Historic Theatre as more downtown office space in Palo Alto

Staff planner Steven Turner dropped a bombshell this morning at the close of the HRB meeting: uber-owner and self-proclaimed “parking czar” Charles J. “Chop” Keenan III has submitted plans, not yet viewable electronically but agendized for historical review as soon as August 20, to turn the ground floor of the historic and beloved Varsity Theatre at 456 University in Palo Alto into “creative work space” / “group meeting space” / “private dining club” for a large software company already located here but who knows a good thing when served them on silver non-Democratic platter.

When Borders the national chain book store pulled out in Fall, 2011 City Manager Jim Keene did instruct staff to look into briefly the concept of finding a qualified prospective tenant to bring a cultural amenity to what most people think of as a movie house, where they saw “Rocky Horror Picture Show” or “Treasure of Sierra Madre” for instance. In actuality, live music acts who played the Varsity included: Stanley Jordan, Count Basie, Social Distortion, Tuck and Patty, John Fahey, and Bill Evans. In Berkeley, where Keene worked prior to coming here in 2009, there were at least two precedents for non-profits to build or expand cultural offerings: Freight and Salvage, who raised or borrowed $16 million to move from North Berkeley to a Downtown Theatre District, and The University (like The Varsity, once part of the Landmark Theatre chain), where former Bill Graham Presents executive David Mayeri leads a new non-profit to present live rock music, coming soon.

Within 48 hours meanwhile of being instructed by his boss to assess our prospects for something similar here, then-assistant city manager Steve Emslie instead told the Daily Post that a downtown theatre in Palo Alto, and 456, was a non-starter. (Steve Emslie who collects a pension from us but is also on staff as a “strategist” he told me, not a lobbyist and not a pr guy, for Goodyear Peterson, a Public Affairs company representing the developers). (see also staff report #1979 of August 1, 2011)

When I spoke to the same HRB at the time urging support for preserving The Varsity by having local leadership — elected Council, appointed Commissioners and Board, and our paid but besieged staff — work with Keenan, who after all owns numerous other properties and is always asking for a break here and there or friendly – to him, not We The People — interpretation or grandfathering — to find such a tenant, David Bower actually told me that I was Un-American to suggest what could be done with another’s property — this was reported by Gennady Sheyner in the Weekly (October 7, 2011).

Unbenownst to anyone — accept the majority of said- and alleged-leadership — uber-uber-owner John Arrillaga had already presented staff his proposal for a 10-story office tower at 27 University — not his land, it belongs to Stanford. Guess what happened? Staff said: hey, maybe this would go over better if you, um, put a Theatre beneath your giant office space tower and monument, maybe Theatreworks will put on a little show for you, wink wink nudge nudge.

In actuality numerous people said, for example on the Weekly site, when in March, 2012 news of the Arrillaga Towers plan finally were allowed to see light of Democracy –of a sort: wouldn’t the Varsity be a better place for Theatreworks downtown? I personally spoke to venture capitalist, Theatreworks board president (and my fellow Dartmouth alum, his kid brother was in my dorm) Jeff Crowe, in line at Coupa, about getting them on the cultural team, at 456, and he said “Good idea, I will bring it to my board”.

In my humble opinion, and having written a 500-word white paper on the topic, which staff economics development Tom Fehrenbach read or was asked to read, by Keene, leadership did a dis-service to the project and basically, in soccer parlance, kicked the ball out of bounds. Staff, council and commissioners, in my opinion, were afraid or unmotivated to challenge the will of Keenan. Chop meanwhile had told a Stanford undergrad, for her thesis, that the 1994 community uproar about converting the theatre to retail, was “a bunch of bitching.”

Nancy Shepherd, our current mayor, said during announcements: I have been getting a lot of calls about the Varsity Theatre (my heart started pounding, watching at home, channel 26, at 1 in the morning). What can I do to tell people that “we are not allowed” to help?

In my opinion, as evidence by this August, 2011 public document, Karen Holman is the only member of the Council at the time that took my white-paper seriously. I met with Fehrenbach and gave him phone numbers of eight leading regional concert promoters, the type of people qualified to book a 600-capacity room like what the Varsity could be.  (My company, Earthwise Productions had produced 150 shows at 300-capacity Cubberley Community Center and the list included people I had spoken with about Palo Alto’s lack of a music venue).

What did she mean, council member Shepherd, a future mayor, potentially running for re-election this November 5, 2014, that in response to your concerns and suggestions, as Palo Altans, and real Americans, that she is not “allowed” — is this something, in private, that was agreed? Is this part of a group of secret, and serial meetings she held with Keenan, or was that part of the John Arrillaga sessions, the ones that were subject of a June 6, 2014 Grand Jury report?

