Downtown without Borders: retailers, brokers ponder the future | July 22, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 22, 2011

Downtown without Borders: retailers, brokers ponder the future

Palo Alto office market is hot while retail has struggled, landlords say

by Chris Kenrick

With the demise of Borders bookstore, an anchor of downtown Palo Alto, retailers lamented the loss of a gathering spot and real estate brokers speculated on who might fill the void.

Surviving local booksellers refused to admit much satisfaction in the failure of their outsized competition.

"We're all very sad when we see the demise of booksellers anywhere," Kepler's General Manager and Children's Buyer Antonia Squire said.

"It really is indicative of the state of consumerism right now. It's not that people aren't reading, but it's where they're choosing to put their dollars — outside the community.

"When a bookstore goes away, is there anything that replaces it? That's the question, and we're not sure of the answer yet."

While downtown Palo Alto retail has struggled with high turnover and falling rents in recent years, the market for office space is white hot, landlords and brokers said.

"The vacancy in office space is almost nil right now," said Fred Thoits, president of Thoits Bros., Inc. and a major downtown landlord.

"There's been a lot of money flowing into venture capital. Startups are scrambling, and they want to be downtown because they're attracting a workforce that wants to be downtown.

Thoits said office rents have spiked up to 25 percent since the first of the year and that there's "real competition for anything that comes up."

But with vacant storefronts up and down University Avenue, where will all the office workers shop?

Palo Alto is unique among suburban downtowns in having a large employee base, creating opportunities for retail, said Palo Alto developer and landlord Jim Baer.

"Very few downtowns have office tenants with spendable income the way Palo Alto does," Baer said.

"Facebook and Google started here, so you've got a lot of energetic guys that want to visit, have lunch, stay late for coffee. If they need flowers, they're going to get them here.

"That kind of stimulative characteristic is very rare in other suburban retail downtowns, so we're better off than most, and our sales per square foot reflect that," Baer said.

Dining and entertainment traditionally have done well here, but other retail categories have struggled recently. Responding to pleas from landlords, the City Council in 2009 amended the downtown zoning ordinance to reduce the size of the ground-floor retail zone.

The move to electronic distribution not just of books and magazines but of film and sound is a "for-real change in retailing" that is national — and has extra impact here because local residents tend to be early adopters, Baer said.

That change accounts for the demise of such national brands as Blockbuster, Virgin Records and Borders, he said.

"Those are really all under pressure from an appropriate and predictable technological shift," he said.

The recession also made things difficult for "lifestyle retailers" such as Z Gallerie, which vacated its large University Avenue space in early 2009.

The good news is that Apple is readying plans to move into the Z Gallerie space, and at least one local broker sees a pickup in downtown retail.

Menlo Park Realtor Sam Arsan said he recently leased the former site of A.G. Ferrari at the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Emerson Street, as well as the former Fashion Passion site at 425 University.

Arsan said he's also had three offers on the former Rococo kitchen showroom next door, at 435 University, which has been vacant for several years.

"Nobody has a crystal ball," Arsan said. "The retail market has kind of dragged a little bit behind the office market, but it's coming back."

Borders landlord Chop Keenan said he's considering various options for the looming vacancy, including building a glass atrium over the courtyard space.

"We'll see what the market tells us to do," Keenan said. "Retail is a tough business these days.

"If I can find a two-story retail user for 23,000 square feet, that's a good thing," he said.

It also would be possible to subdivide the space, with one tenant taking front-to-back in the portion facing University Avenue, and another tenant taking the interior ground-floor space, with access facing the rear parking lot.

"What we don't want to happen is for the thing to sit there empty.

"I hate to lose the book category, but time marches on."

Books Inc. CEO Michael Tucker said business at his nine Bay Area stores is up 5 percent over last year as the shops make extra efforts to focus on customer service and become community gathering spots.

Tucker, who has a shop at Town & Country Village, cited a recent non-book event that drew 120 people to his Opera Plaza venue in San Francisco — a discussion of composer Richard Wagner following a San Francisco Opera performance of a segment of the Ring Cycle.

"A group wanted a place to meet after the opera, so we set up chairs and ended up selling $2,000 in other stuff," Tucker said.

"A successful bookstore can be that kind of thing in the community."

Tucker called the Borders liquidation a loss to the industry.

"The unfortunate thing, from my personal perspective, is that 11,000 booksellers nationally are going to be out of work," he said.

