Varsity conversion approved
Publication Date: Wednesday May 31, 1995

DOWNTOWN: Varsity conversion approved

Theater supporters call it the death of a cultural landmark

The first chapter of the Varsity Theatre's new life as a Borders bookstore is about to begin.

Despite two hours of passionate testimony from a long line of theater supporters dismayed by its intended new use, the Palo Alto City Council last week unanimously approved the environmental impact report and design of Chop Keenan's project to convert the 68-year-old Varsity to retail use.

Keenan has a contract with Borders, a large Michigan-based chain, for a bookstore, music shop and coffeehouse. He hopes to have the store in and operating by early next year, following an extensive $4 million seismic and historic renovation of the building.

Keenan also will expand the building by nearly 8,000 square feet to a total of 23,000 square feet, applying a 50 percent development bonus he won from the city for saving a historic building while also strengthening it against earthquakes.

More than two dozen defenders of the Varsity spoke last week, and after each emotional testimony the nearly packed crowd in the Council chambers applauded. They talked about community values, creating a sense of place rather than another "faceless suburb" and betraying the public trust.

They said another bookstore and coffeehouse is the last thing downtown needs, and talked of returning the Varsity to its glory days as a theater and performing arts center.

"Let's stop telling ourselves Palo Alto is so special when we're becoming more generic and suburban than other communities," said Roy Ola of the Friends of the Varsity coalition. Culture and history should not have a price tag on it, he said.

"This place has a soul, something unique," said Jeff Brown. "The Varsity is a gathering place, a historical landmark both in its architecture and in its use."

Mark Martel argued that Keenan's project violates the California Environmental Quality Act requirement to "preserve social environments for present and future generations" and that means more than just saving the building.

"The reason people care about the building is because of the cultural events we had in that theater, the sense of community and the fun we had," Martel said, adding that the environmental impact report did not say why its continued use as a theater was rejected.

"Instead of taking leadership, you're taking cover," Lee Marsullo told the Council. "If you pass this project through now you have betrayed the public trust it is your job to preserve."

But Council members said deciding what can and cannot go into the building is not in their scope; they can judge the project only on whether it meets established rules and process.

"We have to impose the law on the books in a way that is fair to the applicant," said Council member Jean McCown. "By and large the comments I heard tonight were focused on use, not destruction of the building's interior, as earlier."

Indeed, most of the public did not question Keenan's commitment to saving the Varsity architecturally.

Dennis Backlund, a theater history buff and Friends of the Varsity member who has taken the lead over the past 15 months in making certain Keenan preserves the ornate details of the 1927 Spanish-style courtyard theater, applauded Keenan's ultimate project.

"The citizens of Palo Alto have never been involved in the preservation of a historical landmark to this extent," Backlund said. "It's an honorable outcome even though we couldn't maintain its use as a theater."

The Friends of the Varsity raised more than $10,000 from individuals, but the "financial angel" hoped for never arrived to buy the theater for approximately $3.5 million and preserve it as a theater.

Council member Liz Kniss said the Varsity's viability as a theater is remote because "that's the way the free marketplace is."

Council member Gary Fazzino said he had mixed feelings about losing the theater, but he was relieved that the building will be preserved.

There are only three choices to save the Varsity, he said: private redevelopment, philanthropy or a bond measure. If the city to were seek a bond measure, renovations of the Cubberley Community Center would top the list and, for the Varsity, it would be very difficult to get the two-thirds vote necessary, he said.

Council member Dick Rosenbaum said the Council was unfairly castigated by Varsity supporters. "We really do not have it in our power to save the Varsity as a theater," he said. "The only thing we could really do is buy the theater and I would not rate that as a high priority."

"This project would not be what it is today without the public's participation over the last year," said Mayor Joe Simitian.

"I intend to save the Varsity," Keenan said in his closing remarks. "We are just going to substitute one cultural aspect for another--films for literature. Films are born from literature."

City Attorney Ariel Calonne said there are few if any options for the public to block Keenan's project now. It could not be done through a referendum because the decision involves no legislation, he said.

Council member Micki Schneider did not participate in the vote because of a potential conflict of interest. Her retail store is across the street from the Varsity at 456 University Ave.

--Peter Gauvin

"Let's stop telling ourselves Palo Alto is so special when we're becoming more generic and suburban than other communities." @id:--Roy Ola "We have to impose the law on the books in a way that is fair to the applicant." @id:--Jean McCown 

Back up to the Table of Contents Page