I only speak for myself, yet, as Michael Franti would say: I know I am not alone.

I am going to the August 20 to give them my 3 minutes worth, about what is the proper role of citizen, leadership and “owners” in a Democracy.

I think of this as Save the Varsity: Part 3.

As architect and board member Bernstein was leaving this meeting, after I had a few minutes of Steven Turner’s time to feel this out a bit, he told me that it would not bother him if he, for example built a theatre and and came back, 60 years later, to find a huge corporation using it a a really hip lunch-room. (I should have asked: do you hear back from some of your residential clients that they like to take a crap in their new living rooms?) What I actually said was this:

In the 1970s David Brower (the arch-druid, founder of Sierra Club, not our local yokel jingoistic board member) and Howard Gossage opposed a plan to damn the Colorado River, which would partially flood The Grand Canyon; they wrote a clever headline:


Brower & Gossage, 1966

Brower & Gossage, 1966

edit to add: I did send a version of this to a few local organizers and activists, although it still needs a wee bit of editing; meanwhile, I’m not sure where else I archived this, posted on the Weekly’s excellent coverage of 27 Uni — I posted months later, when I heard of the Grand Jury report:

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 20, 2014 at 10:33 am

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I also disagree with Weekly columnist Steve Levy’s suggestion that staff would engage Arrillaga and Stanford about bringing dense housing to this mostly park land, and historic monuments — war memorials — site.

I’ve been saying these things for quite some time now, about defending status quo from developers:

1. Commercial real estate developers have too much say and sway; leadership –council, commissioners and staff – should listen to RESIDENTS first;

2. Planned Community (PC) zoning is the most concentrated form of abuse of the system in recent years and should be amended, enforced or outlawed;

3. The 27 University project, “Arrillaga Office Towers” should be vigorously opposed by residentialists, as part of taking the town back from these powerful, oligarchical special interests.

Mark Weiss, November 2, 2012 (on his own website, running for Palo Alto City Council)

Without any knowledge of a grand jury, I have been saying various versions of this, in private, at meetings, on Palo alto Weekly comments board and in my blog “Plastic Alto” consistently for three years, probably 20 posts and 10,000 words.

I also link what happened or didn’t happen at 456 University to 27 University.

Democracy is on the ropes getting pummeled here. Are we Rope-A-Dope (like Muhammad Ali, and leadership will start fighting back) or merely dopes?

Which of our current 9 council members, if any, are not actively engaged in working their influence to personally profit and enhance their real estate holdings?

Why doesn’t the Weekly break down the 9, and PATC for good measure, by their role in real estate: what they own, what they do professionally, maybe cross-referenced by what they’ve said or voted on various issues?

Go ahead and vette the candidates for 2014 election by the same algorithm…

Also, break down who the major players are in the the real estate industry here.

The local Palo Alto borders commercial real estate industry I estimate is a $1B per year industry and therefore dwarves certainly municipal budget ($150 M) but total public sector, and when you consider what percent of our civic budget regulates it, about $10 M maybe, and that the attitude of staff is to appease, please, abet and be of service to them and not We The People, the industry, the special interest is largely UNREGULATED.

edit to add: This item was agendized even sooner, Aug. 6, maybe because Steven Turner, after 16 years here, is moving on, to RWC.  I am writing you from that event, in real time. There is a 10-page staff report by Steven Turner, Advance Planning Manager, one of his last acts before moving on, after 16 years here, to Redwood. I spoke at the meeting, during orals, about 261 Hamilton; I said “I’ve spoken my piece / peace about 456″. I should probably try to reach the tenant and feel them out and maybe influence how they do the stage part of their project: why 100 cap, I had it as 600 all-in? Also, I spoke to Chop Keenan, the owner, for about 30 minutes last month and he convinced me to give him benefit of the doubt about the HANAhaus. I will, for about six months after curtain is up. Remember: Roy Orbison is watching!


About markweiss86

Mark Weiss, founder of Plastic Alto blog, is a concert promoter and artist manager in Palo Alto, as Earthwise Productions, with background as journalist, advertising copywriter, book store returns desk, college radio producer, city council and commissions candidate, high school basketball player; he also sang in local choir, and fronts an Allen Ginsberg tribute Beat Hotel Rm 32
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One Response to Historic Theatre as more downtown office space in Palo Alto

  1. markweiss86 says:

    Doris Williams wrote back, via email, I had sent her link to this:
    Very good blog. Yes having a corporation take over a property to turn it into a posh lunch place is sickening. Whatever happened to culture downtown and the responsbility for a community? The closest we get is Avenidas. Can Jim Keane do anything with his experience in Berkely? Maybehe is not manager any more

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