Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - January 8, 2010

A tale of two theaters

Developer closed down the Varsity but keeps Aquarius Theatre alive

When Palo Alto developer Charles "Chop" Keenan planned to gut the Varsity Theatre on University Avenue in 1994, more than 8,000 people signed a petition to save the venerable movie house.

"There was an enormous public outcry," recalled Dennis Backlund, historic preservation planner for the City of Palo Alto. The petitions were delivered to the City Council "in eight stapled stacks," he said.

But Backlund and others found the Varsity was covered by federal historic preservation standards. One standard required the building be remodeled in such a way to allow future use as a theater. The Varsity building retains its projection room, now walled off; and the slope to the loge, now covered with a floor. It was a renovation Keenan said he was pleased with, ultimately.

Borders Books & Music now occupies the space, but some advocates hope the building will someday be turned back into a movie house or performing-arts center.

"Nobody's calling up to turn it back into a theater. Big single-screen theaters don't work anymore," Keenan said recently.

Keenan said he understands the nostalgia. The Varsity was where many had their first kiss or saw Joan Baez or other live acts, he said.

Although he chose to change the use of the Varsity, Keenan has kept another downtown Palo Alto landmark, the Aquarius Theatre on Emerson Street.

Ironically, the Aquarius remains viable for the same reasons advocates wanted the Varsity to remain open: Keenan "likes the vibe downtown," he said.

"It brings a dimension to downtown that keeps its vitality. It stretches the hours (of foot traffic) downtown. It's got a good operator in Landmark Theatres. It plays to an art-house crowd, and it's making money, albeit with cheap rent," he said.

Developer Roxy Rapp also tried saving some of Palo Alto's landmarks. Nostalgic for the Palo Alto Bowl, he tried to buy it but was outbid by $1 million.

He is helping raise $400,000 to build a new bobcat cage at the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, a city-owned institution, and will help remodel and revitalize the entire zoo, ensuring it will keep its relevance for years to come, he said.

When University Art's lease is up in 3 1/2 years, Rapp and others plan to redo the building on the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Ramona Street.

"We'll save the building but change the whole function," he said of improving spaces in the dated building.

But residents who fear losing another Palo Alto icon can relax. Plans are to keep the art store after renovations are complete, he said.

"University Art is great; there is always a need for art supplies," he said. But he added a caveat: No matter how beloved a store might be, it is, in the end, a business.

The biggest impact downtown will be not from developers but from the Internet, as more people become comfortable with online retail, he said.

"Retail is going to change and it's going to change fast," Rapp said.

Faith Bell, whose Bell's Books has been located downtown for 65 years, agreed. When she took over the family's bookstore in 1984, there were 27 bookstores between San Antonio Road and Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park, she said. Now there are eight, including Stanford, according to an online search.

"People say 'We love you, don't ever go away,' but if they don't buy, businesses can't stay," she said.

— Sue Dremann

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