SAN RAMON -- For more than seven years, San Ramon residents have yearned for the building of a downtown center that would act as the social, cultural and entertainment hub of the city, drawing people from their community and all over Tri-Valley region.

Now, the city is many steps closer to having that vision flower into a reality -- and it has the star power of a world-renowned Italian architect, Renzo Piano, backing it.

Antonio Belvedere, a partner at Renzo Piano Building Workshop in Paris unveiled the prizewinning architect's plans for the new center at a city council meeting on Tuesday night to an audience of more than 100 people.

Concept of the new retail complex that will be the focal point of the new downtown San Ramon project being developed by Sunset Development, the primary
Concept of the new retail complex that will be the focal point of the new downtown San Ramon project being developed by Sunset Development, the primary builder of Bishop Ranch Business Park in San Ramon. (Sunset Development Co.)

"It has to be a destination," Belvedere said, explaining that the goal was to create a social and lifestyle center that was not "a shopping mall" but something more unique and iconic.

Sunset Development, the developers of Bishop Ranch, is building the project, which will include two buildings with outdoor piazzas. The first phase will be a two-story, 350,000-square-foot retail building, which he called the project's "social hub." It would be bordered by Bollinger Canyon, Camino Ramon and Sunset roads and Bishop Drive.

It would feature a "visibly transparent" building with an outdoor piazza at its center, flanked by six pavilions of varying sizes, which would include a nine- to 12-screen movie theater and a total of 70 shops and restaurants, he said. Groundbreaking could start as next year, with an opening by late 2016.

The building will also feature an open-air theater for concerts and other civic events, a kid's playground and a small ice skating rink during winter. And it will be adorned with a carpet of trees that will reflect natural world around it, Belvedere said: "Nature is in the DNA of the place."

The building will not include any big anchor department stores but an array of shops, cafes and restaurants, and it could include an upscale bowling alley or a gym, said Alexander Mehran Jr., Sunset's CEO.

And cars will be directed to drive "into the building" from Bishop Drive and park in lots on the building's rooftop terrace, Belvedere said.

The second phase, for which there are not immediate plans to build, will include 487 apartments, a 169-room hotel and some retail, in a neighboring building, bordered by Camino Ramon and Bollinger Canyon roads, Bishop Drive and the Iron Horse Trail, next to the new City Hall.

Piano is famous for the Centre George Pompidou, the London Bridge Tower -- also known as "the Shard," New York Times Building and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. And he chose to come to San Ramon because he was intrigued by the challenge of creating an urban social space in a suburban landscape.

Approved in 2007, the original project hit a number of roadblocks: a lawsuit filed by San Ramon for Open Government, which led to a settlement that scaled back the height of the project from seven to two stories, and the economic downturn.

"We decided to start from scratch -- and we wanted to be sure that we picked an architect that could do something beautiful and something timeless," Mehran said. "And they created something completely unique ... a brand-new concept."

Phil Wong, the city's planning and community services director, explained that since the original project has been reduced in size, it will require "an amendment to the development plan," so it only needs approvals from the city's Architectural Review Board and zoning administrator before building permits would be issued.

Mayor Bill Clarkson said he was disappointed at the lack of opportunities for more public, planning and parks commissions input, even if the ability to modify the private firm's project -- which is being built at for an undisclosed dollar amount -- may be quite limited.

"I think it's important to find out from residents what their thoughts of the project are," he said.

Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/joycetsainews.