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The Varsity Revival Project

Original post made by Tasha, Barron Park, on Oct 3, 2011

I am a member of The Varsity Revival Project; a group of people who are concerned about the fate of downtown Palo Alto's iconic historic landmark, The Varsity Theater. The Varsity maintained a  long standing role in this community beginning with it's 1927 Grand Opening and it's strong presence continued for 84 long years, until NOW. The recent demise of the Varsity's last tenants, Borders Books and Music has left the Varsity vacant. The bright lights and neon from it's marquee no longer shine upon the city street. 

The Varsity is a truly beautiful, iconic structure of historical significance; The building is Landmark category 1- the most important in historic inventory of the city and considered a major building at the regional or state level. This status promises that the integrity of the structure's most basic features- the framing and  courtyard, as well as it's many unique aesthetics embellishments are protected by Federal Law which overrides even the private owner of the property in it's authority. This protection does not extend it's limitations in terms of  purpose and intended use for the structure. The iconic gathering spot where people of all ages  experienced  and exchanged  culture and ideas, shared generations of live music, and the arts that colored the spectrum and in this way, the Varsity facilitated our sense of community and heritage.  The Varsity acted as a magnet, attracting from all corners of the Peninsula, and beyond, in every incarnation; as a single show movie house, to bar and restaurant, to live afternoon music in the courtyard from the likes of Tuck and Patti to Michael Hedges, to sold out live shows featuring local bands along with the most influential rock bands of the punk generation and beyond. The movie schedule was as eclectic as the patrons; bringing to it's doors disney loving youngsters, indie foreign fans, and Rocky Horror fanatics- all beneath one roof in an atmosphere of acceptance and acknowledgment.  This unique structure, that by design, allowed the crossing of  paths of spirits as diverse as can be: the creative, the innovative, the artists and the observers of art, the youth and the young adults, parents of up and coming  generations, and the generations who preceded remained in attendance.
The  legends that color our city were,  in this way, born and that gave life to the  Spirit of Community that became a beacon for all  the world to see; drawing into Palo Alto the true makers of today: the first creators of the high tech, dot com generation. What better depicts the values that attracted this generation of brilliant, young, creative, individualist, the  pushers of technology and culture than the diverse, open minded, accepting, globally and locally active and aware folks  that gathered at the Varsity? There has not been, nor is there now, any place in or around downtown Palo Alto that welcomed equally,  paying patrons and non- paying company who gathered together regularly in the courtyard  as well as indoors, depending upon seating accommodations (which changed with eras). This welcoming practice propagated an ambiance of inclusiveness and gave inertia to lines of open communication and the exchanging of ideas and values. 

The City of Palo Alto has received plans submitted by the owner of the Varsity that will transform two thirds of the existing space into offices. This will forever change the flow of pedestrian traffic through the building, and put an end to what remained true to the *spirit of the Varsity Theater and remained as such even in (it's final generation) as a) retail store. The culture of Palo Alto will be a reflection of the homogenized, high rent, establishments that populate University Avenue.It is truly a sad day for this once diverse, innovative, and welcoming city.

My personal vision for the Varsity is simply having the structure revived if not restored and the theater active as a venue for more than just films, but also for live performance, community speakers and interactions, for Ted-Talks and for children's poetry slams...I see endless possibilities for the theater...The restaurant/bar/cafe would allow the beauty and unique historical significance that exists in the courtyard to really shine as the crown jewel of University Ave- taking the spotlight off the gaudy, ostentatious, enormity that is the current structure of note on University- the Cheesecake Factory. I think there would be an enormous draw for all sects of the community in opening the courtyard allowing a welcoming of diverse patrons by making whatever the retail spin on services provided have a inclusive scope. Serve coffee with  free refills, along with pricey polenta or what have you... I don't know how to put my thoughts into business terms- but I hope you understand my point. Given that atmosphere of  a cultural arts magnet, and a place to spend time within the means of both poles of economic states I believe the community will have a gift, a serendipitous new option for how and  where they spend time. Whether this is a for profit business is not even a question, it must be. That is the only choice just in terms of gaining access to the building! The idea of using space for office space or meeting space is doesn't bother me. The fact is a profit must be made. Any additional ways to use the site for profit would help support the less financially stable but more community oriented retail uses. I had some thoughts on renting space upstairs to groups of self publishing authors, maybe providing computers in the office space. There are,  again, endless possibilities for that aspect. The truth is I just want to see the building protected from being further defaced and to be open for use as it was intended to be, that is my agenda.

