Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 8, 2014

Board OKs 'working cafe' for Varsity Theatre in Palo Alto

SAP-backed public venue aspires to be cultural, entrepreneurial gathering spot

by Chris Kenrick

Palo Alto's Historic Resources Board gave the thumbs up Wednesday to plans for a public "working cafe" in the front courtyard and first floor of downtown Palo Alto's Varsity Theatre, which has been vacant since Borders closed its doors in 2011.

Backed by the German software company SAP, which has offices in Palo Alto, the venue is envisioned by the company's co-founder and chairman Hasso Plattner as the flagship in a future global network of such gathering spots, contemplated for Berlin, Shanghai, London and elsewhere. The enterprise will combine "aspects of a public cafe, a co-working space and a public forum," architects said.

On Wednesday, the board unanimously endorsed the project while reserving the right to further scrutinize details as they are decided upon, such as choice of materials, for historic integrity. The project will next be reviewed by the city's Architectural Review Board on Aug. 21.

"I'm looking forward to seeing this space actually back in service," board member David Bower said.

Board Chairman Roger Kohler agreed.

"I think this is a great thing to happen here," he said.

The cafe will be open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and fully accessible to the public, according to documents provided by SAP. It will be called HanaHaus — presumably a reference to SAP's "high-performance analytic appliance" product known as HANA.

The enterprise will combine a cafe — to be run by Blue Bottle Coffee — with "personal services available for a fee," including individual and group work desks, power and wireless connections, group brainstorming space, private phone rooms, discussion rooms and teleconferencing rooms.

"It will build on the tradition of cafe culture worldwide, where a vibrant exchange of ideas amongst citizens has played a vital role in defining the artistic, scientific, political and cultural life of our civilization," read a letter to the city from project architect Brian Corbett.

Patrons will not be required to work while in the cafe, though HanaHaus will provide the tools, technology and services that will allow them to do so, Corbett said.

SAP representative Sanjay Shirole, a longtime resident of Palo Alto, said he envisions HanaHaus becoming a "hub for the public and for the entrepreneurial community.

"We're trying to blend the past and future. It will remain a locus of Palo Alto cultural and intellectual life — it was a cinema, it was a bookstore and now we want to make it a working cafe.

"We want to be very clear that this is neither an office space nor a place where SAP employees will work," he said. "The focus of this space and the vision of Hasso Plattner is to keep it a public place."

Plattner, a 70-year-old German billionaire who co-founded SAP in 1972, has endowed, among other things, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (known as the "d.school") and is the majority shareholder of the San Jose Sharks.

Shirole characterized HanaHaus as an early effort in SAP's plans to "build a global street presence" for the company.

"This is the first," he told members of the Historic Resources Board. "We will connect with innovators, with Stanford to create new technology solutions. ... Given what SAP does, it's important for us to stay in close touch, and we strongly believe that cafes are the hub of such activity."

He noted that the insurance marketplace Lloyd's of London grew out of Lloyd's Coffee House, established in London in 1688.

Shirole said remodeling of the old theater, which opened in 1927, will be minimal and take a "light touch."

The front courtyard will contain moveable tables and chairs, with string lighting above. Inside the lobby, where new ceramic tile flooring will replace the existing stamped concrete, will be more tables and chairs and a "technology desk" where patrons can learn about available work-related services.

New lighting fixtures and a raised stage — to facilitate public forums and other events to be held at least monthly — will be added in the main auditorium, along with frameless, glass-wall partitions to create three enclosed spaces.

The marquee, while not the original, will remain intact, with only the tenant signage replaced.

The SAP lease does not extend to the second floor of the building, which has been converted to office space and occupied by Samsung since June 2013.

The building is owned by developer Chop Keenan. It is listed on Palo Alto's Historic Inventory under Category 1, meaning an "exceptional building." It is not included in the National Register of Historic Places. The State Historic Preservation Office lists it as a "Category 3" resource, meaning that it appears eligible for the National Register, according to city documents.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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