What's Next for The Square?

Residents fear that the owner of the Square Shopping Center on Wilson and Novato Boulevard wants to turn the parcel into new housing

Novato Patch file photo
Novato Patch file photo

A few days ago, Novato Patch found out that the owner of The Square Shopping Center at Novato Boulevard and Wilson was getting ready to submit plans to the city to redevelop the 33,000 square foot property.

Novato residents have long complained about the rundown commercial strip, where a third of the units are vacant.

According to the city’s Economic Development Director Chris Stewart, owner Jeffry Chang, a Novato native who now lives in Mountain View, wants to reduce the amount of commercial units and convert the rest to mixed use or possibly housing.

That prompted a lot of feedback from readers, who chimed in with dozens of ideas for a new and improved Square Shopping Center.

“Someone needs to tell the owner about Oliver's,” said Patch reader Elizabeth Jones, via our Facebook page. “They are trying to expand! It's a great place to work and is a local area chain (currently has three stores in Sonoma county).”

Other ideas included a “PG sports bar,” (not sure how that one would work), a bookstore, bowling alley, a roller skating rink or some other form of family entertainment.

One thing was clear: Novato residents are unequivocally opposed to any more housing in the area, low-income or not.

But may fear that is exactly what Chang has planned, citing a pattern of rents that have been continuously raised when a tenant’s lease expired and something the city has no control over.

“The complex has always been a vital hub for West Novato,” said Baron Desmond Crisis, who grew up nearby. “The only reason that it's useless now is the landlord is on a campaign to kill it. Someone needs to just buy him out and do the right thing. Housing is not needed in that area.”

Chang is currently traveling out of the country and messages left at his office and with his attorney were not returned. A request to send an email to his office to be forwarded to him was also declined.

Are you concerned that The Square Shopping Center will be converted into housing? Should the city strongly urge the developer to build something else? 