Tasha Brooks
A Palo Alto resident and native

Comments (22)

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Posted by business plan
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 3, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Sure it would be nice to save the Varsity, but what is your business plan to make this happen? Can you get rich donors to "show me the money"? Or do you really think that the theater can make enough money to pay the rent?

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Posted by Some basic information
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 3, 2011 at 4:27 pm

It may be a shock to 'business plan' but there are other values in society beside money.
I'll risk being even more shocking by reminding you that rent is not set by God. Actually, rent is set by the landlord, a person, and he can set it wherever he wants. Since he is very, very, very, rich, he has a lot of freedom to set it anywhere he likes.
Sorry to upset you with these basic truths.

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Posted by Palo Parent
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 3, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Why not re-open the PA Bowling Alley there and keep Mr. Mart happy too?

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Posted by Tasha
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 3, 2011 at 8:21 pm

Business plan ~Well, sure, I could get some software, create a template, plug some numbers in and call it a business plan. I am not planning to run a business, however. I am merely suggesting a broader use perspective as an option to enable use of the varsity as a community gathering spot.
Some basic information pretty much spelled it out for you.
If you still don't get it, you probably never will; however your lack of personal integrity and depth isn't a god enough excuse to bash the PA Bowl folks. That's just plain mean.
Maintaining a venue at the Varsity would be beneficial to the community and the city.
It would be a great step away from being that "cookie cutter" town that we are becoming known as.

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Posted by let me try
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 3, 2011 at 10:00 pm


The Varsity is owned by a private party. How do you plan to give the owner a competative rent for his space? That is why a business plan would be a good start. Even if your plan is to convince the owner to grant you a below market rent for the greater good of the community, you still need a plan to convince him that he should make that concession. What value can you offer him?

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Posted by Tasha
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 4, 2011 at 3:05 am

Tasha is a registered user.

A business plan proposal is, in fact, being created by supporters of the Varsity Revival who are far more qualified than myself in this vein. I understand the free enterprise system well enough. I witness the economic climate it has created here, and across the country. I am becoming all too aware of how this climate effects us, as individuals, as a community, as a society; and when this era is written into history textbooks the key factor in bold text of that chapter will read, "SHOW ME THE MONEY".
My intention here was not to invite more witty game stoping retorts from the money minded, tunnel vision folks. My intention is to bring awareness of this situation to anyone who remembers the quality of life that has all but vanished in Palo Alto; and to those who may not have been here to experience it...because even without the memories, given an option, who wouldn't want our community to have the gift of a arts, music and media venue? So I am speaking to them, and they will understand that even without a Packard type angel by my side that I make a valid and worthwhile case.
The Varsity is a pre-existing, beautifully renovated historical landmark of major significance. The pedestrian access from Hamilton to University, and the unique, well loved open courtyard offer significantly more value to the site if it's use involves public gathering. Downtown is lacking in a venue of this nature. It is an incredibly unique resource; seating 800+ in the auditorium before Borders, the extent and variety of potential use are limitless. Why isn't it distressing that a desicion is about to be made to take this building, full of sentiment and potential, and relegate it to office space?
This Wed. At 8 am at City Hall the Historic Resources Board will be presented with plans to make 2/3 of the interior, the whole auditorium, just another glass walled cubical crammed office building. If the spirit of the Varsity moves you, please attend this meeting with the greatest respect to the Board. Without a show of support our point of view will have no sway. If you cannot attend, please do write the City Counsel about your convictions. Your support is appreciated.

