us they have no patrons from these offices.

When an office building developer does not build enough parking for its employees, the city collects fees in lieu of these needed parking spaces. It doesn’t matter how many fees we collect, we don’t have the parking we need to support small restaurants, cafes and shops. Office workers park their cars in our public parking spaces all day, or in front of residences nearby. This explains, in part, why it is nearly impossible for our residents, visitors, small business owners and their employees to park during peak hours. Neighbors and visitors are so frustrated by the limited parking that many no longer enjoy going downtown. Several small business owners have been paying over $300 per year to park per space. While the City Council is considering raising the price per space for these office workers, it’s also considering charging for all parking regardless of time or use! This would be devastating for our small downtown businesses.

Several dead trees sit on Castro, outside our City Hall, and one is missing, for the past couple of years.

Empty store fronts, “Dead Zones,” lost historical buildings, limited parking and constant construction do not make for an inviting downtown. The streets and sidewalks are not being cleaned of litter, food, and waste. Street and median landscaping is dismal, even our City Hall median is populated by dead trees.

There is no decorative sign welcoming visitors to our downtown. Palo Alto, San Carlos, Los Altos, Burlingame, Campbell, Los Gatos, as well as many other California towns have sensible planning and protections in place that strengthen their downtowns.  Why don’t we?

Actually, we do. Mountain View does have what is known as a precise plan, a plan that has a strict process of identifying community-valued assets, such as historic buildings, green spaces, interactive walking spaces, etc., which are protected when designing a community. Our downtown precise plan was written by experts: architects, historical preservation and business development specialists. This is an important practice that all of our neighboring cities follow. The bad news is that Mountain View has not adhered to its precise plan for many years and the negative impact is easy to see.

There is something we can do to save the Mountain View we love. We have the power, but we must act now. We must demand that the City Council PAUSE on any future development and follow the Downtown Plan that taxpayers funded.

The City of Sunnyvale is a lesson we should learn from—they stood up for their historic downtown when it was almost too late and all that is left is a block of Murphy Street, the most vibrant part of their downtown. They continue to regret their decision to tear down the rest of their historic downtown.

Help us save Mountain View! Visit www.livablemountainview.org/take-action/ to sign our petition and learn about other ways you can help.  Together we can make a difference in our city.

Please contact us.   It’s time to remind the city Council who they work for.

WE CAN DO THIS!

– Carole W.

Rethinking Our Approach to the Design of Mountain View

Yes! I performed a mental fist pump just reading the title, People Focused Design: Making Mountain View a Great Place to Live. Thank you, Bruce Liedstrand for bringing up the concept. I applaud the notion that design ought to center on people. It should be a given starting point in any design project, especially one that deals with the public realm.

The public realm is what unifies a city, gives it character and diversity. The design of the public realm is the physical manifestation of how a city prioritizes the shared needs of their community. It includes buildings that house public functions, like schools, libraries, and City Hall, as well as open spaces and parks. Often overlooked as components of the public realm, but having an enormous impact in our experience of a place are the streets, the sidewalks, and to a large degree, the buildings that front those streets. Regardless of whether a building is private or public, regardless of the building’s use, the height and massing of a building, its architecture, the relationship of the ground-floor to a public sidewalk or street, etc.- they all act in tandem to create the experience of our public spaces.

Think about any great city. Though there are iconic structures, I’d bet that your experience walking the boulevards, residential streets, plazas, and parks, and your exposure to the people are a significant, if not the primary reason, that makes that city great in your mind. It is the shared spaces, the public realm, that provide the greatest sense of place.

The same holds true for our city. The public realm is what we collectively know as Mountain View. How these spaces interact with each other and how we interact with those spaces should be the starting point for any project. Perhaps we should consider the design of the city in terms of a weaving of public spaces.

Someone recently posed to me what I thought were excellent questions:

Where do you take your out-of-town family and friends when you want to show them Mountain View? Why there?

In 2009, my husband and I chose to live in Mountain View over other neighboring cities after seeing the downtown, but it was the potential for the downtown to become even better that excited me. I recently learned a bit about the history of Mountain View, and fully appreciate the effort in the late 1980’s to redesign Castro Street, laying the foundation for a wonderful public space.

There’s a lot to be proud of in our city, but lately I have been less excited by the direction of our downtown. I am not alone. I hear grumblings of frustration from neighbors and friends. I’m told several downtown businesses are suffering, the landscaping and sidewalk upkeep too. Many are dismayed that historic buildings have been, and are, slated for removal. A couple of the newest downtown buildings are designed to subtly push the public rather away rather than invite them in. Parking is a grievance. Is this the experience the community wants?

Typically, a city evolves slowly over time. Even a single development project can take time. If it has a not-so-great outcome, it usually doesn’t impact the city for a couple years, and even then, not to a great extent. However, we are living at a moment when an enormous push for development is occurring in an incredibly compressed amount of time, stemming from many small and large, and even powerful companies. Collectively, the developments in the pipeline for Mountain View as a whole (maybe 70 or more?) will greatly impact our city for the foreseeable future. These developments can change the entirety of our city, make or break our sense of what Mountain View is. It is imperative that we make incredibly smart and educated decisions.

I do not envy the Council members. The weight of their responsibility is great. I believe they have the best intentions for the city, and have moved the city in a positive way on many fronts. However, we must aim higher.

I know Council is always open to hearing our voices, but there seems to be a disconnect between what the community seeks and values for our shared spaces and what we are getting in terms of new development. If people-focused design starts with understanding what the community wants, it begs the question,“ How we can improve the dialogue?”

When we dig deep into the questions of how to design our public realm with people at the focus, we inevitably get tangled in issues such as parking, retail, infrastructure, safety, transportation, schools, etc. Just as our lives intersect and overlap as citizens of Mountain View, so do all the issues that relate to our daily living. Each is a challenging topic in its own right and requires specific input by experts in each field, but they cannot be addressed in isolation. Similarly, we cannot address each development in isolation without first having a comprehensive plan for the overall design of our city. These all need to be examined in whole in order to provide a framework so we can better address the parts.

We rely on Council to be to be the voice and hand of the community, to ensure that decisions made today are part of a well-planned strategy for the future of our shared city, a future that considers its people at the core. A lot of change is coming fast. We need to do better and we need to do it quickly, even if it means taking a step back to reassess our approach to designing our city.

It is too much to expect the council members to be experts in every field in which they govern. It is my hope that they are humble enough to seek expertise in order to examine what hasn’t worked as well, and then enlist professionals versed in people-focused design to help face the wave of development that seems to be upon us. Designing for the whole is a problem-solving process that requires all our available experts and resources to come together. Mountain View is planted in an area that prides itself as a center for innovation and creative thought. I imagine that if we pool experience, common sense, and creativity, between the will of the city and its people, we could sow some pretty ingenious ways to address these mundane issues.

Joyce Yin,
Concerned Citizen, Architect, and Urban Designer

More Video From Yanghaiying on Livable Mountain View’s Mission

A couple of weeks ago, Yaihanging, a video blogger from Mountain View, did a terrific video discussing the Chez TJ and Tied House buildings under threat from development:

Video story about Livable Mountain View’s Work

Yaihaning’s latest video is a chat with Jean M, of Livable Mountain View, to further explain why we need to save Mountain View’s characteristic buildings that make us a place to come visit.

Watch it and give us your feedback. And please take action here!