Rick Voorhees August 21, 2013 at 06:40 PM
The comments made, may be rude but not that far off. Meanwhile a war of attrition for the rest of the tenants there exist. Screw the small business man is that what your saying George? As far as location, you are wrong on that. People on the west side would rather go here to get Groceries, Gas and their Prescriptions as opposed to going to Grant Ave. Harvest is ok if you are in the area but no gas station and no CVS there. Just saying....
Roger August 21, 2013 at 07:19 PM
Karina, I think your article here was a winner at getting a meaty dialogue going. Please do another article on some other hot topic.
Tina McMillan August 21, 2013 at 10:55 PM
George: The comments about Mr. Chang are showing anger because most people who live on the west side watched as he raised rents on shops badly in need of improvements until he drove almost all business out of the Square. This site is being used as a loss not a profit. I agree with Rick, many of us would gladly use the Square for shopping if given the option. We still use what remains. If you reduce the retail to 15000 square feet then you aren't building market rate housing, you are building low income housing. The Square could incorporate market rate senior housing as a separate unit and then shops below and commercial businesses above. The commercial businesses could include medical, accounting, insurance and other businesses frequented by locals. Just look at San Marin Shopping Center with Harvest as the anchor store. I agree developer is not a dirty word unless we are talking about a developer that creates housing that pays no property taxes. Novato is hanging by a slender thread when it comes to the budget. We need to think about increasing revenue if we are going to increase residents.
Mark Burnham August 22, 2013 at 10:08 AM
Just heard from a very reliable source that the square will likely end up being market rate housing w/a small retail element. No affordable housing element at all as the community spoke up loud and clear and this site was removed from "the list" of potential AH sites. It also seems that larger retail tenants approached about this site have indicated that they have zero interest in this as a retail center. You may disagree with this sentiment, as I do, but unless larger retail is open to coming in it won't happen.
Rick Voorhees August 22, 2013 at 11:43 AM
Here we go with the lies once again about the square shopping center . Some of you are saying Villa Roma was chased out of the shopping center . Please know your facts as it was closed for personal reasons I was told . You then have the regular posters who think they know it all and really know nothing as they say rents were raised when it was just an enforcement of the rental agreements on triple net I was told . The man owns the property and can do what he wants with it. He does not have to listen to the repeat posters on Patch or anyone ells. Where does that not fit into the brain ? Since you seemed to know it all with this landlord explain to me why Tagliaferri's left? The reason they left is there was no hope in staying in a dying center that has no ambitions on keeping tenants there. Are you going to argue with me on that as well? As far as Villa Roma is concerned I heard otherwise. Do me favor go into the stores there and ask them how they feel about this issue and I guarantee they will not speak positive about it. I personally know one of the tenants there and they said they couldn't even talk to the owner or find out whats going to happen for the future of the center. You want to dissagree with me on that as well.. Enough said about this, I am also tired of hearing your counter points. I am done with my comments on this subject...
Baxter August 22, 2013 at 12:04 PM
The Square may have been dropped from the Housing Element site for the 2007-2014 cylce, but could be selected again for the next cycle around..coming up soon. Regardless of that, I believe Novato amended its ordinance - that for any housing development, in lieu fees are no longer an option for the developer, and at least 20% of any new housing development must include AH for low to very low income levels. Combine this with the density bonus incentives - the AH units will be included in any market rate housing developments.
Tina McMillan August 22, 2013 at 01:00 PM
Rick: No one is arguing with you about conditions at the Square. I seriously doubt the owner of the Square listens to anyone posting on Patch. It doesn't mean that people must stop expressing their views about the Square being turned into a blighted property. Tag's moving to the old Peets Coffee location at Grant and 7th is a great example. Tag's was able to survive the downturn by relocating. Many of the small businesses didn't. No one is complaining about the small business owners. It would also be great to see the plans to know what may be going in there.
Tina McMillan August 22, 2013 at 01:02 PM
Baxter: Do you know if developments like the hotel at Hannah Ranch, also has to provide housing for workers?
Tina McMillan August 22, 2013 at 02:01 PM
Mark: Does that mean that CVS is also moving out?
Baxter August 22, 2013 at 02:03 PM
According to AB 1229, the City agrees with utilizing their "inclusionary" ordinance within their jurisdiction. See: http://ci.novato.ca.us/agendas/pdfstaffreports/cc061813_F-2.pdf Any new housing development (including market rate) would need to provide at least 20% of its units for low to very low income residents whether the units are "for sale" or rentals. I believe Hanna Ranch was zoned for Hotel/retail. However, if a developer is allowed to build market rate housing there, then, "yes", it would need to include the 20% AH. (I think) That's why the market rate senior housing development at 801 State Street included 20% of its units for low to very low seniors....per Novato's Inclusionary Ordinance.
Mark Burnham August 22, 2013 at 02:09 PM
Tina, I don't think that is decided yet but it would make sense when you consider that market rate housing would need as much space as possible to develop and considering the alternate CVS location on 7th.
Tina McMillan August 22, 2013 at 02:10 PM
Baxter: Then the inclusionary ordinance doesn't cover the increase in RHNA with a development like a hotel that brings a majority of low income jobs to the community. This is why people are conflicted over developing retail. They are concerned that more retail equals higher RHNA because the only focus is jobs for in commuters.
Tina McMillan August 22, 2013 at 02:12 PM
It would really help if ABAG and the other regional agencies used the financial stability of each community when increasing RHNA. In Novato without more revenue our structural deficit continues to grow. Residential housing increases an obligation for services. While property taxes are our primary revenue source we we must create more sales tax revenue to balance the budget (along with frugal spending habits).
Baxter August 22, 2013 at 02:42 PM
