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Techie cafe approved for Palo Alto's Varsity Theatre

Architectural Review Board supports SAP's proposal for historic University Avenue building

A plan to convert the historic Varsity Theatre on University Avenue into a "working cafe" for tech professionals and an event space for lectures, musical performances and poetry readings moved ahead Thursday morning when Palo Alto's Architectural Review Board gave the project its stamp of approval.

The board voted to approve the exterior modifications proposed by the applicant for the building at 456 University Ave., which most recently was occupied by Borders. The new cafe is being developed by high-tech giant SAP, which is leasing the prominent downtown property. On Aug. 7, the project received the unanimous approval of the Historic Resources Board, which recommended a few adjustments, including the removal of a proposed blade sign in front of the building and of a proposed opaque film on the entry door.

In adding its own voice of support on Thursday, the architecture board was generally supportive of the project, with the only major disagreement revolving around signage details. Some board members wanted to approve the project and have the applicant return to the full board with more details about signs. Others recommended approving it but having the signage issue return to a subcommittee of the board.

According to SAP's application, the new design will include a stage with a sound system and lighting at the location where the theater's screen was once located. The design will allow for a configuration of the area in front of the stage to accommodate seating for up to 100 people.

"HanaHaus will schedule special events here at this assembly space," the application states. "These events may include music performances; poetry readings, lectures and training seminars, all open to the public. A fee may be charged for attending these events, and will depend on demand, and nature of the event."

According to the project architect, Brian Corbett of Bay Area firm Gensler, the goal of the redesign is to have "the lightest touch possible on the historic character and elements of the building." The first floor lobby would see minimal changes, though there will be some modifications to the walls in the cafe area closest to the courtyard. The changes will also include new signage, lighting fixtures and outdoor furniture. The black "Borders" sign would be replaced with marquee signage in the old movie theater style. The marquee, according to staff, would be "reused in a similar manner as it was when the site was still a movie house."

No one voiced any opposition to the new use of the iconic building's marquee. The board ultimately voted 4-1, with Vice Chair Randy Popp dissenting, to have its subcommittee approve the marquee's lettering type at a later date.

In the application, Corbett describes HanaHaus as a place that will "combine aspects of a public cafe, a co-working space and a public forum."

The space will be open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and fully accessible to the public. There will also be a cafe inside run by Blue Bottle Coffee.

"While open to all, expert and novice, young and old, it will cater specifically to the needs of entrepreneurial community focused on innovation in technology by providing a place to meet and collaborate away from their traditional office environment," Corbett wrote.

The prominent building near Waverley Street is listed as "Category 1" in the city's inventory, which connotes a work of "preeminent national or state importance, meritorious work of the best architects or an outstanding example of the stylistic development of architecture in the United States."

Designed by Reid Brothers Architects and constructed in 1927, the building served as a movie theater until the mid-1990s, when Borders moved in. The bookstore closed in September 2011 and the theater has been vacant ever since.

The HanaHaus modifications are considered a "minor project" and as such do not need to re reviewed by the City Council. The architecture board's Thursday vote is a recommendation that the planning director approve the project.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by andrew rich
a resident of Woodland Ave. area (East Palo Alto)
on Sep 5, 2014 at 11:13 am

andrew rich is a registered user.

Better than sitting empty, I suppose. Remains to be seen how welcoming the SAP employees for whom this will certainly be a remote workspace will be to the general public.

In any case, looking forward to Blue Bottle Coffee and the return of access to this historic building.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by randy albin
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 5, 2014 at 12:22 pm

well, yeah, don't let it just sit there. make some use of it or label it a local historic landmark. eliminate the deadbeats from downtown palo alto. then what do you have? an unliveable, unaffordable daily nightmare


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Likely
a resident of University South
on Sep 5, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Most probably, the SAP employees will "freeze out" the general public. Brrrrrr. Unfriendly. Arrogant.

Why not just let SAP buy or lease it for themselves, period? Better than the building crumbling.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 5, 2014 at 12:34 pm

With University Cafe closing, this will be an extra useful improvement to downtown.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Perspectives
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 5, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Perspectives is a registered user.

I'm unclear- is this, or is this not, just for techies? How can it be "open to the public" but also "cater specifically to the needs of..." technology companies? Makes no sense to me. Seems one of two things will happen: it will be a) just another cafe or b) an exclusive cliquey cafe that makes anyone unemployed by cool tech companies feel unwelcome. I'm not sure how they plan on enforcing the techie-only patronage.