"We've hired a number of people from Borders, and they are great booksellers."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


Posted by Jonny K, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 22, 2011 at 9:33 am

Good riddance Borders, it's about time! The article reads, "Retailer's lamented the loss of a gathering spot", what a joke! The people who live in the community lamented Borders moving in in the first place. We lost a TRUE "gathering spot" in what was once a thriving art and music scene in downtown Palo Alto, a scene centered mainly around the old Varsity movie theater. Borders was the beginning of the end for the small town we once loved. Maybe now that this monstrosity is gone we'll see a reverse domino affect returning us to a where we once were.

Posted by neighbor, a resident of another community
on Jul 22, 2011 at 9:46 am

Palo Alto -- the business- friendly community!!!
Is it a friendly community at all anymore? Not on these pages.

Posted by borders will be missed, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 22, 2011 at 9:49 am

Hey, Jonny, with the loss of borders, we'll probably end up with a restaurant downstairs & office upstairs.

Borders was a great store and meeting spot. That will all go now unless they get Kepplers or Books Inc. to relocate.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2011 at 10:14 am

This is the 21st century now and a 21st century meeting spot will have high tech as its draw. Some type of high tech wifi internet cafe, with perhaps classes, gaming areas and shows featuring the latest gizmos, could thrive in this area.

Alternatively, the theater could be restored by some enterprising philanthropist giving us a much needed venue for local concert productions, etc.

It is time to think outside the box.

Posted by Mayfield Child, a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 22, 2011 at 10:14 am

I grew up in Palo Alto in the 1950's and spent many a Saturday afternoon with my neighborhood friends at the Varsity Theater~ great movies with extra cartoons, good popcorn and a chance to win a shiny new Schwinn bike ~if only I would have had that winning ticket...

Posted by Buy-On-line-Today, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2011 at 10:17 am

While this article did a genuflect to the changes being introduced into the business models of virtually every retailer in the US, its focus on only downtown Palo Alto does not do justice the the wide scope of these changes on a number of national, and local, retailers. The following link reminds us that Blockbuster has recently fallen victim to the shift from walk-in video rentals to on-line video rentals:

Web Link

Netflix is setting the stage for an eventual shift to online video distribution. The Post Office is considering downsizing its home delivery to three days a week (which might well be too many), claiming that email (and social networking) has consumed much of its business.

Naturally, real estate agents, who have gotten "filthy rich" here in the Silicon Valley, are not likely to warm to the idea of nationwide retailing/distribution--since they can't get their "pound of flesh" out of the rentals/sales of retail properties.

Interesting the Weekly did not interview the City of Palo Alto Business Development Manager. But then again--it's not clear he would have much to say ..

Posted by robit noops, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 22, 2011 at 10:20 am

I spent a decade hanging out at the New Varsity, and have used the Border's on occasion. It will be a shame if this boilding changes again, but the people who are around now are a generation that probably wasn't a part of the history of that building. Too bad that Palo Alto cant keep together a descent downtown shopping district, but it has been coming for the last decade.

Posted by Mayfield Child, a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 22, 2011 at 10:25 am

Wanted to mention that Know Knew Books on California Ave. is also closing..........merchants like Bill will be sorely missed....Thanks for all the smiles, jokes and good will, Bill!

Posted by George K., a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 22, 2011 at 10:25 am

It's too bad this went down after Apple had already committed to the Z Gallery location. I'll bet Mr. Jobs could have planned something amazing for the theater space.

Posted by Menlo Neighbor, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 22, 2011 at 11:00 am

Reality is that retail in a downtown area like P.A. is very difficult. Look at all of the empty store fronts on University and the side streets. If it not a restaurant, there seems to be little chance of success.
I am tired of people knocking what Mr. Keenan did to this property. It was derilict at the time; I recall that he spent a large amount of money to make it seismically safe. His economic interest will be to get a viable tenant in the space. I wish him and the downtown well. This needs to be fostered by the populace being supportive rather than negative.

Posted by Millie, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 22, 2011 at 11:01 am

Prestige women's clothing boutique in Town & Country also closed after 55 years in business.

Ironically, part of the T&C parking lot was roped off during their reception which just further highlights the idiocy of the parking situation there where people can't even back out of their spaces while cars back up to exit due to the stupid traffic light situation.

Many of the PA retailers that have closed here but are thriving at Santana Row and in Los Altos (Ferrari's).

PA is beginning to look like the South Bronx with all the empty stores and restaurants -- Ferrari's, Waterworks, Diddams, Krohn's, No New Books, Andronico's, Bistro Elan....

When I asked the Economic Development guy when the city was going to fix the idiotic traffic lights near Town & Country, he said they might talk to the Traffic Dept.

