HERCULES -- The new owner of ill-fated Market Hall is throwing cold water at the notion that the 6.62-acre tract in the crook of a freeway onramp might become a signature New Urbanist mixed-use project.

Palo Alto-based McNellis Partners is looking at a single-story retail complex with surface parking, possibly anchored by a CVS or Walgreens drugstore, and with a gastronomic component such as Applebee's, Buffalo Wild Wings or IHOP, principal John McNellis and broker Deborah Perry told a town hall gathering at the Senior Center earlier this month.

To some audience consternation, McNellis explained that Hercules and its environs lack the population density to support more retail space at the site, bounded by Sycamore Avenue, San Pablo Avenue, John Muir Parkway and Interstate 80.

"The Central Hercules Plan is a lovely plan, but it won't work," McNellis said. The plan, available on the city website at http://www.ci.hercules.ca.us/index.aspx?page=197, shows three- and four-story buildings at the site, with ground-floor retail and "offices, residences, or lodging on upper floors."

At the senior center gathering, some residents accused McNellis of being dismissive of their vision; others chastised him for what they described as a "suburban" planning philosophy. Many had previously criticized plans elsewhere in Hercules for what they said was insufficient provision for retail; examples are downscaled retail plans for the ground floor of the nearby Sycamore North/Town Centrale building, and plans for homes instead of stores at the site known as Parcel C along John Muir Parkway.

McNellis warned that building too much retail space would result in unleased, vacant storefronts.

" 'Field of Dreams' is a sweet movie," he said, "but 'Build it, and they will come' is not a formula for financial success."

Other possible uses at Market Hall, McNellis said, could include a fitness center. Suggestions from the audience included a See's Candies store, a brew pub and restaurants like Pasta Pomodoro or Macaroni Grill.

If current plans for a Safeway store fall through at Sycamore Crossing, a large tract kitty-corner from Market Hall, Safeway could locate at Market Hall as an alternative, McNellis suggested. But City Manager Steve Duran said later by email that Sycamore Crossing is Safeway's first choice and that if it had wanted Market Hall, it could have had it long ago.

Whatever ends up at Market Hall must take into account a 10-foot-diameter water pipe that channels a creek under the property. McNellis said construction over the pipe easement would be limited to surface level parking,

Resident Jeffrey Wisniewski suggested instead that McNellis daylight the creek.

Councilwoman Myrna de Vera, who was in the audience along with the other four council members, said McNellis seemed "dismissive" of the community's vision and urged him to compromise.

McNellis, in an analogy, said that if the Empire State Building would not work at the site, then scaling it down to 50 stories might not work either.

Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760 and tlochner@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at twitter.com/tomlochner.