Business & Real Estate

Downtown MV projects linger in design phase

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
The historical Weilheimer House, built in 1884, is fated to return to use as a single-family home in a new location after housing Michelin-starred restaurant Chez TJ for decades.

Two proposed development projects are poised to add substantially new looks to parts of downtown Mountain View.

In a study session last week, the Mountain View City Council provided direction on major questions about how projects proposed at the two sites might look.

On the northwest side of downtown, Chez TJ and the Tied House – restaurants that span the spectrum from beer to elite dining – partnered with developer The Minkoff Group to propose a radical change to their sites at 938 and 954 Villa Street. The mixed-use office and restaurant development planned for the space has been proposed as a 42,000-square-foot, contemporary-style building set to house office space and a restaurant.

Chez TJ and the Tied House both launched in the 1980s. Tied House owner Lou Jemison said he and Chez TJ owner George Aviet had been discussing a joint restaurant venture for several years. He said a downtown-based microbrewery and pub was less and less viable as a business model and that the collaborators wanted to develop a “more relevant” concept than the existing Tied House. Whether that restaurant will look a lot, or a little, like the current Chez TJ remains to be seen.

The Queen-Anne-style Weilheimer House that is currently home to the Michelin-starred Chez TJ was built in 1894 as a single-family residence and later repurposed for commercial use. The Weilheimers were merchants in downtown Mountain View, and the home was subsequently occupied by a Mountain View postmaster, Arthur Free, who went on to serve as a city attorney and then a U.S. Congressman representing California. The project planners propose relocating the home to a nearby lot and returning it to residential use.

The concrete commercial building next door that currently houses the Tied House beer pub and restaurant was built in 1931. It housed a dry cleaner and then entered city hands. The city sold it to its current owners in 1988.

Divided council

A divided council swung between bringing the project to a total halt or forwarding at least some of the proposal. The council had to approve relocation for the historical home in order for the project to move forward, which it ultimately did in a split decision, with support signaled by four out of seven councilmembers: Chris Clark, Lenny Siegel, Pat Showalter and John McAlister.

In another close decision, four councilmembers – Clark, Siegel, Showalter and Mayor Ken Rosenberg – signaled approval for not preserving the Tied House building, noted for its “Spanish Eclectic” style architecture, but not for historical people or events associated with its use.

The other major consideration for the project – the overall aesthetic of the new building – did not proceed as smoothly. No councilmembers expressed approval of the architectural design of the project as proposed.

“We started this project six months ago, and we took forward a very, very contemporary-looking building,” Mountain View City Planner Eric Anderson summarized after the meeting. “The council said, ‘No, you’ve got to make it more traditional.’”

The planners had offered several options to moderate the proposal’s contemporary look and feel that were dismissed as inadequate last week. The designs all portrayed a geometric, four-story structure of terra cotta, metal and glass. The “traditional character” referenced by staff in the study session memo might include historical materials such as wood, stone or brick; a regular rhythm of separate windows or window trim; or cornices or ornamentation along a roofline.

The project’s initial design study used modern materials, with expansive shading and mullions (vertical bars) separating continuous windows. After hearing initial concern from the council earlier this year, two design alternatives added a stone or tile facade separating windows on the lower stories, or a brick facade with similar window separation. Councilmembers felt that these options did not create a coherent solution to their concern about the overall aesthetic of the project.

“I’m a 20-year resident of the city, 12 of those were downtown, and it’s important to recognize the emotional impact of the buildings we have here,” Rosenberg said, later summarizing that he wants it to “look more old-timey if there is going to be a building there.”

From parking lot to multistory hotel

On the northeast end of downtown, the council began informal review of a plan to construct a hotel and office space with ground-floor retail along Hope Street between Evelyn Avenue and Villa Street.

The project would include three levels of underground parking under two structures, rising four to five stories on the site of two existing city-owned parking lots. The site, bordered by Eureka, Olympus Bakery, Subway and Bangkok Spoon, among other businesses, would be offered to the developers as a long-term ground lease. Planners have dismissed residential development of the lots as unlikely to allow the extensive increase in evening and weekend parking spaces included as a central project goal.

The city is considering financing $25.5 million of the project as part of a negotiation to include expanded public parking, as well as to offset its requirements regarding labor practices at the new businesses (such as paying a prevailing wage to employees). The prospect of adding a further parking study questioning how many parking spaces the project could include proved a potential sticking point at the end of the study session.

“There’s always been a concern about this project in terms of keeping it moving,” City Manager Dan Rich said.

After this study session, a formal development application was anticipated within 60 days. The council asked for an effort over the next two months to resolve the parking question without incurring further delays.

“I don’t think anyone wants to delay this project anymore,” Siegel said.

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