No need to rush, guys. Off to shop Trader Joe's in Menlo Park to avoid the backed up traffic on Embarcadero.

Posted by Sarah, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 22, 2011 at 11:13 am

It's a shame this is happening, especially after Borders contributed to the closing of a great old bookstore, MegaBooks a few doors down.

Posted by Wendy, a resident of Professorville
on Jul 22, 2011 at 11:20 am

For many decades the old Varsity Theatre was a thriving restaurant and movie house. The remodel that was done when Borders moved in was specifically tailored so that a movie house/theatre could eventually be restored. Now is the time for that! There is a need for another venue between the Mountain View Center and the new Menlo Atherton High performance sites, as well as room for a restaurant.

Posted by Jonny K, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 22, 2011 at 11:22 am

The big fish came in and ate up all the little fish only to turn around a die of overeating!

Posted by Sue, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 22, 2011 at 11:32 am

@Buy-on-line-today: Huh? What do real estate agents have to do with decline of downtown retail? "Pound of flesh"? There aren't as many retail building sales as you seem to think. Few buildings in PA are exclusively for retail. Most are multi-story with offices above. The building owners decide what they want to do, not real estate agents. Most leases run for 5-20 years, so again it's the proprietors & bldg owners who decide what they'll charge or pay for use of the property. Blame greedy landlords who want skyhigh rents, pushing out some of the retailers who can't be profitable at those prices.

A lot of online purchasing is for mdse not available locally or because the online retailer has such huge selections that it's easier to compare features of the products. Some online purchases are to save money on sales tax & some are because customer service can be better online than with retailers with attitude.

Border's is a big loss, but I also grew up here & went to the Varsity & spent hot summer nights eating ice cream on Swenson's balcony over the sidewalk. The Tangent (now Rudy's) anchored the other end of Univ. Ave in the '60s with pizza, burgers, beer & wine, & live entertainment in an upstairs cabaret. People used to come from San Francisco for some acts, and it was a hot date-night place with locals.

Times change. We now want instant gratification of seeing item availability & buying same without having to leave home or office, much less wait in line for checkout. Go out for live entertainment? Not when there are hundreds of TV channels, streamed videos & DVDs available at the push of a button.

Posted by One More Giant Hummus Store Needed , a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2011 at 11:39 am

I too lament the changes that have happened in downtown PA. Having grown up here (yes, I spent many an afternoon at the Varsity's snack bar) and spent my entire life in PA I have noticed some interesting trends. These trends revolve around food. It seems like frozen yogurt and hummus are the newest trends. My husband (here since 1967) and I have remarked on these changes over the years. At one point in time we referred to the change as the "Croissanterization"of downtown PA. We can't wait to see what the next food fad will be. I don't think any of these establishments have withstood the test of time. I keep wishing that a phenomenal gourmet food court would move in with take out. Berkeley has many wonderful places to buy great food without having to do the whole sit down restaurant thing. Actually Lyddicoats was the last place with a food court. I know many people have been critical of their offerings and sanitation but I loved the place and in fact have great memories of Sako (the little Japanese lady) who had to stand on a box to reach her stove and cooked amazing gourmet dishes at a very reasonable asking price. I never warmed up to Borders as a book store and gathering place. Kepler's has always been my go to place since the 50's. I hope they will always be there. Thanks to their loyal customer base for supporting them all of these years!

Posted by Sad, a resident of another community
on Jul 22, 2011 at 11:40 am

Bummer. I've met friends at Borders over the years, bought books and enjoyed the nice atmosphere. There is some kind of awful looking crown given to new business owners in downtown Palo Alto now that's supposed to be an honor for them to wear on the occasion of their grand opening. But frankly, it looks demeaning and foolish, and something to be seen at a preteen's birthday party. For a classy establishment taking over the Border's location, I wonder if that same tacky crown will be used atgain. Palo Alto seems hard up. Sad that this fine business is yet another casualty. This is a loss.

Posted by Jonny K, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 22, 2011 at 11:44 am


Remember when the Varsity Theater on University Avenue was a place that drew a large cross section of the people who actually live in Palo Alto? Young and old, rich and poor, hip and not-so-hip used to frequent the old historic theater that played an eclectic mix of new and old movies and offered some of the best in live local music: be it Jazz, Rock, Folk, Blues, or Punk (Dead Kennedys!).

No longer a movie theater and surely not the haven of culture it once was, the New Varsity is now a bookstore; a mecca of milquetoast quasi-intellectuals, up and coming yuppies, and mediocre espresso.

