Avenidas, the downtown Palo Alto nonprofit that provides services to seniors, plans to open a cafe in its center at 450 Bryant St. -- ending speculation that it might continue to host longtime lunch program La Comida.
In making the announcement at Monday night's City Council meeting, Amy Andonian, Avenidas' president and CEO, said the cafe will provide "low-cost, nutritious meals in small and individual seatings throughout the day," as well as social activities such as "food demos, cooking classes ... current events discussions and more."
The decision follows more than a year of episodic friction between Avenidas and La Comida that arose after it became clear an $18 million renovation of 450 Bryant, which will break ground this fall, would shrink the space currently used by the senior lunch program.
Rather than split its single lunch service into two smaller seatings, the La Comida board of directors decided last December to part ways with Avenidas and find a new location in which to feed seniors. However, in early June, the group submitted a petition to the city signed by 234 people (an additional 255 have signed an online version), calling for La Comida and Avenidas to be "permanent partners."
That, in turn, led to further mediation between the two groups, which proved fruitless.
"Avenidas proposed some options for a congregate meal program to operate out of 450 Bryant St., including a merger of the two organizations to streamline operations. No agreement was reached," Andonian told the council, reading from a statement co-signed by Board Chairman Jim Phillips.
The stalemate notwithstanding, board members of La Comida Monday night urged the council to help return the 45-year-old La Comida program to Bryant Street after the redevelopment.
"I strongly urge you to support the co-location of La Comida and Avenidas under the new remodeled arrangement. There's still time," said Jan Holiday, a La Comida board member. "If we wait until the wrecking ball starts, which will be in less than a month, there's no turning back.
"This program serves a population that would not be served by a shift in the model of how to deliver meals," Holiday said. Last year, La Comida provided 42,000 meals on a pay-as-you-can basis, with a suggested donation of $3 per person.
Some seniors, she said, come to the scheduled lunch service so that they can socialize over a meal.
"I'm not sure the same (thing) could happen under the grab-and-go casual atmosphere that's being proposed," she said.
Andonian, however, said that senior centers across the country are opening cafes, including those in Sunnyvale, Morgan Hill and San Jose's Willow Glen neighborhood.
The inspiration, she said in a follow-up email to the Weekly, is Chicago's Mather's More Than a Cafe, run by Mather LifeWays, a senior residential and service organization. Such cafes, described by The New York Times as "a sleek meld of Starbucks, Bally's and Elderhostel," offer activities as well as food and are meant to attract seniors who are not inclined to frequent traditional senior centers.
Rather than see the cafe as a replacement for La Comida, Andonian said it will be complementary.
"We believe that the Avenidas cafe -- in conjunction with La Comida's congregate meal service -- will expand offerings to our growing community," she said. "More seniors throughout Palo Alto will be able to take advantage of some form of subsidized meal to improve their nutrition."
The issue was not on Monday night's agenda, so no council members could offer their comments. In a follow-up interview, however, Councilwoman Lydia Kou, who has volunteered at La Comida, called the situation "disappointing."
"I can't accept this. It's very, very logical to have the two services co-located," she said. "It's a travesty what's going on."
Kou said that the current dining hall at Bryant Street was built using funds raised by Rotary Club of Palo Alto for La Comida, and thus, in her view, the burden is on Avenidas to accommodate the meal program as it is.
La Comida has looked everywhere in downtown Palo Alto for a new home but has come up empty, Kou said.
Given the benefits that Avenidas is receiving from the city -- lease of the city-owned building for $1 a year, with 75 percent of its utilities paid for by the city -- Kou said that the council should look at the city's contract with Avenidas to see if it's providing the services expected of the nonprofit.
"The service contract is due to end at 2020. Maybe it's time to look at that," Kou said.
For the next year, La Comida will be serving meals at Stevenson House, located at 455 East Charleston Road in south Palo Alto, after which the lunch program will need to find a permanent location.
Under a settlement agreement forged in December between La Comida and Avenidas, the senior-services organization is helping to fund La Comida's relocation to Stevenson House and has pledged to help remodel the kitchen at La Comida's permanent facility, when found. Avenidas has also agreed to provide supportive services at La Comida's new location and transportation for seniors between La Comida and 450 Bryant St.
Andonian said Monday that Avenidas remains committed to the agreement.