The recent sales of a number of family-held commercial buildings in the California Avenue business district are worrying longtime tenants of Palo Alto's so-called "second downtown."
In the wake of purchases of 341-347 California Ave., 392 California, and the Cordelia Building, which has several addresses, including 2443, 2445 and 2447 Ash St., shop employees say they are in limbo, unsure whether rent increases or evictions are coming their way.
This week, sources at The Bargain Box and Avenue Florist said they expect to leave the avenue.
The Bargain Box, which raises money for the nonprofit Children's Health Council, could be evicted by August, according to sources. Avenue Florist workers have known for some time they will leave, but a date has not been set, an employee said.
Tenants and other nearby business owners said the flavor of California Avenue is sure to change building by building and block by block, as developers woo more upscale tenants who will cater to the city's planned vision for California Avenue: high-tech startups, smaller apartments and higher density structures near the Caltrain station.
The building at 341-347 S. California Ave., where The Bargain Box, the florist and several small offices on the second floor reside, is slated in the short term for exterior improvements, City of Palo Alto Senior Planner Russ Reich said.
The building's new owners, 341 Cal Partners, LLC, have applied to the Architectural Review Board to refurbish the building exterior, which will include new awnings and paint.
But interior work, which was not included in the current permit application, is planned, Reich said.
"I believe the interior will be gutted and redone, but the exterior will have little change," Reich told the Weekly in an email on Wednesday.
Reich did not know what the owners' time frame might be for completing the work, he said.
Upstairs tenant Palo Alto Violins owner Lawrence Haussler has been in the building for 13 years and on California Avenue for 23. He has a 90-day kick-out notice in his lease, but he hasn't heard if he will be asked to leave. The building was sold in the last month or two, and the new owner came through his shop recently, but Haussler didn't get any answers, he said.
"One guy smiles. The other people walk through. They asked questions like, 'Oh, you have a nice unit. How high is the roof?'
"I said, 'I really want to stay. Why don't you just raise my rent?' They just smiled," he said.
Haussler said he and other merchants fear the California Avenue way of life will change considerably in the next few years, and others said they expect when their leases are up, they won't be asked to renew.
Haussler predicted that aging landlords, the inheritance of properties by offspring and the lure of money will cause many to sell out to big developers.
"The elders who owned the buildings are passing away or selling out to entrepreneurs. It's very worrying. The entire California Avenue subculture is disappearing. The flavor of California Avenue will go away," he said.
Haussler estimated that his rent would double if he moved to a comparable space.
"It's going to be hard for me to stay in this district. They just want computers and places where they can put 25 employees sitting around with their laptops," he said.
Stalwart Tony Montooth, who has operated Antonio's Nut House for 41 years, said he doesn't know what the future holds. The building he rents is adjacent to 341-347 California.
"If they start tearing the building down next to me, that is going to affect my business," he said.
There are rumors of plans to raze buildings on the entire block and to build one massive development reaching from the mid-block Starbucks to the edge of Birch Street, he said.
The building he leases is not under the same ownership as 341-347 California, and his landlords have told him they don't plan to sell. But a new contract he is negotiating for another six years contains provisions that have him wondering, he said.
"They put in that if they sell the building, I have 180 days to get out. They told me they have no intention of selling, then why is it in the lease that they might?" he said.
Montooth said he wants to know what the future will bring, since he planned to add improvements to Antonio's, including a new floor to replace the worn-out old one "where the peanut shells have done their harm." He wants to add a patio that would coincide with the city's new streetscaping plans. But he doesn't want to make the investment and later learn he'll be evicted, he said.
Mark Conroe, representative of 341 Cal Partners, LLC, and Ash Street Green Partners, LLC, two real-estate entities with significant holdings in the California Avenue district, declined to comment regarding plans for its recently purchased buildings.
However, since Ash Street Green Partners purchased the building last year, the ground floor retail at the Ash Street location has recently vacated. Doling C. Ashmore, CPA, moved out in November at the end of its lease, and The Other One Hair Styling planned to move out when its lease was up at the end of March.
Randall Ashmore declined to comment on his reasons for leaving. But nearby business owners who knew Maureen Forbes, owner of The Other One, said she had decided to retire in part because of rent increases. Forbes died at the shop on Tuesday morning of natural causes, according to the Santa Clara County Coroner.
Tenants of other landlords along the avenue are also facing evictions. Longtime, 35-year tenants Cho's Mandarin Dim Sum and Ron Vierra Farmer's Insurance, which has been there since 1969, were given 60-day notices on Jan. 16, to make way for building renovations at 213 and 217 California.
Montooth was philosophical about California Avenue's transition.
"Things change you know things are going to change," he said.