The demise of the Varsity wasn't the first, nor will it be the last casualty of the ongoing trend to make University Avenue a sanctuary only for the affluent and (so-called) "worldly" among us.

An ironic twist in upscaling our downtown strip is the opening of an expensive cigar store just months after Palo Alto passed a strict anti-smoking-in-public law. Now, if the police can only enforce the other new laws designed to get rid of the homeless downtown - we will be on our way to having our very own imitation of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

R.I.P. the town I once knew.

Posted by Hear it on TV, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2011 at 12:05 pm

ABC News reported that another business is interested in renting the Palo Alto Border's locations.

Posted by Buy-On-Line-Today, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2011 at 12:14 pm

> What do real estate agents have to do with decline
> of downtown retail?

Real estate agents/Property developers .. six of one, half a dozen of another. The point is that the rents in downtown have grown to a point that small retailers can not survive in this hi-rent zone. Most of the property owners (or their agents) have pushed the rents to as much as $12/sq. ft. over the years. No one can afford this, other than businesses with deep pockets.

You would be very surprised to know the rents paid by every one of the businesses on University alone. It's a shame that one of the local papers doesn't do a little investigative reporting, and publish that data.

Posted by notsurprised, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 22, 2011 at 12:16 pm

No one should be surprised by this news, its fate was done a long time ago, it has shut all its business countrywide,not just in pa,the seed of failure was there,planted a long time ago.Sad but true. i wish we can close it down with dignity and care.

Posted by Jared Bernstein, a resident of Professorville
on Jul 22, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Uh, point of clarification ....I thought that it was national, corporate Borders that went under and that this local branch was one of their best performers. If that's true (I don't know), then another book store (like Cobb's or Stacy's?) might do well relocating there...

Posted by epaper, a resident of Monroe Park
on Jul 22, 2011 at 12:44 pm

When the roll-up-down e-paper come,all will be shut down.

Posted by robit noops, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 22, 2011 at 2:00 pm

To Johnny K. Yeah people lamented the closing of the vrsity theater, but at the time it was done done well done. They couldnt stand on their feet anymore so it wes good that Borders came in and kept the appearance of the old theater. I am sure that now it will be gutted and revamped, and maybe made into a clear glass spaceship for the Apple store, or who knows what. Palo Alto has a shiny new look, that is empty retail space. I lost interest in University Ave in 1989. Move On.

Posted by here, a resident of Southgate
on Jul 22, 2011 at 2:10 pm

If so,why are you still here talking about it.

Posted by robit noops, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 22, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Because the housing market is so bad that I would take a loss if I sold my Palo Alto house.

Posted by On going farmers market, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 22, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Well I wrote the city council back when Z gallery went out that Liddicoats with a front and back entrance would be a good place for a ongoing farmers market, similar to the Ferry bldg in SF. Now that Apple is going to demolishthe old bldg and lose the charm it once had. Maybe they can do something with the Borders bldg

Posted by buynew, a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 22, 2011 at 2:30 pm

You can choose not sell it but buy another one in mv or pleasanton where they are pro-business.

Posted by daniel, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 22, 2011 at 3:14 pm

I don't know if it's economically feasible, but a music&art place along the lines of the Varsity Theater would be wonderful. I lost interest in downtown once the Varsity closed down and replaced by Borders, and so did many others. I also wonder if Kepler's would consider moving there, since they would get much more foot traffic than they get in their present location.

Posted by stretch, a resident of another community
on Jul 22, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Anyone want to buy my Varsity dollars?

Posted by Shop, a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 22, 2011 at 7:38 pm

"You would be very surprised to know the rents paid by every one of the businesses on University alone. It's a shame that one of the local papers doesn't do a little investigative reporting, and publish that data."

How's this? I can't cite my sources, but have heard from very knowledgeable persons that Pizza My Heart puts out just over $20K per month for their space (as of 3 years ago). There's a cafe on University that serves multiple things in a small space than Pizza My Heart that pays $11K per month.

A business that operated on University in a moderately-sized place paid $14K (it did rent for a lot less than that - about half that amount - until a well known real estate developer bought the building and sent rents through the roof - I'd love to name the guy, but I won't, here.). Where is real retail development leadership in Palo Alto? I don't see it - not from City Hall, not from the developers.

How about a small space at T&C for $7.5K per month? I know for sure that that's what one retailer is paying, and s/he doesn't even have a front-facing (on el Camino) space.

btw, those rents don't include "triple-net" (gas, electricity, water, garbage and other maintenance); they don't include signage costs; they don't include certain kinds of insurance; they don't include permit costs; they don't include rent increases that can be as unpredictable as most landlords.

