Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 21, 2006

Breathing life back into a vacant lot

Plans for development at Hamilton and High could extend retail's reach downtown

by Anabel Lee

Local developer Chop Keenan's plans for a four-story office and retail building on the corner of Hamilton Avenue and High Street will end the parcel's 30-year-long vacancy with what Keenan calls "a little jewel box." In addition, he is proposing to construct a 146-space parking structure on the city's Lot P, across the street on High, as a public benefit.

Monday night, the City Council agreed to schedule a pre-screening of the project for its July 10 meeting.

Depending on the council's preferences for the run-down corner lot, Keenan's project could move forward as a four-story building — or as a scaled-down two-story building with accompanying no parking structure.

"I'm excited about the bigger project, but the city will have to see whether it's in their interests or not," said Keenan.

Plans for both buildings are basically done, and whichever one is preferred will go before the Architectural Review Board. The four-story building is slated to be 30,000 square feet, and the two-story, 12,000. If the former is approved, construction would begin next spring; if the latter, construction would begin in the fall.

The taller building, however, would likely need Planned Community zoning, which means the Keenan Land Company project would exceed some of the city's normal zoning standards. City Planner Amy French said it is undetermined which features of the building would require the flexible zoning.

Stylistically, the building will display "a very upscale retail fašade with stone and glass," Keenan said. The ground floor will be constructed of stone and glass, while the upper levels will be built entirely of glass, with the structural steel showing through. Keenan has opted for clear glass because he says it better shows the tenant's livelihood, which he thinks is critical for retail. He has hired San Francisco architect Richard Brayton.

The ground floor will be strongly retail-oriented. Keenan is currently working with a couple apparel retailers. If the four-story building is approved, he plans to include a coffee shop.

Keenan hopes his upcoming venture will do for High Street what his previous projects — Whole Foods and Peet's Coffee and Tea — have done for Emerson Street.

"When we developed the first stuff on Emerson, we turned Emerson Street into a really powerful street retail-wise," said Keenan, "My 30,000 foot plan would have the same stimulative effect for High Street."

He also said that the key to retail is parking since "more parking means more power in retail." According to Keenan, the combination of a retail building and a parking structure will spur investment and retail action and subsequently "anchor this end of the downtown."

Planning and Community Environment Director Steve Emslie agreed. "We think the proposal is going to strengthen our retail as it expands to the south of University Avenue," he said, "The conditions are right for retail to be successful in the area. It has the foot traffic and visibility that retailers need."

Editorial Intern Anabel Lee can be reached at alee@paweekly.com.

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