Hi Tina...I don't understand the mathematics of RHNA. I do know that per the Novato Community Development Director the RHNA number is very low for the next 2014-2022? Housing Element cyle...something like 414. I don't know how that number goes up or down...I'm pretty sure, however, that the days of developers using in-lieu-of fees are over in Novato and any new proposed housing development of whatever type must include a certain percentage for low to very low income residents. An Application has been submitted to the City for development of over 375 market rate housing/condos for the San Marin Business Park area with at least 20% of that built for AH. When you include the Housing Element site proposed for development on that same property...it's a lot of low-income housing for one area of Novato...but this subject could generate another article on the Patch.
Tina McMillan August 22, 2013 at 02:49 PM
Baxter: Its really tricky. Our current council members wrote to ABAG to request the reduction but we still don't have an approved Housing Element for the current cycle. There is another law that says if our HE isn't approved before the next cycle begins we must add all the "unbuilt" homes from the previous cycle to the new one. I believe it is unbuilt rather than not zoned because they want to penalize cities that don't get their housing elements done. We have a sizable amount of housing that has yet to be built. The current element zoned for it but SUNN members submitted a letter criticizing the HE as insufficient because both the size of the parcels and the density with which they would be built is according to SUNN too small. Have you read the EIR yet? I need to go to the city website to see how it all turned out. I don't know if they added any additional sites to cover themselves to insure that this element would be passed with the lower density of 20 units per acre. That was a big part of the fight to keep Novato suburban.
Tina McMillan August 22, 2013 at 02:52 PM
We need to get our Housing Element passed. It is essential if we want to keep the percentage lower for zoned sites in the next cycle.
Cynthia August 22, 2013 at 03:18 PM
As has been noted, it's clear Mr. Chang is a terrible landlord and doesn't care about what the local residents would like to see occupy the complex - so how do we influence what is done with The Square? What options do we have regarding his plans? He purposely created this blight, how can we be sure he won't create another?
Baxter August 22, 2013 at 03:37 PM
Tina...Yes, it is tricky. The Draft EIR for the Housing Element includes the potential environmental impacts of all five HE sites which were selected by City Council in 2011. The State made them include 5 "Alternate" sites in case the environmental impacts were too great or mitigation too expensive for a developer to build on one or more of the original 5 HE sites. Wood Hollow at Redwood Blvd. was the worst site for dense housing due to significant impacts. I highly doubt any housing will ever be built there...Black John Rd site also has its share of potential impacts, earth movement, wetlands and two PG&E gas lines. Alternate sites will very likely be used for completion of the HE. Also, City staff told me that if an HE site isn't developed by a certain time, the RHNA numbers disappear from this cycle, not rolled over to the next HE cycle. That's why it is so important to the State for cities to pick feasible HE sites that can will actually be built on with no environmental constraints or impacts that would be too expensive for a developer to mitigate. Check with Bob Brown about the RHNA numbers and how they are not necessarily rolled-over. The Housing Element needs to be passed, but with sites that have the least amount of contraints and that won't faulter during or after development.
Tina McMillan August 22, 2013 at 05:08 PM
Bob Brown was the one to explain the rule about un built RHNA from a previous period being rolled into the new one only if we don't have an approved element. If we do have an approved element then I believe we can reuse sites that have not been developed in previous cycles. Is that what you understood?
Tina McMillan August 22, 2013 at 05:09 PM
http://www.ci.novato.ca.us/Index.aspx?page=637&recordid=1524&returnURL=%2findex.aspx Be Part of the Conversation--Join Open Novato Today City launches online community forum Posted Date: 8/21/2013 City of novato link to a site where we can talk about local issues.
Tina McMillan August 22, 2013 at 06:20 PM
Cynthia: We can't react until there is a plan in place. If it is a good plan then we can all be much relieved. If it is a poor plan the city has a process where they hold meetings to evaluate any development of that size. Things like building heights, types of businesses, style of architecture, how and when everything will be built all come under planning and design review. I just keep hoping that it is a good plan that includes retail and commercial as part of the development.
Baxter August 22, 2013 at 06:54 PM
Hi Tina... I don't want to take away from the concerns regarding The Square Shopping Center. I'm sure once the public gets through the Housing Element Draft EIR, the Patch may allow us to discuss it. I'm still rummaging through the DEIR myself...lots to absorb. I had a discussion with City Staff months back and wrote everything down...but got side tracked with other stuff and am tending to forget things. You probably know more than I do...but I think the main issue is that the 5(?) HE sites will get final approval from Novato based on the DEIR. If the State agrees then these sites are zoned as AHO sites. The HE is complete. The sites could sit there for years and not be developed because the developer may not have the funds...but the RHNA number would still stand at approx. 414 for the new cycle. (I think)!
Tina McMillan August 22, 2013 at 07:38 PM
Baxter: Yes, if the state approves the HE then we are good for the next cycle. The planners will shift to the General Plan which also must be updated. Are you going to the Redwood Corridor workshop in September? It will be good to put faces to names.
Baxter August 22, 2013 at 08:07 PM
Tina - I plan on attending both workshops. Looking forward to seeing you there. Maybe we could even get some insight into what the plans are for the Square Shopping Center? Although my main interest is with any potential development of the North Redwood Corridor and the N. North Redwood Corridor. Whatever is built in one corridor will have a direct impact on what is developed at the other corridor and vice-versa. So much planned development; my head is spinning!
george cohen August 23, 2013 at 12:57 AM