Look, Palo Alto is its own worst enemy when it comes to retail diversity. There are no limitations on business density. Los Altos has rules like that, and their downtown is far ore diverse (and I think) lively than PA's. There's so much money here that people can sit at home and order books - or anything else they want - online. How do you compete with that, as a retailer? Guess what? You can't, not unless you're working 7-day weeks and you give up your life to your business.

Another thing: I have seen, over years, citizens meddle in what kind of stores should or shouldn't be in Palo Alto. People will rail against chain stores, but nowadays chain stores are the only ones that can pay the rent. People complained and whined about JJ&F, but then how come one would see car after car filled with COSTCO or TRader Joe's bags brimming from their car as they stopped in JJ&F for their favorite "specialty" item. Do you really think that local retailers don't notice that kind of thing.

There is really no support for retail in Palo Alto; it's too easy to convenience oneself at large retail box stores that are only a few miles away.

Really bad retail development policies, over years, have hurt Palo Alto. How do all the whiners from years past look, now? - the ones that railed against large retail, the ones that could have brought in sales tax revenue and kept our infrastructure reserves solvent? Many of the same people who marched against retail are now decrying the state of Palo Alto's infrastructure, and its loss of services.

Look at Stanford Mall - it's pathetic, nothing more than a paean to high-end status shoppers. Everything that was human scale about the place - in terms of retail vernacular and easy-to-access affordable services has been forced out by high rents and a management that isi dedicated to drawing the high end shopper.

Landlords? Don't get me started. Look at the old coffee shop on Hamilton that closed down (across from Peninsula Creamery). That storefront was vacant for YEARS, in spite of pleas to get it re-rented. Why no penalties - hard-hitting monetary fines - for letting properties stay derelict? That might be an incentive for landlords to make temporary compromises when rental markets are down.

Actually, Palo Alto doesn't have that much of a commercial occupancy problem, but the retail mix sucks. It's not compelling. There are way too many restaurants. Why? Because it costs about $1M to construct a kitchen. Most restaurants fail. So, when one place closes, the landlords and/or their agents are all to happy to rent to the next guy who sees an easy entry to the Palo Alto restaurant scene at some obscene monthly square footage rate, thereby largely setting itself up for probable failure - wash, rinse, repeat. Also, and again, there are no business density rules. Why should the city let 3-4 similar businesses operate practically adjacent to each other? Look at things like beauty parlor density on California Ave. - it's ridiculous. It just makes it that much more difficult for retail to survive. Why are so many coffee shops permitted within close proximity? Absurd. If you lower the density of any one kind of store, you create more retail diversity (which brings people downtown) and you give the retailers a chance to survive and make a living.

There are some nice stores on University, and downtown is OK, but it's not vibrant. Nothing happening late night; the place turns into a ghost town after 10pm. Boring.

Altogether, Palo Alto is - compared to its recent past - in relative decline. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but Palo Alto as urban "anchor"? Those days are fast fading. We still have retail properties that have been so constrained and hounded to death by local gadflies that by the time they do get off the ground, the cost overruns from delay (which are always passed on to future retail tenants) practically doom many future businesses to failure.

As for Borders, it's no surprise that it closed; when Louis Borders left, he left at Border's peak (and promptly blew a wad on WebVan, remember that?). He should have stayed with Border's books - a business he understood - instead, he (ironically) and Borders books became victims of poor business vision on the one hand, and lack of business adaptation on the other.

There's not much more to say other than suggesting that Palo Alto needs to revisit its retail strategy. I doubt that will happen though, because there just isn't enough interest among the citizenry to get involved; that's the downside of an upscale community - people have the resources to divert themselves in multifarious ways...they don't need to go shopping, and when they do, they go to I Magnin, or Amazon, for instant gratification. Combine all that with no business density rules, landlords who think only bottom line (in spite of rhetoric to the contrary), and lack of cohesive retail development policies within city hall, and you have a tough row to hoe for retail.

Posted by EPA Resident, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jul 23, 2011 at 6:41 am

There are 2 theaters in downtown PA - is there really demand for another? I thought the Borders was a great asset to the community and it was wonderful that they preserved the theater architecture (kudos to the neighbors and developer for making that happen).

It's a beautiful space and wonderful central location. I'll miss Borders, but I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Posted by Taylor, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 23, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Unfortunately, a great space filled with potential that is caught in the midst of an ever-declining downtown area. With the exception of a few mainstays, downtown Palo Alto has become increasingly less attractive for shoppers, diners, and those seeking entertainment due to some very specific reasons. Quite simply, there are too many drunks, panhandlers, thugs, vagrants, a declining infrastructure, and public places that smell like urine. More and more people are choosing to go elsewhere, where this type of behavior and conditions are dealt with appropriately. Too bad. Used to be great destination until the city failed to maintain any decent standards.

