Mercury News May 3, 2017
The city is struggling to draw the strands of Museum Place together.
The fundamental question about Museum Place, the massive 24-story project planned behind the Tech Museum of Innovation, is whether it is too complex for San José.
Don’t get me wrong: If city officials and the developer, Insight Realty, build this project, it will be a huge victory for a downtown that has struggled to fulfill its ambitions.
A project that includes a hotel, condos, office space, shops and a Tech Museum expansion defines urbanity in a way San José has never really seen.
But that’s part of the issue: We are fundamentally a suburban town, with suburban codes and ordinances. The council is divided between pro-business and pro-union factions.
And without a well-funded redevelopment agency, which went the way of the dodo bird six years ago, the city is struggling to draw the strands of Museum Place together.
A bit of the struggle was unveiled last week in a lengthy city council meeting that focused on what assurances the developer would show of working with organized labor.
Here are five factors that help illuminate the odds that face the city and Insight’s managing director, Dennis Randall, who patiently fielded questions for a couple of hours at a recent City Council meeting.
THE PITCH — Insight has boasted that Museum Place will bring a “new standard, a new vibe, and a new vitality’’ to downtown. And it is ambitious: It includes four stories of office space, a 184-room hotel; more than 300 condos, and an increase of almost half in the size of the Tech.
The big new building, which would demolish the existing Parkside Hall, has a striking design that overlooks the Plaza de Cesar Chavez. But the complexity of the plan has demanded time. The council first approved the idea of negotiating with Insight in October 2015.
THE FINANCING — The company says its lead investor will be the China New Era General Corporation. Without a signed pact with the city, however, financing is not yet in place. And skeptics on the council wonder whether the Chinese money will be available if the economy turns downward or international relations turn for the worse.
Randall has insisted it will go forward, saying, “This project actually makes sense no matter who is our partner.’’ But this is plainly the most significant hurdle. Complications make financiers nervous.
THE UNIONS — Insight has said Museum Place will be built with union labor: Virtually every major urban construction project in the Bay Area is. A trickier issue is the operations of the hotel. Santa Clara County has both union and non-union hotels.
Although a draft version of the agreement between Insight and the city commits the developer to assuring “labor peace’’ — essentially an agreement to work with the unions — Councilman Raul Peralez pushed last week for the labor agreement to be signed before any deal with the city.
That passed on a narrow 6-5 vote, with pro-business council members warning that the council was changing the rules mid-stream. “Based on everything I’ve heard, it’s not needed,’’ said Councilman Chappie Jones, who voted against the motion.
THE SHADE AND THE OVERHANG — It sounds faintly comical, but it is not. Because the building is so tall, the city must commission a study on the shade it will throw on Cesar Chavez Park, a sometimes-tarnished city jewel to the east of Museum Place.
The overhang issue exposes San José’s suburban bias. Under the city’s rules, If any part of a building overhangs a sidewalk, it must be detachable. But as Nanci Klein, the city’s assistant director of economic development, explained, that is not possible with the prow of the building. Museum Place had to be redesigned, losing 75,000 square feet in the process.
THE TRUCKS — If an army marches on its stomach, as Napoleon quipped, a massive new building relies on its loading dock. Team San José, which runs the nearby National Civic auditorium and is losing Parkside Hall, wants the right to have 80-foot semi-tractor trailers pull into the loading dock. Insight says the building was designed for 70-foot trucks, but they are trying to find a compromise. “We have dueling opinions on truck-turning radiuses,’’ Insight’s Randall said dryly.
I hope both developer and city can find a way to meet all these issues. Just putting together a building as complicated as this is a challenge, particularly with San José’s high water table and height limitations dictated by the airport. That doesn’t mean the city should not try. But for now, I’m a skeptic hoping for the best from Museum Place.