I love the general idea of how to put this space to use again- I just don't understand why the tech exclusivity.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Sep 5, 2014 at 2:41 pm

Even opening this building up to the public, which is not required of the property owner, is still not enough for many of the posters. [Portion removed.] This place will be great to techie and non-techie coffee drinkers alike.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 5, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Free public bathrooms inside?


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Perspectives
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 5, 2014 at 5:25 pm

Perspectives is a registered user.

Commonsense-

Wow. No, my life isn't miserable. But what a way to make a snide, unfounded, and accusatory comment about other people's personal views that aren't your own.

My point, which I think is obvious, is that Palo Alto does not need something else to breed exclusivity. Not everyone is in tech here and could use some inclusion. I questioned the intent and legitimate execution, and yet did not draw an unfounded conclusion at this point. In fact, if you read my post, I commended the idea of re-opening the area.

It's a shame ideas can't be shared on here with all posters contributing to a mature respectful dialogue.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by resident 3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 5, 2014 at 6:12 pm

commonsense,

"Even opening this building up to the public, which is not required of the property owner,"

Can someone else clarify, but I thought what is required of the space is for it to be retail.

Office space, public or not, isn't retail. A retail space like Borders would generate taxes for the city. Coffee probably not as much.

This approval seems to be more like an accommodation for the property owner.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 5, 2014 at 7:14 pm

For no particular rational reason, I find this use of an historic movie palace disgusting.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 5, 2014 at 9:05 pm

@Norm - Is it more disgusting than keeping it boarded up for years as it falls into disrepair? Times change and the best thing for an old building is to find some productive use for it without tearing it down. If what you are valuing is the building, you should be happy to see used. If what you value is the idea of a movie theater, then ask yourself if you would happier if they tore it down and built a modern multiplex on that site.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Marianne
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 6, 2014 at 1:12 am

It would be decent of Chop Keenan to have found a retailer, or event organization, or anything that is open to all. Using it as OFFICE LEASING SPACE is not retail! The more I see the City of Palo Alto at work, the more disgust I feel about how it caters to the few people who control the commercial real estate in downtown.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Pants on fire
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 6, 2014 at 1:22 am

Maybe it will be "open to the public" like the corner of Homer and High St. That space was promoted by the developer's attorney as public open space, a gathering place for the public.
Ha ha, try and find it.
Pants on fire!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sparty
a resident of another community
on Sep 6, 2014 at 4:05 am

Sparty is a registered user.


"For no particular rational reason, I find this use of an historic movie palace disgusting."

Clearly someone has never seen the old theaters on Mission St in SF


 +   3 people like this
Posted by boscoli
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 6, 2014 at 6:22 am

Obviously, the Palantir employees need another cafe to hang out in and moan about how Palo Alto should allow developers to build downtown high rise condo buildings for them.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by resident 3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 6, 2014 at 10:37 am

Sparty,

"Clearly someone has never seen the old theaters on Mission St in SF"

This is the type of reasoning the City uses to approve anything and everything.

We already have the post from Mr. Recycle "Is it more disgusting than keeping it boarded up for years as it falls into disrepair?" Yes this use of the building sounds better than a crack house.

But why do the standards have to be so low?

What is the average gain from retail square footage in Palo Alto? This place has a ton of square footage, it is unique, and if the City keeps approving these type of hybrids, it's only favoring landlords who are lax about finding potentially better tenants.

But this funky use has already been approved, so what is the City thinking in approving it? We are supposed to marvel at yet another working cafe on University Avenue? The one redeeming feature is that the place will actually be used for having actual theater type events. So, what are those events?

What are the standards for the event programming?


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Frank
a resident of another community
on Sep 6, 2014 at 5:44 pm

I'm just glad I had the pleasure to go to the movies at the Varsity Theater. No big deal, I'm old I guess.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Underdog
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 6, 2014 at 7:11 pm

Just because it is "open to the public" doesn't mean it won't be exclusionary.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 6, 2014 at 9:32 pm

@resident 3 - the problem with using the theater as retail is that 0% of the space is street front, which is critical for successful retail. If you are familiar with the location, it is just a long narrow courtyard to the actual building which sits in its entirety behind storefront buildings. It would be incredibly difficult to for retail to succeed there with the limited street visibility. If we can get a nice cafe in the courtyard, that's pretty good.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident 3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 6, 2014 at 11:43 pm

Mr. Recycle,

" the problem with using the theater as retail is that 0% of the space is street front, which is critical for successful retail. If you are familiar with the location, it is just a long narrow courtyard to the actual building which sits in its entirety behind storefront buildings. It would be incredibly difficult to for retail to succeed there with the limited street visibility. If we can get a nice cafe in the courtyard, that's pretty good."

