Palo Alto's iconic Varsity Theatre building on University Avenue, most recently a home to Borders Books, will soon be transformed into an idea lab for Samsung.
The Korea-based technology giant is in the process of setting up Samsung Accelerator, a gathering spot for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that the company hopes will help it build the "Next Next Big Thing." Charles "Chop" Keenan, who owns the prominent building at 456 University Ave., confirmed that the company has already started its move to Palo Alto.
The building, which is located between Waverley and Cowper streets, was designed by Reid Brothers and constructed as a theater in 1927. It served that function until 1994, when Borders Books moved in. In September 2011, Borders went bankrupt and closed its shops, leaving the historic building vacant. Since then, the site's future has been a topic of widespread speculation, with some in the community calling for the building to revert to theater use.
Samsung effectively put an end to the speculation by placing a sign in front of the theater announcing its entrance into downtown Palo Alto, a short walk from the AT&T Foundry on Homer Avenue and a block from the glassy retail store of its top corporate rival, Apple.
The idea behind the new building is to harness the innovative talent of Stanford University and downtown Palo Alto, according to the company.
"We are the SAMSUNG Accelerator we help entrepreneurs take their software and services from inspiration to impact," the company announced in its sign. "We will bring together the people, power and resources to leverage the world's largest device ecosystem and launch product on a massive scale."
In addition to Samsung's idea lab, the two-story Varsity Theatre building will also feature a restaurant and a banquet hall on the bottom floor, a function that will also take advantage of the spacious courtyard in front of the building. The historic building will undergo major renovations, including installation of a glass storefront at the entrance to the courtyard and a retractable canopy over the courtyard's dining area.
Even before Samsung decided to open its Palo Alto "accelerator," Keenan had intended to revert the building to office use. In October 2011, he presented the city with a "concept" for maintaining retail on the ground floor and converting the rest to office use.
Last week, the project underwent hearings in front of the city's Historic Resources and Architectural Review boards, with each body approving the planned renovations to the building. In accordance with state and local law, these renovations would leave the historical elements of the building intact.
Members of the architecture board expressed some concerns, with Naseem Alizadeh criticizing a plan to install a fake tree in the courtyard and Alex Lew voicing some skepticism about the proposed glass storefront that would be placed near the entrance to the courtyard. But they were on the whole satisfied, with board member Lee Lippert praising the applicant for what he called a "wonderful approach" to preserving the theater.
"One of the things that's so critical to this community is preserving the historic resources and being able to have them adapted and reused and this is just a really great reuse of this building," Lippert said.
In addition to Palo Alto, Samsung is also planning to build an accelerator in New York. Thomas Fehrenbach, the city's economic development manager, lauded Samsung's decision to create a presence in downtown.
"We're delighted that their innovation center will be here in Palo Alto, right where it should be," Fehrenbach said.