Posted by Karen, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 23, 2011 at 7:50 pm

There are too many bums Downtown. Why would I want to shop there? It's a shame, because Downtown could have been, perhaps still could be, a sparkling destination to shop.

Posted by Andrea, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 23, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Downtown PA used to be a place where you could get dinner, grab an ice cream and window shop from one end of the street to another. It was clean, friendly and a nice place to visit. That is no more. Restaurants and stores come and go so frequently its almost a joke to see whats gone and whats still there on the few times I do go downtown. There is really nothing down there now and I have no reason to deal with the bad smelling, dirty street with empty stores and so many homeless..dont even get me started on the parking. I dont feel safe down there and to be honest it makes me sad as a lifelong resident to see it like this. Its embarassing when you look at downtown Los Gatos or San Carlos and here's affluent PA..what a joke. Borders was the one place I went to and could take my child to. Z Gallery was the other. Now whats left? Not much. The Varsity was an awesome place and so was Swensons. Two places I spent a lot of time growing up. Now the teens of PA have no where to hang out like we did. I will not allow my daughter to go down there at night. PA needs to take a good look at what they are becoming before we all get fed up and leave. And yes the traffic lights at T&C are the stupidest things ever!

Posted by Lee Thé, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 24, 2011 at 12:14 am

I know one retailer on University Avenue who says rents have gone up so much that they're hanging on by their fingernails. That's another factor that's pushing independent retailers out.

And meanwhile Palo Alto's Concerned Citizens lobby eternally to make University Avenue into Homeless Central on the Peninsula. And while some are working poor, that's really not the bulk of what we see on the Ave. At least a third are what mental health professionals refer to as "ca-ray-zee." I lived in Berkeley for eight years. It wasn't known as an outdoor insane asylum for nothing.

These people are not Palo Alto residents. They don't have homes here. They don't pay taxes. They contribute nothing to our economy--just the reverse in fact. Precious few of them grew up here or have any valid connections with this community. They came here because a small, vocal group of Palo Altans has welcomed them with open arms are browbeats anyone who dares to complain.

They don't dissuade me from going downtown--but I'm tall and male etc. They do, however, dissuade many shoppers, who simply vote with their feet. Plus we have a steady trickle of commuter bandits coming over the 101 overpass.

Place to shop that are also meetingplaces, as Borders and Z Galleries were, have all but vanished. Mountain View and Sunnyvale have plans for their downtowns. Seem like we just drift, as the City Council busies itself with more important matters, such as whether the President of the United States should have a Department of Peace...

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 24, 2011 at 9:17 am

I've had ten conversations already (or, eight conversations, one by email and one by text) with knowledgeable people about the viability of a concert promoter or film programmer to take over the lease or at least file amicus briefs in support of the idea. Those included one former mayor and one current council.

I suggest people go to council this Monday July 26 and start speaking up on behalf of government mediating the strong interest of the community towards a gathering space / performing arts space and the needs of the one very powerful land owner.

This time around (we went through this in 1996) let's try to not demonize the owner just appeal to his sense of legacy.

One important point is, if there is not a covenant per se about letting the supporters of the Theater have a chance to present a proposal, the previous effort did succeed in having the conversion from Theater to chain retailer done in such a way that it can revert. Check out Meserve Engineering in San Jose website for details.

Also, the concert business regionally is very different and more in our favor adventageous in that rather than one monopoly Bill Graham Presents there are three of the world's best promoters in the Bay Area in Live Nation, Another Planet and Golden Voice.

Also, I notice on Monday's Council discussion an item about redevelopment agency -- my understanding (scant, on this point) is that redevelopment funds were used to establish venues like Yoshi's (perhaps twice) and Fox Theatre in Oakland. Maybe city leaders can dovetail this two issues: can redevelopment funds be used to revert the Varsity Theater?

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 24, 2011 at 9:26 am

"Amicus curiae" I am obviously not using the term precisely in that they are typically unsolicited "friends of the court." Here I mean I think that if a qualified operator of a 1,000 capacity concert or concert-live theater-film programming venue would tour the facility and offer advice or encourage to other potential operators (or a citizens group or NGO formed to run the theater, like a non-profit) that might still be useful in terms of getting community leaders (Council) to work on this; Better is if a programming group offered to partner and take a certain number of dates per season (like the relationship between Montalvo and Fox of Redwood City for a few years there). Best would be if a qualified operator said they wanted the venue outright.

