It might be a new city record: In less than six months, an idea to rebuild the fading Guild Theatre at 949 El Camino Real in downtown Menlo Park as a live music and events venue went from not-yet-submitted proposal to council-approved plan.
In response to overwhelming public support, the Menlo Park City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday, May 22, to approve a proposal by a new local nonprofit to rebuild the Guild Theatre and perhaps take a step toward changing the city's moniker "Menlo Dark" – so called for its dearth of downtown activity at night.
The proposal comes from the Peninsula Arts Guild, launched by Menlo Park resident Drew Dunlevie and backed by two other locals, investor Pete Briger and entrepreneur Thomas Layton.
The project was first announced in advance of the city's goal-setting meeting in January. The City Council identified the project as a priority for the year.
From there, plans were submitted, with the Peninsula Arts Guild working with architect Chris Wasney of CAW Architects and consultants to develop designs that pay homage to the nearly century-old theater while renovating it to have amenities and flexibility to host a wide range of events, whether it be big-name musicians, comedians, author events hosted by Kepler's, movie screenings, high school battle-of-the-bands events, school plays or other performances.
Dunlevie also worked with the theater's current corps of devotees, led by Judy Adams, who had previously coordinated a "Save the Guild" campaign, to win over the theater's dedicated moviegoers to the new concept.
Next, plans quickly progressed and cleared the city's circuit of commissions before Tuesday's council meeting.
Dunlevie said the project is estimated to cost between $10 million and $20 million, which will be paid by the nonprofit.
The scale of the project has expanded from initial plans – the theater's current configuration slightly oversteps the property line, so the city is requiring the wall to be demolished and moved 6 inches in.
There will be a main viewing area on the ground floor, a second-story mezzanine, and a basement with a "green room" and a comfortable area where performers can shower and relax prior to shows. That, Dunlevie has said, will help attract bigger-name performers than the smaller size of the venue would typically draw.
According to Dunlevie, the organization plans to operate the venue as a nonprofit, charging for admission to cover the costs of operations and paying the musicians and funneling any extra revenue back into the venue's programming, including discounting tickets.
The new Guild would be about 11,000 square feet, with a maximum height of 34 feet, and with a capacity for about 150 to 200 seats, or about 500 people at a standing-room-only show.
Still, the three levels are denser than what would normally be allowed downtown, a point noted in the project's recent review by the city's Planning Commission – which also supported the project unanimously.
"I do think this is an extraordinary project," Commissioner Drew Combs said at the time. "It's not something you see being built in communities that often."
The nonprofit will be required to develop a plan to address employee parking needs and pay about $61,000 in below-market-rate housing fees, among other stipulations, according to a staff report.
From the start, the project has generated widespread support.
Addressing the council on Tuesday night, Resident Marc Bryman called the project "one of the very best things that has happened to the community."
Jean Forstner, executive director of the Kepler's Literary Foundation, said the new venue would be a complement to the 200-plus events the foundation hosts a year in providing cultural opportunities for the community. "We're huge supporters of this project," she said.
Other locals expressed support for a venue that wouldn't require them to go to big nearby cities like San Francisco, Oakland or San Jose, and to have somewhere in town they'd feel comfortable sending their kids for a night out.
Some commenters raised concerns about parking, especially residents on Live Oak Avenue, near the theater. Dunlevie said he had canvassed the city at night with a camera and insisted that there is an abundance of unused city parking near the theater.
Plus, he said, many will likely go to get food or drinks before the shows, and then just walk over.
To people worried about venue visitors parking on Live Oak Avenue, he said that he would work to deter people from parking there.
"We won't let it become a problem," he said. "We don't want people to be mad at us."
The city could also launch a residents-only parking permit program on the street if it becomes a problem, staff said.
Dunlevie did not yet have answers for some questions by the council, such as how the demolition and construction processes would impact adjacent buildings. But he repeated assurances that his group will make good-faith efforts to resolve problems as they arise.
He said he's reviewed the city's downtown plan, which lists as one of its aims to offer "cultural vibrancy" – something the new venue would fulfill.
"I've never been involved in a project that has more 'right' baked into it," he added.