After many years of planning, the South Bay city of Sunnyvale is watching the final piece of its downtown rebirth take shape.  

The last part of the project known as Cityline is under construction on land that was once the location of the city’s large indoor shopping mall. Eight of the former mall’s 35 acres are being developed into a series of offices, shops, a plaza and multi-unit apartments. Cityline will link with existing business on historic Murphy Avenue, as well as with a host of other buildings that have gone up in recent years, many with shops on the ground floor and residences and offices upstairs.  

It’s a dramatic turnaround for downtown Sunnyvale, which hit bottom when the mall closed in the early 2000s, despite the presence of anchors like Macy’s and JCPenney. At the time, buildings in the area were primarily low-rise, including a second smaller shopping center called Town and Country, a 1960s-style project that was also eventually demolished. 

The Cityline Sunnyvale development is seen in an aerial image taken in March 2018. When complete sometime in 2024, the entire 35-acre site will encompass 600,000 square feet of retail, 1,000 apartments and 1 million square feet of office space. (Photo courtesy of Sares Regis Group via Cityline Sunnyvale)

Today, the changes in downtown are evident in the number of taller four- to seven-story buildings that have been built there in recent years for office, residential and retail uses. They have given downtown a distinct high-density feel. 

City planners have focused on creating a walkable district. The downtown district, which borders the Sunnyvale Caltrain station and Mathilda Avenue, covers an area between Evelyn Avenue and Iowa Avenue  

With 160,000 residents, much of Sunnyvale remains a sprawling place where suburban-style development is the norm. That mindset used to extend to downtown. In the 1970s, a developer tore up most of Sunnyvale’s old downtown shopping district to build Sunnyvale Town Center. 

But the mall closed twenty years ago, although Macy’s stayed in business until 2019. Only one commercial block on Murphy Avenue, next to the old mall, was spared from destruction in the 1970s. It has continued to be a lively area with outdoor restaurants and stores. 

Reimagined streetscape

Meanwhile, the new downtown Sunnyvale is pedestrian and cyclist friendly — in contrast to the old mall surrounded by acres of parking. Today, parking structures are hidden behind or underneath buildings, and stores are at street level. One example is the block-long building that houses a Whole Foods Supermarket and 12-screen AMC Theatre, which opened next to a Target in October 2020. 

In addition, as part of the re-birth of downtown, city streets that were blocked off by the mall have been rebuilt for pedestrians and motor vehicles 

Cityline, which also includes many of the new retail and apartment buildings already erected downtown, is being built by a consortium of Bay Area developers, including Hunter Properties of Cupertino, and apartment builder Sares-Regis of San Mateo. The final eight-acre project should open in Fall 2024. In all, the entire 35 acres of Cityline’s project will have 600,000 square feet of retail, 1,000 apartments and 1 million square feet of office space, according to Trudi Ryan, the city’s director of community development.  

An artist’s conceptual image shows an entrance to the Murphy Avenue historical district in Cityline Sunnyvale. (Image courtesy of Sares Regis Group via Cityline Sunnyvale)

Earlier plans to revitalize downtown Sunnyvale were derailed by the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. Target opened a two-story building in 2009, and multi-level apartments were built nearby at that time. But the developer then lost its financing and lawsuits were filed, and most additional projects didn’t begin again until 2016.    

Today, though, Sunnyvale has become a leader in showing Silicon Valley cities how to redevelop their old downtowns and mall sites, said Kelly Snider, a real estate professor at San Jose State University.  

“It’s getting rebuilt much higher, much more urban, taking advantage of the adjacency to the Caltrain station,” said Snider, who worked in Sunnyvale for developer Sand Hill Property Co., from 2006 to 2009. The city, she said, is “definitely at the forefront of returning to a walkable, pedestrian-oriented traditional street grid.”