Bargain Box, other California Avenue tenants concerned about eviction

Rising rents, new ownership pushing out longtime businesses

The recent sales of a number of family-held commercial buildings in the California Avenue business district are worrying longtime tenants of Palo Alto's so-called "second downtown."

In the wake of purchases of 341-347 California Ave., 392 California, and the Cordelia Building, which has several addresses, including 2443, 2445 and 2447 Ash St., shop employees say they are in limbo, unsure whether rent increases or evictions are coming their way.

This week, sources at The Bargain Box and Avenue Florist said they expect to leave the avenue.

The Bargain Box, which raises money for the nonprofit Children's Health Council, could be evicted by August, according to sources. Avenue Florist workers have known for some time they will leave, but a date has not been set, an employee said.

Tenants and other nearby business owners said the flavor of California Avenue is sure to change building by building and block by block, as developers woo more upscale tenants who will cater to the city's planned vision for California Avenue: high-tech startups, smaller apartments and higher density structures near the Caltrain station.

The building at 341-347 S. California Ave., where The Bargain Box, the florist and several small offices on the second floor reside, is slated in the short term for exterior improvements, City of Palo Alto Senior Planner Russ Reich said.

The building's new owners, 341 Cal Partners, LLC, have applied to the Architectural Review Board to refurbish the building exterior, which will include new awnings and paint.

But interior work, which was not included in the current permit application, is planned, Reich said.

"I believe the interior will be gutted and redone, but the exterior will have little change," Reich told the Weekly in an email on Wednesday.

Reich did not know what the owners' time frame might be for completing the work, he said.

Upstairs tenant Palo Alto Violins owner Lawrence Haussler has been in the building for 13 years and on California Avenue for 23. He has a 90-day kick-out notice in his lease, but he hasn't heard if he will be asked to leave. The building was sold in the last month or two, and the new owner came through his shop recently, but Haussler didn't get any answers, he said.

"One guy smiles. The other people walk through. They asked questions like, 'Oh, you have a nice unit. How high is the roof?'

"I said, 'I really want to stay. Why don't you just raise my rent?' They just smiled," he said.

Haussler said he and other merchants fear the California Avenue way of life will change considerably in the next few years, and others said they expect when their leases are up, they won't be asked to renew.

Haussler predicted that aging landlords, the inheritance of properties by offspring and the lure of money will cause many to sell out to big developers.

"The elders who owned the buildings are passing away or selling out to entrepreneurs. It's very worrying. The entire California Avenue subculture is disappearing. The flavor of California Avenue will go away," he said.

Haussler estimated that his rent would double if he moved to a comparable space.

"It's going to be hard for me to stay in this district. They just want computers and places where they can put 25 employees sitting around with their laptops," he said.

Stalwart Tony Montooth, who has operated Antonio's Nut House for 41 years, said he doesn't know what the future holds. The building he rents is adjacent to 341-347 California.

"If they start tearing the building down next to me, that is going to affect my business," he said.

There are rumors of plans to raze buildings on the entire block and to build one massive development reaching from the mid-block Starbucks to the edge of Birch Street, he said.

The building he leases is not under the same ownership as 341-347 California, and his landlords have told him they don't plan to sell. But a new contract he is negotiating for another six years contains provisions that have him wondering, he said.

"They put in that if they sell the building, I have 180 days to get out. They told me they have no intention of selling, then why is it in the lease that they might?" he said.

Montooth said he wants to know what the future will bring, since he planned to add improvements to Antonio's, including a new floor to replace the worn-out old one "where the peanut shells have done their harm." He wants to add a patio that would coincide with the city's new streetscaping plans. But he doesn't want to make the investment and later learn he'll be evicted, he said.

Mark Conroe, representative of 341 Cal Partners, LLC, and Ash Street Green Partners, LLC, two real-estate entities with significant holdings in the California Avenue district, declined to comment regarding plans for its recently purchased buildings.

However, since Ash Street Green Partners purchased the building last year, the ground floor retail at the Ash Street location has recently vacated. Doling C. Ashmore, CPA, moved out in November at the end of its lease, and The Other One Hair Styling planned to move out when its lease was up at the end of March.

Randall Ashmore declined to comment on his reasons for leaving. But nearby business owners who knew Maureen Forbes, owner of The Other One, said she had decided to retire in part because of rent increases. Forbes died at the shop on Tuesday morning of natural causes, according to the Santa Clara County Coroner.