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Posted by Tasha
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 4, 2011 at 3:14 am

Tasha is a registered user.

Palo Alto Municipal Code

     It is found that the protection, enhancement, perpetuation and use of structures, districts and neighborhoods of historical and architectural significance located within the city are of cultural and aesthetic benefit to the community. It is further found that the economic, cultural and aesthetic standing of this city will be enhanced by respecting the heritage of the city. The purposes of this chapter are to:

     (a)     Designate, preserve, protect, enhance and perpetuate those historic structures, districts and neighborhoods which contribute to the cultural and aesthetic heritage of Palo Alto;

     (b)     Foster civic pride in the beauty and accomplishments of the past;

     (c)     Stabilize and improve the economic value of certain historic structures, districts and neighborhoods;

     (d)     Develop and maintain appropriate settings for such structures;

     (e)     Enrich the educational and cultural dimensions of human life by serving aesthetic as well as material needs and fostering knowledge of the living heritage of the past;

     (f)     Enhance the visual and aesthetic character, diversity and interest of the city;

     (g)     Establish special requirements so as to assure the preservation and the satisfactory maintenance of significant historic structures within the downtown area."
(Ord. 3721 § 1 (part), 1986)

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Posted by Let me try
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 4, 2011 at 8:12 am

You are correct, money is not the only factor, but it remains a question that you apparently can't answer. Ignoring the reality that someone else owns what you seek to control seems like a flawed plan. That's why the question was asked. Trying to shout it down, does not make the question disappear.

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Posted by Slammer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 4, 2011 at 8:23 am

Children's Poetry Slams???

Now that is what we have been missing all these years. Yes! Yes! Yes!

Endless Possibilities.

Hey, maybe we could turn it into another library - since it seems that economic growth goes hand in hand with each new library in a community!

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 4, 2011 at 9:14 am

A little history lesson here - when the Varsity was a theater, it did not provide pedestrian access from Hamilton to University. The entrance was only on University, Hamilton was a fire exit.

The pedestrian access everyone wants and reminisces over only came about when Borders opened both sides.

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Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 4, 2011 at 9:16 am

I'm all for the Varsity Theater being resurrected as a theater if Mark Weiss and his friends pay for it. I don't want my tax dollars being used for such a frivolous idea. This is just another perk for North Palo Alto.

Meanwhile, the City should use that kind of money to refurbish the Cubberley Community Center first!!

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 4, 2011 at 12:19 pm


There are many venues for the performing arts: Lucie Stern, Menlo Atherton, the high schools, Shoreline, the Stanford movie theatre. The owner of the Varsity supports a movie theatre downtown: the Bijou - so he knows quite abit about what it takes to make movie theater viable.

What is the differentiators for the Varisty compared to these other venues? What attendance would you need, at what prices to support such a business? What sort of performing arts, how many different performers, how many weeks of the year would you need to gain such attendance? Have you done an EIR to assess the traffic, and parking needs - it's pretty tough finding parking on a Friday/Saturday night, the prime nights that people would go out. Do you think there's enough parking for 400-800 additional cars?

I have very fond memories of growing up in Palo Alto in the 1970's, but that's an era that's long gone for alot of reaasons, and businesses that would work in Downtown back then won't work today. Movie theatres, book stores, video rental stores are businesses where customers have found alternatives that they prefer, and that's why it's difficult to recreate the past.

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Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 4, 2011 at 4:26 pm

Well, said, Tasha Brooks!

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Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 4, 2011 at 4:57 pm

To all the snarky anonymous posters who say variations of "if you personally do not have a $20 million line of credit you have no right to speak up," -- and some of of our council members said variations of same -- I obviously would have to disagree.

