When Marissa Mayer bought the Roller & Hapgood & Tinney mortuary in downtown Palo Alto five years ago for $11.2 million, no one knew what the future would hold for the property -- not even Mayer herself.
"I was busy at the time," the former Yahoo CEO told the Palo Alto Weekly. "I had three children in two years, and I was also running a pretty demanding company. I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about what to do with it. Part of it was, I hoped the use would make itself apparent to me."
Now it has. Tonight the City Council will get its first look at Mayer's newest venture: a proposal to transform the city's oldest funeral home into a club focused on working women and families.
Known as The Corner House, the roughly 11,000-square-foot building at 980 Middlefield Road and Addison Avenue would "provide a vibrant, welcoming space for traditional and non-traditional professionals to collaborate, work, learn, find support, build community, and spend time with their families, friends and neighbors," the application states.
As such, Mayer said, it would boast a cafe, a gym, a garden, a patio and other amenities for those who like to work hard (parents) and play hard (children), with a special focus on working moms.
"We want to reimagine what a kids club or a family club can offer," Mayer said.
Though The Corner House would be miniscule compared to the large fiefdoms operated by her former employers, Google and Yahoo, Mayer hopes it will similarly spark a cross-pollination of ideas.
"I really enjoyed some of those amenities that come from spending part of your day on a campus. It's nice to have a coffee and snacks and to have a cafeteria available. It's nice to be able to run into interesting people working on interesting projects all the time and to have interesting discussions. Part of this is to make those kinds of benefits and happenstance meetings happen outside the conference room."
Mayer believes The Corner House will fill an important need in Palo Alto, where she's also noticed a shortage of space for enrichment classes. Her children's favorite music teacher, she noted, recently lost his classroom at a local church. She has been approached by other potential beneficiaries, including a local art teacher and work-from-home professionals who would like to be able to book spaces to meet with clients or collaborate with others.
With the renovation, Mayer is looking to enliven the mortuary inside and out. Her proposal includes changing the roofline to make the building look and feel more like a home, enlarging the interior atrium and adding windows and an internal courtyard. The goal is to add light to a building whose atmosphere has historically been dark and, well, funereal.
Inside, The Corner House would feature collaboration spaces, coworking tables and classrooms for art, music, culinary arts and professional development.
There would be family-oriented programming such as tutoring and support groups, a speaker series, networking events and "family bonding experiences" like indoor picnics and charity fundraisers.
The club would not be exclusively for women, she notes -- "We will not discriminate against any individual" -- though it would probably be most attractive to women. Its offerings, for example, would include a nursing room, and its among its programming would be a seminar on how to start a business as a working mother.
And even though it would be classified by the city as a "private club," it would not be exclusively for members. Mayer said the goal is to have a membership program to sustain the operation financially. Memberships would cost about $200 (or $300, to also rent a locker). But some of its classes and events would be open to non-members as well, she said.
The Corner House would also provide free or affordable rental space for nonprofit groups at least 12 times a year and host, free of charge, at least 10 meetings annually for the purpose of "community outreach, volunteering, charity or other like use cases," according to the application.
The Corner House would also house various "free or under-market-rate classes, workshops or other events" for the broader community at least six times per year.
Council faces project's PC zone request
In reviewing the project, the council will be forced to reckon with one critical question: Is it a private club or a community center? The answer to that question could be key to the council's determination of whether to grant Mayer the zone change she seeks.
Under the present "planned community" (PC) zone, the property can only be used as a funeral home. Before that zone was implemented in 1963, the property consisted of three parcels, each zoned for low-density residential use (the zoning districts were R-3-P, R-3 and R-2). To make her vision a reality, Mayer has to convince the council to effectively amend the "planned community" zone on the site -- the type of request council members have been loathe to grant since 2013. That's when voters overturned in a referendum the city's last approved PC zone, one that would have allowed construction of 60 apartments for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes on a former orchard site on Mayell Avenue. Given the public outcry, the council put a moratorium on new "planned community" zones the following year. The zoning designation, which allows the council to waive underlying development standards and negotiate directly with the developer, hasn't been used in Palo Alto since.
