Around Town | August 5, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 5, 2011

Around Town

I DREAM OF THEATER ... The looming departure of Borders Books from downtown Palo Alto has given some residents hope that the spacious venue could once again serve as a theater. The building at 456 University Ave. housed the Varsity Theatre, a single-screen movie house, between 1927 and 1994 and was converted into a retail location the year after the theater's closure. City resident Mark Weiss, a long-time advocate of public art, wrote a letter to the City Council this week urging the council to seize the opportunity and consider bringing a new theater to downtown Palo Alto. The venue, he argued, could be a future site for a "a public hall, for entertainment, for a marketplace of ideas, for live music concerts, for live theatre, for lectures, for government outreach, for film programming and high technology showcasing, for up to 900 people at a time." Palo Alto officials aren't so sure. Thomas Fehrenbach, the city's economic development manager, issued a report this week claiming that a performing arts theater for that site "has significant obstacles, especially in light of the constraints and costs of such a retrofit." He also wrote that given the site's "limited University Avenue frontage and large size," it would be a "major challenge" to find a single retailer to occupy the site. The report irked Weiss and local land-use watchdog Winter Dellenbach, who publicly denounced it at this week's City Council meeting as being filled with "unsubstantiated conclusions and odd assertions." She particularly disputed Fehrenbach's assertion that the site's frontage presents an obstacle to a potential new theater. "Borders was there for 10 years. It wasn't site failure," Dellenbach said. "The site is just fine."

SID'S CHOICE ... Some time in the next month, four members of the City Council will get together to compose an argument urging Palo Alto voters to repeal the binding-arbitration provision from the City Charter. The one question looming over the process is: Which four? The question is more than academic given that only five members of the nine-member council voted to place the item on the ballot (one of the five, Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh, said he doesn't support the repeal but wants to give voters a say on the matter). The decision on appointing the four-member committee falls to Mayor Sid Espinosa, who opposed the repeal measure but who now gets to pick the authors of the pro-repeal argument. The most obvious choices to pen the pro-repeal argument are Councilwoman Karen Holman and councilmen Greg Scharff and Pat Burt, all of whom supported the repeal measure last year (when it failed by a 4-5 vote) and who voted in its favor last month. Burt said he, Holman and Scharff have already discussed a possible argument in favor of the repeal. The fourth member could be Greg Schmid, who also favors repealing the provision, or Larry Klein, who opposes both binding arbitration and the repeal of binding arbitration (Klein supported an alternate measure that would have modified the provision). Espinosa acknowledged on Monday that he is in a "unique situation" of having voted against the repeal measure but having the power to make the appointments. He vowed, however, not to base his appointments on his political stance on the issue. "This is not a political game for me," Espinosa said. "The majority voted for this. ... This isn't a story of gamesmanship."

THE 'NORMAL UGLY' ... Palo Alto's Architectural Review Board is used to grappling with such issues as construction materials, color palettes and landscape elements in proposed developments. But on Thursday, the panel of critical architects has an unusual assignment: a review of an AT&T proposal to plant antennas on existing utility poles at nine Palo Alto locations. The proposed antennas would come in pairs and would be placed on top of each pole in a U-shaped configuration. Members didn't vote on the proposal but agreed the design of the proposed antenna system has plenty of room for improvement, with board Vice Chair Heather Young calling it "not particularly endearing." But board member Alex Lew argued that the equipment — while not exactly beautiful — isn't any uglier than other utility equipment in the city (in the words of board member Judith Wasserman, they fall into "the normal ugly range"). Board Chair Clare Malone Prichard agreed with Lew. "They're not great looking, but if you look at the pole without these things on it they're also not great looking," she said.


Posted by couple of comments, a resident of Stanford
on Aug 6, 2011 at 9:28 am

Two comments about this article:

"The report irked Weiss and local land-use watchdog Winter Dellenbach"
People need to be wary of Dellenbach's involvement, look what she did for the Park Theatre

"Larry Klein, who opposes both binding arbitration and the repeal of binding arbitration "
Does this make sense to anyone? How does this guy get elected over and over again to our council? DOes he not want to take a stand? Like the HSR issue--he was one of the big backers for it and then a few months later he is against it. When thing are brought to the public about issues with the council he claims that he was "misled".

Posted by theater lover, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 6, 2011 at 10:39 am

I would love to see a live theater or concert hall in that space. With the rents the landlord is likely to charge, the tenant is going to have a real hard time making ends meet on ticket sales alone. Maybe they can make it work as a charity project, but with HP already sponsoring the Stanford Theater and Facebook being kicked out of town, what other big corporate sponsors do we have for local projects?

Posted by Concerned PA taxpayer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 6, 2011 at 11:54 am

The old Varsity theater/Border's Books belongs to Chop Keenan and he has said emphatically that it is not economically viable as a theater.

Instead of leaning on the City for funds to buy it. why doesn't Mark Weiss put money where his mouth is, and give the owners a generous offer so he can use it in whatever way he wants.

As a taxpayer in Palo Alto I'm totally against having my tax dollars wasted on paying for, or even supporting, the former Border's Book store as a money loosing theater or anything else for that matter.

The future of this property should be left entirely to private enterprise.

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 12, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Thanks for the suggestion. I put about $200 into business cards and broadsides regarding what I am calling "The Last Picture Waltz" initiative and "TLPW 456".

Also, I asked Steve Emslie (deputy city manager) and Tommy Fehrenbach (who we pay about $60,00 per year to track or influence such topics) to show me the report from about ten years ago in which we spent I believe $200,000 to figure out and then not pay in to whether Palo Alto should partner with Stanford for a performing arts center (they went on without out us and now have the nearly-completed Bing Concert Hall).

If there is a compelling public benefit for government to get involved it should. And I think that if 8,000 people had signed a petition to stop the conversion of the public hall in the first place, there is probably considerable support to get involved.

What democracy in the last 250 years has held a highest practice as "property should be left entirely to private enterprise"?

Posted by VoxPop, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 12, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Mark, the old Varsity was never a "public hall." It was owned by a private business. It was not, and is still not, a publicly owned building...nor is it likely to become one.

Please investigate the economics of movie theaters in the present day. There is plenty of reportage on the internet about this subject.

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 14, 2011 at 6:39 pm

This is a semantic point but if you've ever been to a pub you've been to a "public hall." I mean a place where regular people can gather. It does not have to be owned by the public or a "public facility" to be a public hall. I guess my plan could backfire if a private club bought the building and used it for members only, but generally speaking there are any number of outcomes that would serve a public good well-beyond what office space or a chain retailer would offer.
Yes I do a lot of research on the subject and am trying to reach experts.

Posted by really, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 14, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Anyone has to observe rules regardless private or public property.

Posted by Who does he represent, a resident of Community Center
on Aug 14, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Question is, why is Fehrenbach speaking for Chop Keenan.
"Thomas Fehrenbach, the city's economic development manager, issued a report this week claiming that a performing arts theater for that site "has significant obstacles".

I heard him say it and I was confused as to why he is speaking for the landlord. He is supposed to be working for us, for the city, not for the landowner who is quite capable of speaking for himself.
Other departments do this too.