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.