Under a proposal by property owner Charles "Chop" Keenan, the former Varsity Theatre at 456 University Ave. would become a mix of office and retail space. The proposal, which the city's Historic Resources Board approved 5-1 Wednesday with Scott Smithwick dissenting and Michael Makinen absent, calls for office spaces on the second floor and on a portion of the ground floor, with retail occupying the remainder of the ground floor.
The proposal seeks to preserve the historical aspects of the old building, which had its origins in 1927 as a concert venue and, later, a movie theater. The exterior, which includes a vast courtyard, would be largely untouched, save for a new set of doors leading into the office area on the south side of the building. The friezes and columns would remain in place and there would be a distance between these features and new additions proposed by the project architect, Ken Hayes. The large staircase leading from the center of the ground floor to the second floor would be eliminated and a new one would be installed in a less prominent location.
The proposed design also includes extensive use of glass, including a glass covering on the second floor that allows views of the ground floor from above; glass railings around the covering; and glass partitions in the office area that would preserve views of the building's historic features.
A group of theater proponents, however, have been lobbying for the building to be reverted to a concert venue.
City officials have been open to the possibility of a restored Varsity Theatre and have reached out to various experts in the concert industry, according to a recent report from Thomas Fehrenbach, the city's economic-development manager. But because the city doesn't own the building and Keenan's proposed use of the building conforms to existing zoning, officials have only a limited influence.
Keenan, a prominent local developer whose other downtown buildings include the Aquarius Theatre and Miyake Restaurant, said Wednesday that he has not yet lined up any tenants for either the retail or the office component of 456 University Ave.
"We don't know who the next tenant is going to be as we sit here today," Keenan told the board. "We're trying to anticipate a dual use."
The goal of Wednesday's meeting wasn't to propose a concrete design but to "establish rules" for what would and wouldn't be acceptable at the prominent site, Hayes said. He and project consultant Bruce Judd, a historic architect, also emphasized that the changes on the table could be undone should the space revert to being used as a theater.
"The thrust of everything being done as part of this project is to maintain the sense and feeling of what the space is like and to not do damage where you can't turn the theater in 10 years if you wanted to," Judd said.
Judd quickly added that turning the building into a theater "may be farfetched in today's economy" but said everything proposed in the plan "can easily be removed."
The building's future became a hot topic in the community as soon as Borders announced its liquidation in July (the Palo Alto store closed its doors last month).
Mark Weiss, a concert promoter who is leading the grassroots effort to bring back the Varsity Theatre, addressed the board Wednesday and accused Keenan of "fast-tracking an adverse agenda." He urged the board and the council to have a "thorough community-wide discussion" about community values.
"What are our values beyond just cash flow?" Weiss asked.
Historic Resources Board member David Bower responded to Weiss' entreaty by advising him to rent the space.
"That's the way we do it here in America — we own property and we rent and buy it," Bower said. "What our job is is to preserve the building and the architectural features of the building."
City officials have expressed skepticism about the financial viability of a potential new theater. Fehrenbach wrote in an August report that the "economic viability of a movie or performing arts theater for that site may encounter significant obstacles, especially in light of the constraints and costs of such a retrofit."
Winter Dellenbach, a city resident who supported the citizen drive to preserve the Varsity Theatre in the mid-1990s, argued to the board that the proposed changes to the historic building are significant enough to warrant a full environmental review.
"There is no more significant — there may be some as significant — but there is no more significant historic resource in Palo Alto than this building," Dellenbach said. "The most people who ever signed a petition to save a historic building, by far, signed a petition to save the Varsity Theatre.
"Your mission is our historical heritage, not the profits of a particular developer," she later added.