The conversation has moved into the realm of affordable and below market rate housing however for moment I would like to return to The Square Shopping Center and also make a comment on the San Marin Plaza. I know a bit about San Marin Shopping Center as I was the first leasing broker on that project when construction was completed. Leasing that center was problem from the start. The reason is and remains the same to this day. The trade area of the center is very small with a one sided ( 180 degree) trade area. The hills to the north and out the road to Stafford Lake are all open space or in agricultural zoning. Meaning? Not enough people to adequately support small shops and the supermarket. Harvest market is not a high volume store and several other markets have come and gone. Even now after Starbucks moved in there are six(6) vacant stores. Before Starbucks and Subway signed leases the center was poorly occupied. These two stores gave the center a shot in the arm but just barely as I said there are still six vacant stores. In addition there is an office tenant - Wells Fargo- that brings little or no traffic to the center... the sign of a landlord hurting for strong tenants to fill vacant space even if they don't bring in shoppers. So what is the point here?? The point is that The Square shopping center is what we call a "dead center". NO life. No action. No hope. Its time has passed and it is no longer a viable project. The owner of the center is astute and realizes that there is no way that he can adequately fill the vacant market and the remainder of the shop space. Roger Wilco came back after numerous others tried and failed. They too could not regenerate the traffic necessary to generate a sufficient profit to stay opened. Another sign of a dying center is renting large space to exercise studios. Their customers come and park for an hours and use up the most convenient spaces and then leave. Exercise facilities do nothing or little for other retail stores in the center in fact they hurt them by taking up the parking field. Accusations have been made the the owner is operating the center a loss on purpose. In 35 years of shopping center experience I have never heard or seen an owner buy a property with the intention of losing money. Furthermore unless you have seen Mr. Chang's financial statement one has absolutely no clue or right to make such a statement. The owner is astute and limiting his losses. He has correctly analyzed that there is no way to resurrect this property as a shopping center. He is purposely and legally not renewing leases in order to avoid having to buy out existing tenants who are sure to "hold him up" as he attempts to redevelop the property for the next 30-50 years. Buying out existing and operating tenants is a long and costly battle. A battle that he has justifiably elected not to fight. What we should all be doing at this point is supporting a strong residential project that includes some retail if possible. This type of land use change is happening all over the country at this time as older no longer viable shopping centers are being converted to other uses that reflect the shopping patterns of the current day. By the way with regard to the North Redwood Blvd area how many times has the city tried to figure out what it wants there? I have heard two times before at a cost of ????
Tina McMillan August 23, 2013 at 01:18 PM
George: Roger Wilco was sold and became Bell Market then Bell was sold and became Delano's and I believe Delano's was the last grocery store in that location. Bell and Delano's did not treat the store or the customers in the same way as the original Roger Wilco. If you go back to posts from 2009 you will hear complaints that the store was poorly managed and the center run down. Even the staff, many of whom were from the original Roger Wilco, seemed unhappy with the changes. We found the quality of the produce along with items that were no longer available worth shopping outside the neighborhood and use the market at San Marin or the ones in central Novato. It was never the same again. The Square owner did little or nothing to upgrade the center. Neglect is a big factor in its decline. =================================== ========================================= If you are suggesting that the San Marin center is also heading for the same fate I would say that residents need to know if they don't shop local then they will lose local shops. The whole point of mixed use is to keep neighborhood shops open as part of developments that would integrate some housing with some office space and some retail space. If the Square goes all residential then that concept of walkable neighborhoods throughout Novato where items can be purchased close to home without driving becomes a farce. That has been the big push toward reducing GHG's. =============================== It's taken years to eliminate each small business owner one by one. To suggest that because it is good for Mr. Chang we should be empathetic about his decision to let the Square go to seed, is confusing to say the least. There are many ways to conduct a business. When you do so without any concern for the effect on the surrounding properties people will object to your behavior. ================= We can't support what we haven't seen. Until the plans are done it's like saying, trust Mr. Chang, he has done such a great job up until now, certainly he will do the same in the future. George, that hasn't been the case. That is why so many people have expressed frustration with the way in which Mr. Chang chose to end business at the Square. Apparently the owners at San Marin made a different choice and now it is up to the community to decide if they want to support neighborhood venues.
Craig Belfor August 23, 2013 at 09:59 PM
A question, Hold- does that mean we'll get less reporting of national stuff but will keep Karina? For me the Patch is all about local news, and we get national from other sources. what do these 250-500 people do now? What 300 sites are being killed? I'm concerned about Novato stuff, and Karina's job is to get it out. How will this change, Karina?
Me Ma !! August 24, 2013 at 04:46 AM
“Starting today, AOL is going to shrink its local news network Patch from 900 sites to about 600, letting go 250 to 500 people in the process…” “… an effort to reach profitability in a division that has failed to gain traction with consumers and has suffered huge losses financially…” Given the dwindling number of actual Rohnert Park- and Cotati-related news and information reports since Angela Hart’s departure, is there enough analytic data (reader-interest clicks), local content development and ad buys to persuade AOL not to pull the plug on RP-C Patch? As reported, it seems AOL may have already determined which sites will be discontinued, yet it can do harm to foster a reader/contributor campaign to generate as many clicks and locally-related content as possible. So, if it’s important to you too, tell and contact as many of your friends and colleagues as you can to join such a campaign, ASAP. And, despite my opposing effort, that includes Marilee’s Stop Graton Casino NIMBYs, as well; clicks are clicks, and the casino debate continues to be a click generator. And it might help if Patch staff can repair the broken Shout Stream coding
Linda September 09, 2013 at 04:43 PM
Bonnie, If I am correct we have the meeting on the square shopping center tomorrow night ... Please e mail me and tell me if its at Sams or your place as computer crashed and lost all e mail addresses . Thanks
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