I generated a list of more than 50 of these potential allies or operators, many of them have Palo Alto connections. For example, Danny Sher is a Paly grad and semi-retired president of Bill Graham Presents. In fact he was polled in 1996 by council and said it was probably viable as a venue. Maybe he would be more emphatic this time around or the scene has changed for the better.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 24, 2011 at 10:11 am

Thanks Mark.

This sounds good to me, if we the residents of Palo Alto can do something to help give us an amenity we can use rather than have something we have no say about, I am all for it.

Please keep us informed.

Posted by more variety, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 24, 2011 at 10:12 am

The city needs to encourage a wider variety of retailers downtown. Rows of boutique stores and expensive restaurants are not interesting to a wide variety of customers, who won't even bother to come to Palo Alto. An independent bookstore would be great. More office space would really kill the downtown environment. If exorbitant rents are the problem, then landlords really need to think about what is happening to the downtown area in the long term.

Posted by sj.sandy, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 24, 2011 at 11:55 am

I still mourn the loss of Shirley Cobb's independent bookstore and Megabooks, which was next door. Borders could never replace those bookshops that specialized in customer service. Sad that Borders has gone? No, not at all.

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 24, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Two additions to previous:

1) Roger Von Oech, the author, quoted Faith Bell, the bookseller in his post as saying that the number of book stores went from 25 to 8 or something; Borders was a "category killer". Good riddance!

2) I am surprised that Chris Kenrick, who has been covering Palo Alto since the 1980s could write this article without mentioning the name of the building, The Varsity Theater, which is arguably a better and more relevant story, locally, and the elephant in the room.

It would be great if Bill Johnson and The Palo Alto Weekly got on board the effort to bring back the theatre and not be so formulaic about advancing the real estate agenda; The Varsity would probably add millions in values to the other buildings. Maybe billions.

Posted by Em, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 25, 2011 at 9:57 am

Yes, clean up the streets and the surrounding parks ~ nobody sits on those public benches except homeless people. This goes for Menlo Park, too, which has an even worse downtown than Palo Alto. How many times have I gone into Whole Foods to find a smelly, homeless person picking through the salad bar? Ick.

Posted by Millie, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 25, 2011 at 10:19 am

Palo Alto can't afford retail when we keep getting hit with huge utility bill increases. No problem.

And the traffic's too congested to back out of our driveways. Good work, "traffic diet" advocates.

Posted by Rick, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 25, 2011 at 11:22 am

Most of the comments refer to this as a local event.
In fact, Borders, Barnes & Noble, and many small bookstores all over the country have closed their doors, primarily due to Amazon which insists it should not have to pay sales tax like all the other retailers do.

I would encourage all to patronize Keplers and others who are a great value to the community, pay local taxes, and are trying to keep their heads above water. I know Keplers contributes to a large number of schools, charities, etc. Patrons just need to mention at the register that they would like to direct a portion of their bill to whichever institution they prefer. Keplers also can order electronic books for use on the Nook (?), I think. Wouldn't you prefer to support your local business whenever possible?

Posted by jb, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 25, 2011 at 3:50 pm

I think all b & m (brick and mortar?) stores need to establish a browsing fee, because they have become the demonstration sites for people who then go online to order what they have selected locally. I heard the tail-end of a description of just such a fee levied by a store that sells boots. $50 to browse, applied to the price of any purchase made. A browser of books confessed to looking locally and ordering globally in a recent newspaper article. And I was the recipient of a rant by a local shoe salesman knee-deep in open shoe boxes, that, "all these women just want to try on shoes."

Perhaps in the future the online merchants will open local demonstration sites where orders can be placed directly after hands-on examination of the merchandise. Then people will steal the models because they don't want to wait for the delivery. (cynic) I want it cheap, I want it now, waah!

C'mon guys pay up a fair price and taxes. You breathe the air and drive on the streets that those taxes provide. Grown-ups pay their own way.

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 25, 2011 at 6:39 pm

I feel sorry for all the physicians at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Now they will all be Doctors Without Borders...

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 25, 2011 at 11:14 pm

well they can get Dr Rupa Marya of Rupa and The April Fishes to headline the new New Varsity theatre:
Web Link

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 26, 2011 at 6:45 am

For those of you heading towArds legislating use of the building - please be ready to purchase the building for its current market value. Otherwise Mr. Keenan has his options under current zoning rules and will choose as he sees fit.