In pursuing The Corner House, Mayer's team thus needs to convince the council that the public benefit of having the new meeting space is sufficient to overcome the community's and council's resistance to PC zones.
For some, this may be a hard sell. Councilmen Tom DuBois and Cory Wolbach, both of whom are running for re-election, each told the Weekly that they don't support relying on the PC zone for new developments. DuBois said he does not want to revive the zone. Wolbach said the city should get rid of the zoning mechanism and instead rely more on "coordinated area plans," in which the community works with developers to create land-use visions for particular areas.
Vice Mayor Eric Filseth, who is also seeking a fresh term, said that he'd rather see the city use existing zoning districts to encourage the types of projects it wants to see, though if an applicant makes a "really strong case" that no standard zoning fits the project, he said he wouldn't rule out a PC zone.
"But I do think it's a slippery slope because everybody will say, 'My project is special.' I think we have to be mature, wise and judicious about those things," Filseth said.
Others in the community are more open. Alison Cormack, who is a candidate for council and who if elected would end up ruling on Mayer's project, said she would be willing to consider the proposed PC project. She noted, however, that the project is still in its earliest phase and that she would have to learn much more about it to evaluate whether this would be the best use for the site, from a perspective of providing significant enough public benefit.
She pointed to the example of First Baptist Church, which last year was on the verge of losing its right to rent spaces to nonprofits because planning staff had determined that doing so would violate the zoning code. (The church was ultimately granted a "conditional use permit" to allow these uses to continue.)
"Look at First Baptist, look at the demand for Cubberley -- there's a huge demand for people to have places to gather together and share their experiences," Cormack said. "That may be what this is, and that may be incredibly valuable, as is housing."
Questions about parking, traffic
In addition to the broad zoning issues, Mayer's team -- which includes former Palo Alto planning director Steve Emslie -- will also have to convince the city that The Corner House will not disrupt the neighborhood in more concrete ways. Since the proposal became public, some residents have argued that the project could bring more traffic and noise into the neighborhood, while not providing enough parking spots. (Council candidate Pat Boone is centering his entire campaign on reducing traffic, which includes slowing down the pace of new development.)
The site currently has 45 parking spaces. Mayer's initial renovation plan proposed only 36 spaces, but Mayer said that her team has since increased parking to 55. The Corner House, she added, would offer credits for Uber and Lyft to families coming in for evening events. For daily trips, she said the facility would encourage visitors to walk, bike or rely on public transportation.
She also said she is confident that the traffic would be manageable. Community centers, she said, typically add about two trips per 100 square feet during peak commute hours. For her project, this would amount to about 22 peak-hour trips.
City planners, however, remain concerned. Given that up to 400 people may use the space during evening or weekend hours, staff wrote in a report that "it is not clear that the proposed parking would be sufficient to accommodate the day-to-day use at the site" (the report, it should be noted, was referring to the 36-space plan).
As for noise, she said her team is complying with all the restrictions that the city currently has in place for other community spaces. Yes, there would be some noise during special events (most of these would be birthday parties, she said). But all outdoor events with amplified sound would be required to cease operations by 9 p.m. between Sunday and Thursday, and at 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
She also noted that, if approved, The Corner House would be able to manage its own impacts by having complete control over when its events take place and how many people attend -- something that its predecessor the funeral home, by its very nature, could not do.
Despite its focus on working women, the club would look and feel "more like a coffee house than an office," Mayer said. There would be family-friendly functions like music recitals and seasonal celebrations like pumpkin-carving during Halloween -- a holiday that she has been known to celebrate with particular gusto both at her home, one block away, and at the mortuary.
"We will have fun events to get into the holiday spirit," Mayer said.