First of all, concert business is a business, in some cases a big business. A Wall Street guy named Robert F.X. Sillerman made a purported $200 million profit by buying Bill Graham Presents and comparable businesses, rolling them up and re-selling them to Clear Channel for $900 million. These types of operators know how to make a profit at 456.

It is not up to Tasha -- or me, but thanks, I guess for asking -- to be the ones to put up our money. We are merely pointing out there are plenty of ways to do this. Where there is a will there is a way.

In 1985 or so, Palo Alto City Council members --and this info is on file -- lobbied, mediated, intervened, got involved -- in a dispute between residents of President Apartments and owners operators of the Varsity over the noise from the court yard, from Tuck and Patti and MIchael Hedges. They said the courtyard music was a significant public benefit so we as leaders feel obligated to please both sides and find a solution (which was an upgraded power system that directed the music). Compare that to today's council who seem afraid to say anything that would rankle the all-powerful landlord. Indeed, Info Palo Alto says that in 1985 value of commercial property here was $5 billion and now, 2011, it is $25 billion -- a gain, okay some is investment, but a lot is mere gain -- of ten to twenty billion, and who benefits from that? Relatively few. And how does that lobby affect policy? Go ahead and poll residents of Professorville -- and Mayor Sid told me personally this is somehow a related issue -- about why it takes four years to solve their neghborhood parking problems.

This debate deserves a fair hearing and not fast-tracked literally while people sleep.

And YES YES YES I support public funding of the arts. If my tax dollars support oil wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- 5,000 U.S. dead and hundreds of thousands of "their"(?) dead -- and supports capital punishment, why not "children's poetry slam"?

And yes, I would put together my friends and family business plan but the landlord is trying to fast-track away from reasonable offers and catering to this boomtown carpet bagger set. And yes we, the other 60,000 of us have a right to object. Or at least have our say. In a democracy. Or are we all now just share-cropper and serfs?

I hope someone who reads or several people join Tasha and I at the hearing. And even the ones in the "property rights" camp, I hope you have the guts to come out and show yourselves and speak your mind. The diversity of opinions make us stronger as a community.

Also, a Stanford researching named Laura Surma reports that Borders signed a 20-year lease, i.e until 2014 AND have pre-paid to have the theatre revert to a theatre when they leave. If that is true, shouldn't our attorney Molly Stump be in touch with the bankruptcy judge and or ask or subpoena the owners and lease-holders to put their cards on the table?

The owner here kinda reminds of the guy who over-spent to remodel Fox Theatre in Redwood City but had no idea how to interact with the concert business and never really had a foothold. For a variety of reasons, this would do better but it does not look like landlord has done much diligence on concert business per se -- despite having the current Landmark as a tenant, at Aquarius. Our group has actually tapped Gary Meyer the founder of the original Landmark chain for guidance -- I don't think current owner is looking seriously into music because of the tantalizing short-term high tech social media mania. But there is a community interest in trying to help him see the light. We have the right.

Mark Weiss
"The Last Picture Waltz 456" initiative (my esoteric name for my work on this)
Earthwise Productions of Palo Alto

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Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Oct 4, 2011 at 7:50 pm

Palo Alto is so strange. Sometimes it defends capitalism to the hilt, other times not so much.

This proposal, though the nostalgia is touching, is naive. This is private property. The owner has the right to modify the building, within the zoning laws. The property is not yours to decide how it will be developed.

BUT you can make him an offer to buy it. If you want to purchase it (really??), you will have to

(a) Raise the money for fair market value. Hmmmmm. Many millions.

(b) Then endure the "Palo Alto Process"to change it's use to a public theatre again (see you in 10 years...meanwhile, you'll be fighting the "don't increase the University Ave. traffic" and the "parking is horrid" folks)

(c) Prevent it from becoming an empty, derelict bldg, like the "theatre" on El Camino (I can already see the homeless staking out some good spaces) and

(d) Pay the hefty taxes on it.

Why not just work WITH the owner to try to perserve the architecture --- that seems to be the source of your happy memories about the location.