I can think of several other problems other than the issue of having to have street visibility. Parking is a worst problem, but let's say it's a doomed retail space (which I don't believe it is - I thought Borders was great, and imagine a Fry's there), then by extension Downtown ends up being a sort of undesirable place for retail and Stanford Shopping Center has sort of proved that already. People prefer to shop where they can park, and where there is a diversity of stores and it's a retail atmosphere.

Downtown has become a transient office and eating place but without a sense of destination. You basically go there to work or eat, or avoid it. So, I'm not against testing something new there, just that the concept of a techie office space with coffee sounds more of the same, and a nice way to say bye bye community - yet another reason for you to avoid downtown.

The redeeming feature of this plan appears to be that it will be an events space of sorts - "an event space for lectures, musical performances and poetry readings." To the extent that they deliver on that, it could be a really good thing.

I would think the City would want to know up front how the events will be organized. Will residents be able to book the space for a performance? Will they have a professional events planner to book events? I would hope we'll see more details up front.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 7, 2014 at 2:28 pm

@resident 3 - I agree with almost everything you wrote, especially about the parking problems, and competition from the Stanford Shopping Center. But it is because parking is a problem that destination retail doesn't work anymore downtown. The only way retail can work is to have a storefront the lures people in who are already there and walking around. Plus retail is in decline generally due to online competition. Amazon killed Borders and Newegg is killing Frys. Trying to force retail into a non-optimal read building is doomed. Doomed unless there is a plentiful easy free parking, which is the opposite of the way downtown looks.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by resident 3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 7, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Mr. Recycle,

Imagine, a huge physical space smack in the middle of the tech Universe, doomed for retail.

The consequences of having a downtown that fails to serve it's own local community are much bigger than lost retail sales taxes. University Ave is already sort of seedy, it could get worst at this rate.

I just hope not to never ever hear from the Chamber of Commerce trying to save downtown again. They and the City have failed miserably to retain the unique shops which matter to residents. Resident which are a healthy segment of spenders, turned away. Some residents are steps away and will still prefer to turn away.

I hope the event programming of this venture will cater to residents. Otherwise it may end up contributing to the growing seedy side of Downtown.

You know this downtown failure is by design. A small beach town can have an attractive downtown with one street, but we seem to be intent on obliterating every block of downtown with offices.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident 3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 7, 2014 at 3:27 pm

Mr. Recycle,

Keep in mind that there is enough parking to have the crowds that University Ave already gets. The problem is not quantity of people, it's the transient nature, a quick bite, out of there. Maybe some drug sales, or whatever happens when it's not a real community type place.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Sep 7, 2014 at 10:10 pm

@Underdog, do you mean "exclusionary" like how a steak house wouldn't be inclusive to vegans? I mean are you afraid it will be discriminitory to customers, or just upset that something is opening that doesn't particularly appeal to you?


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Underdog
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 8, 2014 at 8:34 am

No, Robert. I am simply familiar with SAP's corporate culture: they are clients of my immediate superior's.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 8, 2014 at 10:06 am

The state of downtown PA (thank you Yogi Berra):

"Nobody goes there anymore because it's too crowded."


 +   Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 8, 2014 at 10:07 am

I like the idea. Our team works from home in PA and Menlo Park and this sounds like a great place for us to get together. Right now we go to various Starbucks which are generally too noisy and too small for us to be comfortable.

I'm sure the owners will be smart enough to tweak the implementation, or even do a pivot, if the original plan isn't the best. What's important is to try it out.

BTW, it would be super fantastic if once/week or more adoptable dogs from the Palo Alto Animal Services shelter could be hanging out in the courtyard with shelter volunteers for a few hours.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by resident 3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2014 at 10:18 am

So I wonder what will be the parking situation for this new office space.

Unlike retail where customers come and go, this sounds like it will have workers sitting there all day.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident 3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2014 at 10:27 am

Crescent Park Dad,

"Nobody goes there anymore because it's too crowded."

The nature of the crowding matters to City revenues and costs.

