Jeff Boulter, Urban Development Pundit

There’s a strange thing that goes on when you start putting your thoughts on the web. You never seem to know what people will connect with. Last August I wrote a blog entry on the demise of the Sunnyvale Town Center Mall. People continue to comment on that post, something I just spewed out on a lazy Saturday afternoon, not saying anything important. But now people are asking me about the mall like I’m some kind of expert.

Last week I got an email from a journalist for Silicon Valley Biz Ink. He was writing a story on the plans for the mall. He did a search for the mall on Google and my blog entry came up first.

Sidenote: It only comes up first in Google. Yahoo! has wildly different results. Maybe Google prioritizes blogs higher?

I had a quick chat with the author last week and the article was published today. I was misquoted about the mall being empty. It wasn’t empty when I moved here, but did start its decline soon after.

Another one for the scrapbook I guess.

Mall’s destruction could revive Sunnyvale’s downtown

Published: Friday, December 17, 2004

BY MATT REED

When the wrecking ball finally comes crashing into the Sunnyvale Town Center mall early next year, it could signify the beginning of the end of a 25-year debacle marked by bankruptcy, retail failure and the loss of much of the town’s traditional downtown area.

But demolition of the mall — likely to be approved next week by the Sunnyvale City Council, according to town government spokesman Adam Levermore-Rich — could also symbolize a new beginning for the town’s traditional downtown area, most of which has been occupied by the mall since 1979.

New developers have agreed to reconstruct the mall area into the old downtown’s original street grid and give Sunnyvale’s downtown area a semblance of its former self through a $280 million dollar project that will create an open-air, mixed-use retail and residential district

City council approved the project in August, and Forum Development Group of Atlanta is seeking financing for the project, according to Sunnyvale community development director Robert Paternoster.

“A lot of research went into this. Residents said they wanted a more traditional downtown, something that is more open,” Levermore-Rich said. “It’s really going to look like a downtown again.”

Sunnyvale is the latest valley city to attempt to revive its traditional downtown area by encouraging a pedestrian-friendly environment.

“Taking your classical indoor malls and turning them into something that is connected with a downtown is very definitely a national trend,” said Boris Dramov, an architect and urban designer at ROMA Design Group, a San Francisco company that focuses on creating public spaces in urban areas and has worked on projects in Santa Monica and Walnut Creek. The company is not involved in the Sunnyvale project.

“A town center has many more reasons for existing than just as a place for shopping. It is also a social center for interaction with your neighbors,” Dramov said.

In Sunnyvale, Atlanta’s Forum Development Group plans to build half a million square feet of new shops, a 16-screen cinema, 300 residential units and 200,000 square feet of office space, a Sunnyvale town statement said.

The project will connect with the town’s historic Murphy Street and will include a new three-quarter acre town square and below- and above-ground parking structures for 4,500 cars, the statement said.

Members of the Sunnyvale Downtown Association looked at Palo Alto’s University Avenue, Los Gatos, Walnut Creek and San Jose’s Santana Row project as examples of what a mixed-use downtown could look like, said Suzi Blackman, president and CEO of the Sunnyvale Chamber of Commerce.

In Cupertino, similar thinking is behind a movement to create a downtown in a city that never had one. The city was incorporated 49 years ago so that it wouldn’t become part of San Jose or Sunnyvale, and has always just been a crossroads suburban community, according to Rick Kitson, Cupertino’s public information officer.

The city has found support among its residents for moving away from the big box model of suburban retail “… where you have acres of parking between the sidewalk and the store,” Kitson said.

“Cupertino wants to strengthen its retail base, for obvious economic reasons, but the devil is in the details, and there hasn’t been a clear vision of what a downtown should look like,” he said.

The issue could be decided in a November 2005 ballot initiative on creating a commercial corridor in the city.

Sunnyvale’s project is the latest in a decades-long line of plans to boost the city’s downtown.

The 712,000-square-foot Town Center Mall opened in 1979, bringing economic hope to what was then a crumbling downtown area. American Mall Properties of Sherman Oaks bought the mall in 1998 with promises to revive the failing mall with a $100 million makeover. The plan, which like the most-recent plan called for an open-air atmosphere, never came to life. AMP filed for bankruptcy in 1999, and Forum Development bought the mall in 2003.