Tenants of other landlords along the avenue are also facing evictions. Longtime, 35-year tenants Cho's Mandarin Dim Sum and Ron Vierra Farmer's Insurance, which has been there since 1969, were given 60-day notices on Jan. 16, to make way for building renovations at 213 and 217 California.

Montooth was philosophical about California Avenue's transition.

"Things change — you know things are going to change," he said.


Like this comment
Posted by RogerD
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 7, 2014 at 10:11 am

Change is always happening, life goes on. California Ave is full of companies eeking out a living. Rents will go up, buildings will sell, that's the economy, the American way of life. Sure its nice to hark back to yesterday,to think of days gone bye, but realistically , they have gone. Time to move onward and forward.
"Kick out" notices, really, bit dramatic, lets call it relocation time and its a protection for the tenant. Each and every tenant sells something, they need to make a profit, if they don't they go out of business.
Building owners are no different. Think about it. Someone who owned the building 30 years ago had say a $50k investment, today the new owner invests millions.
We are talking retail establishments here,what drives business is foot traffic, location, location, location. Everyone seems to think they are going to be put out of business, just like when the street market started.
Time to move with the times, embrace the change, be part of it, be a success at what you do.

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Posted by Randy
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 7, 2014 at 10:45 am

Well Roger, there's that word "success" again. Bargain Box was a success at what they were doing. The businesses on Calif Ave are successful and make a living and a lot of people happy. (I'm always happy to go there rather than to University Ave where there's no parking.) But alas, around here success is defined by profit only. Even our high schoolers struggle with the current version of success being imposed on them. Not happy, creative, useful, contributing....just rich. So sorry, I probably won't "embrace" the sort of change that evicts the variety of tenants that I value. I will just continue to move my business out of Palo Alto.

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Posted by PolicySage
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 7, 2014 at 11:10 am

I predict that Antonio's Nut House, including its popular and delicious Mexican family restaurant, will be kept as a cornerstone on Cal Ave. Places like the florist and Bargain Box can move around the corner to cheaper leases, and do well. I don't think that change will come fast, or be particularly dramatic.

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Posted by moi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 7, 2014 at 11:24 am

I stopped into The Bargain Box yesterday to donate a few things. It is one of my favorite places in Palo Alto, always full of surprises and smiles.

When the delightful, devoted volunteers mentioned that the shop would be closing in August, I was flabbergasted. It's hard to imagine California Avenue without The Bargain Box and its wonderful people and ever-changing merchandise.

Until yesterday, I have always left with a more positive spirit, even if I've just looked around and talked to the volunteers and clientele. Such a lovely place. I will miss The Bargain Box terribly, unless someone comes forward to give it a new, well-deserved home. I hope that happens.

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Posted by mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 7, 2014 at 11:45 am

The violin shop is a wonderful hidden gem in Palo Alto. Mr. Hausller was just a young man starting out when we discovered him more than 20 years ago. He does beautiful work and is an asset to the non-techy side of Palo Alto. I hope he finds a good spot in the neighborhood.

Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 7, 2014 at 12:11 pm

It will be interesting to see how many stores are gone from Cal Ave in a couple of years. The whole idea of making Cal Ave a destination for Bay Area shoppers was delusional, from the start, but clearly if the street-scape is revamped to make the business district more desirable to upscale shoppers--then getting rid of the stores that appeal to downscale shoppers seems inevitable.

Got to wonder if the evictions/move-outs doesn't come to about 30% within a fairly short period of time.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2014 at 12:11 pm

These businesses are only a block away from the train station. You can bet that tech companies are drooling over this space, since employees taking the train don't have to worry about parking and traffic. I hope that the city can move some of these companies down the Park Blvd corridor, which is still close to the train station but doesn't infringe on the retail district. Park Blvd between California Ave and Frys Electronics is a still under-utilized part of the city.

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Posted by businessdecision
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 7, 2014 at 12:52 pm

Time for a lot of us to leave. Too bad we got spoiled living here.

There will be these desirable places for the rich to live in and all the rest will have to settle for the back of beyond.

Nice job that we bailed them out a few years ago.

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Posted by RogerD
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 7, 2014 at 1:24 pm

businessdecision: really, and you live in Menlo Park.
Yes remember the days when we had to hunt for food, kill what we needed to eat, pick berries off the trees. Those back of beyond places.
Life is good , enjoy it.
Success is defined by profit if your in business, that's how we get food on our tables.
Why does it always have to come down to them and us. shouldn't it be we.
The love of money is the root of all evil, but money is what keeps us all alive.