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Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 5, 2011 at 2:21 am

The term "Palo Alto Process" is a campaign by the developers to berate City Staff and create a misconception that the public should work at the speed of the industry who make millions and billions by fouling the commons and refers to their greed rather than any public need. It's propaganda.

There is some public benefit in investing in downtown but it is way out of hand and plays too great a role in public policy. But yes the optimal outcome would include working with the owner of 456 to see the light -- maybe he would want people to remember him fondly via "CK Auditorium at The Varsity" -- rather than opposing him like in 1995 or go above his head via eminent domain which would mean first getting three or four residentialists on council in 2012. This case study will play a major role in 2012 local election, mark my words.

Also, I would say, having viewed "Page One" about New York Times at PAIFF some thread about dimunition of news business and "fourth estate" due to for example purchase of Tribune Company (who had asset here once, of course) by realtor Sam Zell: these people seek to get rid of the press rather than get in on their profits. Palo Alto journalism is severely compromised by its pander to real estate interests here, I think. So yes, after I buy the Varsity I will also start an independent newspaper that takes no real estate ads.

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Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Oct 5, 2011 at 9:13 am

Amazing that so many PA residents whose position/livelihood are the clear benefits of the workings of capitalism (and who would fight against having those benefits threatened or denied) are so quick to think taking those benefits from others is just fine.

Take the property away from the owner because you think reviving an old theater would be nice?

That's NOT what eminent domain is for --- except in a dictatorship. I think PA should take your house via eminent domain, raze it, and should put in a dog park that would benefit me and a lot of other people.

Be a good capitalist -- if you have a dream for the theater property, offer to buy it from the owner. Or, negotiate with the owner to suggest ways to preserve the beloved facade, as previously suggested.

But you cannot tell him who to rent to. Not the American Way folks

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Posted by Let me try
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2011 at 9:48 am


I also agree with neighbor, pulling the eminent domain card for this purpose is just asking for a protracted lawsuit that the building's owner has the willingness and resourses to fight and win.

Web Link

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Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Oct 5, 2011 at 11:41 am

Thanks to "Let me try" for the note about the Half Moon Bay case. There is a lesson for Tasha et al in that story --- Be careful what you wish for.

Most issues are not 0 vs.1, so meet with the developer about the do-able goal of preserving the facade.

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Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 5, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Whatever system we have or people want to say we have - it's stupid if the Varsity theater ends up as an office complex. If some how preventing that is UNcapitalistic, then I am fine with that. Having something in the city that has "always" been a theater, is a city landmark, and a wonderful building reduced to a meaningless facade as a historic tip of the hat ... there there is something wrong here in river city.

Framing every single debate that shows up in every single forum as some kind of assault on capitalism, mom and apple pie is one of the reasons our country seems to be slipping through our fingers without anyone knowing why or what to do.

I don't know the intricate workings of what is going on behind the scenes at the Varsity, all I know is that the relevant parties should make it work, whatever it is, to keep this building contributing in some important non-office building way to the Palo Alto community. Just make it so ... use our capitalistic system and government systems to surprise and delight the city.

Otherwise just take your f-ing money and go invest it in China.

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Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 6, 2011 at 2:07 am

Beautifully stated, Tasha. And kudos for taking the time to create this revival project. May it gather steam!

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Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 6, 2011 at 9:02 am

I'm largely indifferent what they put there - a failed arts-oriented project (badly maintained, not widely used) would be worse than a robust retail/office complex. I'd rather have something that works than something that "sounded good."

I do think that since concerts, etc. are "destination" events, you don't have to put the venues in the most traffic'ed retail location in town. You can put someplace with cheaper rent and easier access, esp for people from other towns (like, umm, Shoreline, but smaller). Preserving an old building (that frankly to my eye is not especially attractive) for its old use seems driven more by nostalgia than forward looking thinking.

I hope they spruce up the building, get good tenants, and keep downtown vibrant. That's all I'm looking for.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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