Big crowd delays Varsity decision
Publication Date: Friday Jul 8, 1994

DOWNTOWN: Big crowd delays Varsity decision

But Keenan files plans to renovate theater with or without bonus

Developer Chop Keenan's wish for a zoning change to add a few thousand square feet of additional floor space for the Borders book and music store he has lined up to occupy the historic Varsity Theatre was essentially filibustered by overwhelming public opposition at Tuesday's Palo Alto City Council meeting.

Fifty or more citizens, each allowed five minutes to speak, sought to address the Council when the issue came up on the agenda about 10 p.m. The Council decided to hear as many speakers as possible until around midnight and then continue the hearing until Sept. 7, after the Council returns from its summer break in August. In the end, about 25 people spoke, all but a few in opposition to the plans.

Theater advocates said the delay is a small victory that may allow some alternatives to Keenan's plans to surface, perhaps even such seemingly far-fetched ideas as the city purchasing the Varsity for use as a performing arts center.

"This gives us the time we need to work out an equitable solution for the use of the Varsity," said Bruce Grimes, a member of the Save the Varsity Committee, which has collected more than 3,000 signatures opposing the use of the building as a chain bookstore and the double square-footage bonus Keenan wants for doing both a seismic and historic upgrade of the 1927 building.

Grimes asked the Council members to take a more active role in finding a way to maintain the Varsity as a living landmark, not just a building shell.

"Chop Keenan says he is the only one who can save the Varsity Theatre, but he's not going to save the theater by swallowing it," Grimes said. "The architecture says this is a theater and meant only for theatrical use . . . just as a church is for devotional use," added Dennis Backlund, a theater history buff.

But Keenan, interviewed after the meeting, said nothing had changed. His plans are the same. A theater (even a multi-screen), and restaurant combination cannot generate enough revenue to be a viable option, according to his math. "You can't reconcile the arithmetic with the exorbitant costs of renovation," he said. He estimates the renovation will cost around $2.5 million, or about twice the cost of rebuilding a similar-sized structure on the site from scratch.

Keenan followed up Tuesday's late-night meeting by filing renovation plans with the city Wednesday that accommodate either a single bonus (3,750 square feet), which he currently is allowed, or a double bonus, Planning Director Ken Schreiber confirmed.

Keenan said either way the building will be identical on the outside. The additional square footage will be added to the second floor, where Borders would display 60,000 music titles. He said the plans were filed now because he wanted to get the environmental assessment rolling without wasting 60 days waiting for the Sept. 7 meeting.

So why does Keenan want a double bonus if he's planning to go ahead even if he doesn't get it? For the "equity" of doing both a seismic and historic upgrade, he said. He adds that the zoning amendment would help save eight other historic buildings downtown that are "at risk." There are, however, no plans to utilize the double bonus at those other properties and many of them are physically unable to expand anyway, according to city staff documents.

Keenan said if the city or the equivalent of a David Packard Jr. wants to save the Varsity they should step forward. Packard, son of the computer billionaire, bought and restored the Stanford Theatre just a few blocks down University Avenue at a cost of $7.7 million in 1988.

"Jumping up and down is not going to save the Varsity," he said. "Somebody's gotta be willing to cut the checks and so far the only one willing to cut the checks is me."

The Varsity would cost at least $7 million to $8 million to buy and restore, he said. "That's where the rubber meets the road if you want a performing arts center," he said.

Keenan doubts that any Council member wants to get involved. "That would mean buying and financing (the renovations)," he said. "You want to see a lynching? Watch a Council member say, 'Hey I want to have two Stanford Theatres.'"

Council member Micki Schneider, who owns a crafts store a block from the Varsity, excused herself from Tuesday's meeting because of a potential conflict of interest.

To avoid a repeat performance of Tuesday's hearing, only those who didn't speak this week will be allowed to testify in September.

--Peter Gauvin

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