Like this comment
Posted by Don
a resident of Mayfield
on Mar 7, 2014 at 3:26 pm

The 200 block of California Ave, between Birch and Park, is tired and in serious need of renovation. Would that it were as vibrant as the 400 block. Bring on the new businesses.

Like this comment
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Park BLVD is shortly going to be a parking lot all times of the day when that monster hole in the ground gets filled in with a monster building and multiple hundreds of cars. No one seems to be concerned that we have the same road area as we had in 1955. In fact they are busy removing lanes to make traffic "flow" better. That worked great on Arastradero Rd. Plans are in the works to remove a lane of El Camino for the buses. That is being planned by one of those anonymous government agencies that are supposed to make our lives "better". ABAG falls into the same category. They won't be happy until the country looks like Rumania. BMR housing for everyone.

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Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Mar 7, 2014 at 3:50 pm


"That is being planned by one of those anonymous government agencies".

Are you referring to VTA, the agency that is in charge of transportation in Santa Clara county? Yeah, they certainly do like to keep a low profile...

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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 7, 2014 at 5:25 pm

> Yeah, they certainly do like to keep a low profile

They certainly do. It's almost impossible to know what crazy ideas that they are going to come up with next. Got to wonder who in that organization has decided to reduce El Camino's lanes so that it can become a bicycle and pedestrian parkway--effectively pushing the auto traffic off to other roadways.

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Posted by UC Davis Grad
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 7, 2014 at 5:25 pm

If, in the future, people want to know when Palo Alto went into decline, this would be as good of an indicator of that process.

Funny thing -- California Avenue, as "flawed" as it may seem to some on this discussion thread, had a character that other parts of Palo Alto, most noticeably University Avenue, conspicuously lacked. And now, it's going to swallowed up by mindless construction...

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Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Mar 8, 2014 at 7:57 am

The need for shopkeepers units grows, the need for retail grows. Hope they can figure out how to add more retail to El Camino? Personally you need florists, insurance agents, violin store, shoe repair, Cho's and all these small businesses then another tech company or juice bar.

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Posted by cal ave renter
a resident of Portola Valley
on Mar 8, 2014 at 9:00 am

homes are selling for over $1000 sq/ft, office is renting for $8 sq/ft... i seriously question how brick and mortar retail can compete with office rents and survive in this area with such inflated ipo money bubble costing. how many pairs of shoes, books or coffees do you need to sell cover a $5-6-10 /mo lease? brutal.

1 person likes this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 8, 2014 at 9:38 am

Sounds like the area is going to need one of those protected living museum districts you see so often in Europe. We can move all the "old" style real businesses into it so our children and grandchildren can see what the real world used to be like.

It's sad that we are being overtaken by businesses and workers who produce nothing which is substantial - only games and apps and "social" sites which physically isolate people from each other and in many cases from their minds. They are producing a virtual world with the consequence of destroying the real world.

1 person likes this
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 8, 2014 at 11:12 am

@whatever: Those businesses and workers produce profits. Money is the driving force. I’m not knocking it. We all need profitable businesses to employ us and fund the economy.

In any case, few people seem to care “what the real world used to be like.” It was way back in 1970 that Joni Mitchell wrote, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Web Link

But we keep on paving. Maybe the virtual world is better than the real one.

Like this comment
Posted by Roger Overnaut
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 8, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Let's face it. Palo Alto once was a community. Now it's a commodity.

Like this comment
Posted by ChrisC
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 8, 2014 at 4:03 pm

ChrisC is a registered user.

I wish I could leave Palo Alto too. The charm is gone. I think Tony owns the Nut House property. Wonder if he has kids that would want to keep it going. It's the only normal bar left in Palo Alto, and by normal, I mean you can get a Margarita for under $10.00.

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Posted by Bob
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 9, 2014 at 9:49 am

As for Cho's Mandarin Dim Sum-filthy interior, mediocre food. I'd be sad if we were losing a decent food joint. We're not.

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Posted by Gary B
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 21, 2014 at 2:27 pm

Sometimes I think it's the anal Palo Alto code that hurts. What if someone bought a building, but had more freedom with the planning biddies? Maybe they could create spaces for lower margin business while they opened up the main part of the building to higher rent payers.

Anyhow, who's in? I'd love to buy a commercial building in that area.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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