Posted by Palo Parent, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 26, 2011 at 10:38 am

Good one Donald.

Posted by Anne, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 26, 2011 at 11:57 am

I agree with the comment that downtown feels unsafe. Empty buildings and the homeless harassment make it a place that you leave quickly. Palo Alto is an entity that consumes itself, and in the end, will be a politically correct, bike friendly, empty shell, home only to the homeless. Offshore landlords whose only concern is $$$ are another part of the problem. Where do we have any leadership over these issues coming from? Not from our city council.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 26, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Offshore landlords? Are you kidding? Mr. B and Mr. K own most of the downtown real estate.

Posted by Everydayer, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 26, 2011 at 3:57 pm

I spend everyday in downtown. Here's what I see:

Empty storefronts? Only because they are in the midst of remodeling and getting ready to open as something else. That's what I like about downtown. It's dynamic. I never know what I am going to find in the way of new shops or restaurants. I don't see a dying downtown, I see a vibrant one.

I also see one or two regular homeless folks. I don't see overwhelming numbers of them. I did see them several years ago, but I think the downtown has come along way in addressing this issue. There is an organization I see everyday call the Downtown Streets Team. They clean the streets, everyday, all day. The streets are exceptionally clean and the alleys are unbelievably clean. Other downtowns should be so lucky.

Lytton Plaza has been redone and I see folks enjoying the sunshine and water feature there everyday. The downtown has a vacancy rate of 2% according to one report I read recently. That's not what I call a dying downtown.

Those who categorize downtown Palo Alto as sub par probably haven't been downtown in a while and ought to come back and take a look. It ain't that bad folks. Border's or not.

Posted by Mayfield Child, a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 27, 2011 at 3:09 am

Litticoats was once graced by the presence of none other than the (NOW)famous Mrs. Fields' Cookie Shop. Mrs. Fields rented there when rents were shared in a communal type atmostphere, everyone paying a pittance amount for a tiny piece of space back then on University Ave., PALO ALTO!
Her shop was in the far front corner of the building. As I walked by, she was outside of the building that day, inviting people walking by to take a cookie from a basket she was carrying~ (who could refuse a hot cookie..she didn't have to bend my arm much!)
Maybe she would be interested in BUYING the Varsity and returning to University Ave. again, having her shop as "THEE" flagship Cookie home.
The Art Deco Varsity is our towns history~ PLEASE do not destroy what little history is left~

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 27, 2011 at 12:55 pm

For history's sake, here is the council minutes from May, 1995 with more than a dozen speakers about The Varsity:
Web Link

I spoke Monday at oral communications to Council on this topic as did Ms. Alex Ippolite of the new Palo Alto International Film Festival, who says that her organization is going to meet with the landlord.

I hope there is a window for potential buyers to put together a proposal.

Posted by Mark Weiss , a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 30, 2012 at 9:56 am

Kenrick quotes Keenan thus:
It also would be possible to subdivide the space, with one tenant taking front-to-back in the portion facing University Avenue, and another tenant taking the interior ground-floor space, with access facing the rear parking lot.

"What we don't want to happen is for the thing to sit there empty.

"I hate to lose the book category, but time marches on," Keenan said.

Reading this again, nine months later, I reiterate the point that Kenrick failed to mention "The Varsity Theatre" or go anywhere near discussing the tremendous community interest in reviving the cultural gem that it once was, and for many years.

Also, she describes a scenario -- dividing the historic building, with office workers entering from the parking lot -- that Keenan et al did present to Historic Resources Board soon thereafter, in September or so.

It seems like this article very deliberately was The Weekly giving Keenan and his cohorts the opportunity to start manipulating public opinion on this issue. Remember that thousands signed a petition and dozens spoke at hearings trying to prevent Kniss, Simitian Fazzino et al from granting the variance that shuttered the historic and beloved Theatre, that permitted the short-lived Borders.

Increasingly The Palo Alto Weekly is an organ for Keenan, Baer and a select few others in real estate development to get their way and is not a member of the Fourth Estate the way traditional American newspapers once were.

Recently there was an op-ed forum on Lytton Alma "Gateway" -- a Lund Smith family project, they qualify for this elite group, the oligarchy, The Tall Tree/Buildings people -- where Baer defended the project and the Weekly admitted it is or was in cahoots with him about their building, 450 Cambridge.

How about a comprehensive profile of the commercial real estate scene here, who owns what and whom? People -- readers, advertisers -- would respect the Weekly more if they covered real estate objectively and not just lobbied for it.

Speak truth to power with love, yo.

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