Forum is building a similar mixed-use retail development in Atlanta, and completed a “specialty retail” development in Carlsbad last year, according to the company’s Web site.

Forum will knock down most of the existing mall in Sunnyvale, but two buildings, each occupied by Macy’s and Target, will remain and continue operating through the construction phase.

Construction is due to begin in June 2005 and is scheduled to be completed by June 2007, according to Levermore-Rich.

Retail businesses should be open in time for the 2006 holiday shopping season, he said.

Sunnyvale’s Paternoster said Forum received tax incentives — $4.05 million in real estate tax increments through 2025 — in exchange for the project.

Sunnyvale resident Jeff Boulter called the Town Center Mall “a large monstrosity that takes up space.”

When he moved to Sunnyvale three years ago, the mall was mostly empty, with just a few chain stores remaining.

“It was kind of depressing. Every time you would go back, there would be fewer stores,” he said.

Although he does most of his shopping on the Internet and at Valley Fair Mall in Santa Clara, he would consider shopping at a redeveloped downtown Sunnyvale, he said.

But Joe Antuzzi, a local restaurant owner and the chairman of the town’s Downtown Association, views the project with some trepidation for local small businesses and said the city gave too much away to Forum in tax incentives.

“It’s still a mall in the middle of downtown. I guarantee that 95 percent of those businesses will be national chains,” he said. “I’m sure the city doesn’t want to lose its small businesses, but do they really care?

Nonetheless, Antuzzi believes that some kind of redevelopment was inevitable.

“It was probably the best deal that they could get” he said. “Times are tough and that mall sat there almost empty for 10 or 15 years. Something needed to be done.”

Matt Reed is a Biz Ink reporter. You can reach him at mreed@svbizink.com.

Restaurant owner worries about business

Lightning has already struck Joe Antuzzi and his valley businesses twice, and now the Sunnyvale restaurant owner is worried it could happen again.

Antuzzi, who owns Il Postale, an Italian restaurant located across the street from the Town Center Mall, closed his San Jose restaurant in 1988 and his Santa Clara pub in 1994 after nearby redevelopment projects caused business to drop precipitously.

Now he is convinced the same fate awaits Il Postale.

“Two years of construction and a massive amount of dust. It’s going to keep customers away,” he said.

But Sunnyvale town spokesman Adam Levermore-Rich said demolition of the current mall, due to begin in early 2005, and reconstruction of retail buildings and downtown streets, scheduled to be completed by June 2007, shouldn’t have a huge effect on nearby businesses.

“A lot of the construction is going to happen within an enclosed zone. So the impact to local businesses will be minimized,” he said.

Antuzzi owned the San Jose Cafe on North 1st Street from 1984 to 1988. He said construction on San Jose’s light rail project scared away customers.

Antuzzi also owned Lord John’s Inn, a pub located near Santa Clara University’s campus. The bar was forced to relocate to land owned by the university due to extended construction on a road project.

Lord John’s closed in 1994 when the university let the bar’s lease run out, partly because officials didn’t like the idea of a student drinking establishment near campus, Antuzzi said. Since then, he has owned and operated Il Postale.

“‘It’s the curse of Joe’, my friends say. But I’ve rebounded every time,” he said.

Antuzzi, chairman of the town’s downtown association, said he understands that the Town Center Mall needed to be redeveloped, but he wishes that Sunnyvale had found a way to ensure the survival of nearby small businesses.

After several years of downtown construction, local business owners are then going to have to contend with national retail chains at the nearby redeveloped mall area, he said.

“You can’t stop progress,” he said. “But you may talk to me in four years and I will have said that my business doubled because the mall brought 20,000 people to downtown every day. The question is, can I survive those four years?”

— Matt Reed

2 Comments

  1. i left sunnyvale in 2003 for oregon (and am loving it) after spending my childhood there. we just finally cut all our ties to sunnyvale by selling our house in the cherry chase neighborhood. however i still wonder what will happen to that mall. do you have any more recent updates? it seems to me that a parking structure was torn down recently but the forum group has also gone bankrupt?

  2. I live right across the street from the Mall. It’s still there, surrounded by white fencing, and it looks like there is literally no work going on within the construction zone. That’s a lot of wasted land that could be used for something else. And I fear that with a big shuttered mall next door, Macy’s will be the next to leave. Never looks very busy in there. Target seems to be doing just fine though.

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