Apropos of the news that former BGP partner David Mayeri is opening a non-profit music venue in Berkeley, re-purposing the former UC Theatre (flagship of Gary Meyer’s Landmark chain), I am re-posting this letter I wrote to City Council about The Varsity Theatre in Palo Alto (current home to Samsung offices and an empty first floor).
As Frances Dinkelspiel reported in the Berkeleyside blog:
“Turning on the lights of the new UC Theatre will broaden the music scene and appeal of the Downtown arts district for a more youthful audience, beautifully renovate a grand old lady of a theater, and revitalize a key stretch of University Avenue that serves as a gateway to Downtown and UC Berkeley,” said John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association.
My understanding is that the only person on the list below who toured the Palo Alto facility was Danny Scher. Steve Baker of Freight and Salvage had made a plan to meet me at 456 but called back that day to cancel on account of his son being injured in a youth soccer match. My impression is that Karen Holman was the only member of Council to actually check with Tom Ferhrenbach about this concept , the record shows. Steve Emslie, who is now both drawing a pension from the tax payers as a retired City Official AND earning fees as a lobbyist for the developers, told the Post shortly after reading this document that a theatre in downtown Palo Alto was a non-starter. Interestingly, around that time John Arrillaga or his people came to the City with grand plans to build at 27 University and took the City’s suggestion to add a theatre to that plan (for Theatreworks).
Running into the various dramatic personae of this saga, as I did today, makes me wonder about it all again. I was greeted by James Keene, as he and Claudia Keith crossed Hamilton at Emerson, and then noted Steve Emslie with developer Jim Baer huddled at Coupa, and greeted by two other people on our payroll.
It would be in the public interest if Council strived to avoid the appearance of a two-track governance, for the elite and the commoners (letter to Council, August, 2011)
City of Palo Alto
250 Hamilton Avenue
Palo Alto, California 94301
From: Grider, Donna
Sent: Monday, August 01, 2011 8:41 AM
To: mark weiss; Keene, James
Cc: Fehrenbach, Thomas; Emslie, Steve
Subject: RE: letter to council re 456 UniversityMark:I see that you have subsequently sent this to Council. I am also forwarding to the City Manager.Donna J. Grider, MMC
City of Palo Alto
650-329-2226ü*Think Before You Print!*—–Original Message—–
From: mark weiss [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Monday, August 01, 2011 7:56 AM
To: Grider, Donna
Cc: Espinosa, Sid; Scharff, Greg; Gail Price; Holman, Karen
Subject: letter to council re 456 UniversityI am writing you to ask our elected representative government, our Mayor Sid Espinosa and eight additional City Council members, to intervene in the matter between the landlord/manager of 456 University Avenue and his prospective future tenant, at the Varsity Theater, in the wake of the failure of Borders national chain Books there. On these five grounds:1) The venue could be a future site (as it was from 1927 to 1994, for more than sixty years) for 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; this use is a rare thing, an essential thing for a Democracy, great for local economy (see Richard Florida, “The Creative Class”) and consistent with our articulated values about “civic engagement.”2) When Council in 1996 voted to give landlord a variance to permit conversion from Theatre to retail, it was very specifically and popularly asked to only do so if the Theatre could be converted back; short of a literal covenant, the popular conception is that in the event of the failure of the national chain bookseller, the citizens (at that point 8,000 had signed a petition) would have a fair chance to present a proposal. Also, and former Mayor Gary Fazzino reminded me of this recently, the engineering done in 1996 very specifically was done so as to ease the reversion back to a Theatre or public hall use. (The website of Meserve Engineering of San Jose confirms this and has useful photos).3) Our elected council should perhaps atypically take the initiative here in terms of directing or engaging with applicant in that he is generally perceived to be the most powerful land-owner in town, or one of “the Big Three”, endorsed eight or nine of the campaigns of the current Council; it would be in the public interest if Council strived to avoid the appearance of a two-track governance, for the elite and the commoners. Indeed, it looks like the three local papers have something of an embargo on this story, of the community interest in The Varsity Theatre. Also on Friday, July 29 a deputy city manager seemed to be making prejudicial, premature and biased comments on this issue, or words were attributed to him, that this proposal – the Varsity Theatre — was a non-starter (“that a theater wasn’t really a viable option”????). Also, given the historic value of this building, staff should be instructed to be thorough, diligent and error-free in its writings, research and reports on this topic (perhaps especially to refute the notion that the very powerful can somehow hermetically influence staff utterances); perhaps any application for permits at 456 University, in this context, could be grounds for calling a public hearing;4) In terms of the value of a proposed or potential Varsity Theatre, perhaps offering, via a qualified nationally-known commercial operator, by a non-profit or an ad hoc and to be formed new NGO, or by government, beyond the economic value to local restaurants, hotels, impulse-buy shops and perhaps CalTrain, one specific social value near to my heart would be its impact or synergy with Project Safety Net. I believe, especially in the context of the demise of our downtown teen center, and the closing of the public hall during the work on the Art Center, that there could be concerts specifically to raise funds or consciousness about teen suicide. In 1998, for example, I hosted and produced just such an event at Cubberley featuring a band called Pansy Division, who were famous as a clearinghouse for such information. More recently, I have been in contact with Kristin Hersh, who played Cubberley, was nominated for a Twilight Series show, and has spoken publicly about the suicide of her friend the musician Vic Chesnutt. Also, I thought of Judy Collins, who wrote a book about depression, and thought to contact her, regarding a potential concert here, via her associate my friends at Grassy Knoll management and label, Julia Reinhart. Joan Baez and Dar Williams are also well known, sympathetic, and have local ties.5) I think staff or council should be in contact with potential operators of a venue, who could also offer insight, encouragement and information should it come down to deciding that a local newly-forming operator is the best viable new tenant. People I have, since July 20, spoken to include: Jason Olaine, Gunn graduate, and manager of Yoshi’s San Francisco; Gary Meyer, founder of Landmark films; David Lefkowitz, manager of the Warfield Theatre, for Goldenvoice; the office of Alex Hodges, of Nederlander of Los Angeles, operators of San Jose Civic; Brad Kava, music writer, artist, and partner in Santa Cruz Blues Festival; Stuart Brewster, of Palo Alto Jazz Alliance; Steve Baker, manager, Freight and Salvage, of Berkeley (a $20 million dollar project that Palo Alto City manager Jim Keene told me recently he had a great familiarity with); Chris Cuevas, artist manager and founder of Wanderlust music and yoga festival; and Roger McNamee, artist, venture capitalist and investor in Slims/Great American. Also, I think we should contact Lee Smith, Michael Bailey and or Rick Mueller of Live Nation, who operate Shoreline, Mountain Winery and the Fillmore; Greg Perloff of Another Planet, who runs Fox Theatre in Oakland; Danny Scher, a Paly graduate, former president of Bill Graham Presents in San Francisco, principal of Dansun Productions in Berkely, who I believe consulted with his schoolmate Gary Fazzino on this matter in 1996; and Dawn Holliday, of Great American Music Hall, Slims and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass free festival. I have a list of more than 40 such potential sources on this matter, many I have dealt with personally. (I said to council on July 25 that I would on a pro bono basis help staff research and write a white paper on this important and timely matter. I am hereby repeating the offer and advocating that something like should be done, or asking).While I know that many feel that government should not intervene with property rights and the free market, I think there are certain cases where we are compelled to act, and this case, of the matter of 456 University and the Varsity Theatre qualifies and merits it. I think, as keeping with the lore of social media, perhaps the crowd-sourcing and hive-sourcing, and wiki- , would yield a better solution than otherwise would be arrived at by the savvy and successful individual. There could be a win-win that generations of Palo Altans (and regional supporters) would laud your efforts and the efforts of the landlord here. It could be all of our legacy to act here and now on this matter. Many people here feel that the numbers 456 for further auspice are a lucky combination; I realize I am asking for something quite difficult to achieve or hope for.Perhaps we could put funds forward to get a 60-day window for first right of refusal, to research these ideas.Thanks and advance for whatever you can do.Mark WeissPalo Alto residentFollowing music w. government since 1978 when, as an 8th grade rep to Terman Site council I was amazed to hear Led Zeppelin played over Cubberley High p.a. while en route to a district-wide school-hours meeting