When Borders Books leaves Palo Alto later this month, its prominent University Avenue building will likely be converted to office spaces, with some retail on the ground floor, according to plans recently submitted by the property owner.
The bookstore, which once housed the Varsity Theatre, is planning to close shop in the coming weeks because of the company's liquidation. The store's pending departure had prompted local theater lovers to lobby for the building to be converted to a theater. But as the new plans indicate, the building's owner, Charles "Chop" Keenan, has other ideas.
Under the proposal Keenan submitted to the city, the historical building would be converted to a mix of retail and office space, with offices occupying the entire second floor of the two-story building and about a quarter of the ground floor. The rest of the ground floor would be retail space.
The city's Historic Resources Board is scheduled to evaluate the proposal on Oct. 5.
Despite the new plan, city staff is continuing to reach out to people in the entertainment community to evaluate potential interest in opening a theater at the Borders site on University Avenue and Waverley Street. Thomas Fehrenbach, the city's economic-development manager, wrote in a letter to city officials that his office has been calling people in the performing-arts community to inform them about the building's availability.
"As of now, there have not been any formal proposals, but staff continues to reach out to possible operators to raise awareness/interest," Fehrenbach wrote.
The city also released a brochure promoting the high foot traffic around the building's location, the building's proximity to Stanford and Caltrain and its "high identity courtyard." The brochure also notes that the building is "ideal for theatre use."
But converting the store back to a theater could prove prohibitively expensive, Fehrenbach wrote in a report last month. He also warned that it might be difficult to find a store willing to take over the entire building.
"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," Fehrenbach wrote. "Given its limited University Avenue frontage and large size, finding a retailer interested in the entire space also presents a major challenge in a retail environment facing serious competition from the Internet and newer retail destinations within Palo Alto's market area."
The downtown building has a long history as an entertainment venue. The Varsity Theatre opened in 1927 and remained in place until 1994. The following year, the building was converted to retail and Borders set up shop despite an effort from theater lovers to preserve the theater.
Mark Weiss, a leading proponent of bringing a theater back to University Avenue, said he hopes city leaders will seriously consider the public benefits of having an entertainment venue downtown and discuss the possibility of converting the Borders store back to a theater with Keenan. Weiss, a local concert promoter, said he believes a downtown theater could be a viable business, particularly given the lack of other concert venues in the city.
"It's an incredible waste to turn one of the most beautiful theaters in the state into office space," Weiss said.