Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer turned a few heads five years ago, when she bought Palo Alto's oldest funeral home, Roller & Hapgood & Tinney.
Now, plans are afoot to convert the building at 980 Middlefield Road into something completely different: a private club that is geared towards female workers and that would offer working spaces, networking events, speaker series, conference rooms, a small gym, a gallery, coffee and snacks.
Marissa Mayer. Photo by Mrgadget3000 via Wikimedia Commons.
The project would include several exterior modifications to the 1951 building, including a new drop-off area parallel to Addison Avenue, a modified parking area, a new play area and revisions to the exterior facades. Its offerings would include classes in music, performing arts, cooking, professional development, dance and fitness. The facility would also offer "networking events" and "family bonding experiences," according to the application.
There would also be outdoor events with amplified sound, though they would be required to cease operations by 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and by 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Indoor events would run until midnight, according to the application.
All these activities notwithstanding, the application claims that that it would actually be quieter and cause less traffic than the former funeral home. Having "tens to hundreds of mourners gathering en mass is presumed to have been a greater strain on noise and traffic due to a private event than the facilities (sic) newly suggested model and use," the application states.
The ambitious proposal, however, faces one formidable obstacle: it is illegal under the zoning code. As such, the property owner (officially listed as 980 Middlefield LLC) will need to convince the City Council to change the "planned community" zone that was tailor-made for the 1.6-acre site to accommodate the mortuary use to allow for the new facility. This might be tough sell at a time when parking shortages and traffic congestion remain issues of intense community concern and when Addison Elementary School, which is located right across the street, is undergoing its own remodeling project.
It also doesn't help that the proposed project would reduce on-site parking spaces from 45 to 36. While the applicant states that the facility would "encourage walking, biking, ride-share, carpooling or public transportation" and that off-site lots can be used for large events, city planners noted in the report that even with these measures, "it is not clear that the proposed parking would be sufficient to accommodate the day-to-day use at the site."
The City Council plans to consider (though not vote on) the preliminary plans and offer early feedback at its Sept. 10 meeting. To approve changes to the PC zone, the council would have to find that the project is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan; that other zoning designations (such as general districts or combining districts) are not flexible enough to accommodate the project; and that it would result in "public benefits not otherwise attainable by application."
The application states that the facility will "provide space, time and energy to support professionals on their path to self-defined success while raising thriving families" and that it would "focus on providing a supportive place for working women, especially mothers, as they seek to balance their work and family lives."
Up to now, Mayer's plans for the former mortuary had been a neighborhood mystery. A year after she bought the property, she faced some criticism from neighbors for hosting lavish Halloween parties at the site. One neighbor posted an open letter to her in 2014, asking her to refrain from doing so in the future.
"Your neighbors, your community, your friends have had to deal with some of the saddest and hardest experiences in their lives, in the exact spot where you will now be celebrating," the anonymous letter stated. "Not only is it disrespectful to the memory of our loved ones, it's confusing and upsetting to the community at large who lost their loved ones and grieved there."