The Varsity Theatre in downtown Palo Alto represents, in many ways, the tension between the city's past and its future.
The building's arches, columns, high ceilings and sprawling friezes allude to its 1927 origin as a concert venue and, later, a movie theater. After major renovations, the building reopened in 1995 as a Borders bookstore, disappointing the thousands of residents who petitioned to preserve the theater.
With Borders shuttering all of its stores late last month, the iconic building between Waverley and Cowper streets is once again poised for change -- and not everyone is happy.
On Wednesday morning (Oct. 5), the city's Historic Resources Board voted to approve, in concept, a proposal by property owner Charles "Chop" Keenan to turn the building at 456 University Ave. into a mix of office and retail space. The proposal, which the board approved 5-1 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 presented to the board seeks to preserve the historical aspects of the old building. 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.
Keenan, a prominent local developer whose other downtown buildings include the Aquarius Theater 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 is and isn't acceptable at the prominent site, Hayes said. He and project consultant Bruce Judd, a historic architect, also stressed that the changes on the table could be undone should a theater proposal ultimately become viable.
"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 for good last month). A group of theater proponents have been lobbying for the building to be reverted to a concert venue.
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.
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.
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 the uses proposed by Keenan conform to existing zoning, officials have only a limited ability to influence the building's future.
City officials have also 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."
Historic Resources Board member David Bower responded to Weiss' entreaty Wednesday 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."