Just being crowded doesn't make Downtown a good proposition.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by new reality
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2014 at 10:47 am

@resident 3 is right. The Downtown is being outsourced to the tech
community underneath the ugliness and congestion and overdevelopment
which is degrading it and destroying it. More of the same is in the
works. Much more.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Sep 8, 2014 at 10:55 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

I am with Crescent Park Dad here.

I have walked downtown mostly every day for 50 years. It is more alive than at any time since the mid 60s.

And as far as really big crowds, they are on the weekend nights and have absolutely nothing to do with tech workers in downtown offices. Walk downtown at night and check it out.

I do respect the daytime parking issues but they again are a sign of a bustling downtown. Downtown also is where many people stay when they come to Stanford for various reasons and rising hotel occupancy reflects both Stanford and downtown activities.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by South Palo Alto
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 8, 2014 at 11:07 am

Palo Alto Online has become such a hotbed of anti-business comments - often generated by articles from the same author Seems like bashing business has become the "click bait" emphasis of the web site.

I support business, environmental, and residential development equally. Palo Alto is big enough for all, and NEEDS development in all areas to remain viable.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident 3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2014 at 11:29 am

stephen levy,

"hotel occupancy reflects both Stanford and downtown activities."

Given that I have had no less than four (and one on the way) visitors stay at the local hotels which had nothing to do with Stanford or downtown activities, I beg to differ that hotel occupancy is only Stanford or downtown offices. Many people stay in Palo Alto to visit the companies in Mountain View or Menlo Park.

I think that the standards are way too low for PA downtown.

And I bet quality retailers consider it a risk to open something downtown. Smart retailers would know that the best customers are the residents themselves, more so than transient traffic.

That's the reason we are only getting office space demand downtown, and nobody else would pay the rents to be in an atmosphere which the residents themselves avoid. Parking problems are a result of all the sitting bottoms which are in these office spaces.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident 3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2014 at 11:37 am

South Palo Alto,

I support business, a diversity of business should be happening downtown, but it has become inhospitable to businesses which are also interesting to residents. And there is no place to park.

Back to the original thread, I hope this new project which will also be an events venue will be of the type that will also appeal to residents.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sylvia
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 8, 2014 at 3:16 pm

I have VERY fond memories of when the Varsity was operating as a repertory movie theater. They showed unusual movies, foreign movies, etc. They also had a policy where, if you had dinner in the courtyard, movie admission was free. But that ship sailed a long time ago.

This usage sounds interesting and actually attractive to me. I'm not a techie, but I can't see any objections to passing by groups of them on my way to get some Blue Bottle coffee.

I'm rather surprised there's so much objection to the plan.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Marilyn
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 8, 2014 at 9:08 pm

Sounds very pretentious and boring. Cafes used to be a place to go and sip on coffee and meet with your friends to actually
T A L K
Now it's just people staring blankly into their computer screens in a daze. Never talking.

People wake up.
Get a life.
Talk to someone. Don't just be a zombie


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Excited Citizen
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 10, 2014 at 12:00 pm

From the updates and the similar articles in the San Jose Mercury, it doesn't look as though this place will be for employees or shut off to the public via bouncer-esque employees of SAP. If I read correctly, somewhere, there is no sap logo or branding from the company present in the plans. If SAP wanted it to be an extension of their own operations, they would've readily taken part of their multi billion dollar marketing budgets and reshaped downtown into an anvil sign much like their own.

Unlike what Palantir has done, this place looks like a public coffee shop that not only will cater to the needs of the tech crowd, including unemployed or self-employed, but also those who want to learn about technology and sit in on talks. I, for one, am excited to come and sit in this place to work. Who knows, it may become a cool place to network with people from all walks of life.

In reading that this place has been shut down for 3 years, I'd rather see a large corporation come in to turn it into a community rather than just another retail space to help the public with materialism.

I'd much rather buy into ideas and a community


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident 3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Excited citizen,

"I'd much rather buy into ideas and a community"

As long as the reality will sound as good as the plans, it could be very good.

If SAP conquers Palo Alto residents, they will be able to do anything.

Start by doing what you say you will do, and then make it even better.

I'm still interested in knowing how the event programming will work.

And will it be dog friendly?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident 3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2014 at 1:29 pm

I meant to say as long as reality will be as good as the plans


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Fake Retail
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 11, 2014 at 12:17 pm

This project is a perfect example of what the council called "fake retail" at their meeting Monday night:

Web Link

Palo Alto City Council members are concerned about the increase in "fake retail" downtown, which they say is replacing retail space with predominantly office space.


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