Grand Jury Report, our response and my real time qualms

I’ve read the Grand Jury Report. I have not seen the response, written by Pat Burt (council),Greg Schmid (council) and Jim Keene (staff, City Manager).

Here is a reprint of a speech I gave to ARB two years ago, in November 2012 — I tie the hulabuloo about 27 University to the lack of response or failure to act regarding 456 University, the Varsity Theatre. What isn’t well known is that Arrillaga first started thinking about the office towers during the months at the end of 2011 when people were talking about the Varsity and that staff member Amy French (or so she told me, later) is the one who suggested adding a theatre (for Theatreworks) to the office towers plan. In my opinion, staff might have put the same energy in brokering a deal to bring a nationally known concert promoter to 456. Meanwhile, based on hearing Chop Keenan out on the topic, and his insistence that the plan to let SAP corporation run a type of incubator at 456, that features food and programming for all citizens — Chop says it will “rock” – I have stopped obstructing the project.

My thoughts from two years ago (and this is a recreation I wrote up shortly thereafter; the actual address is searchable):
I want to thank the Board for its diligence, on this matter, and the preceding item (on Newell Street Bridge , where residents decried the plans for a new bridge design five times bigger in “footprint” than the existing bridge, built in 1911).

I attended the meeting on October 24. I want to highlight something I found interesting from that meeting. I noticed that three of you, or two (Architectural Review) Board members and one Planning Commissioner noted that in terms of the plan presented, (for the Arrillaga Office Towers and Theatre proposal, at 27 University) you would do, professionally speaking “the opposite”, that you would place the theatre closer to University Avenue and the office towers back near the soccer field.

I think this is relevant in that it speaks to something about the aesthetics of the proposal. I think there are concerns over both the product – what is being proposed – and the process – how it is being proposed.

I first heard of this project when it came up at Council in March, 2012, this year. But in the staff report from September it turns out that the project was initiated back in August of 2011, meaning that it has been going on partially in secret for more than a year, in addition to these types of recent hearings and discussions.

What I just learned last week however, speaking with staff after the meeting, and what Bruce (F_, consultant to the City for the project) spoke of just now very briefly – and I believe that is the first time this fact was part of the record – my understanding is that the proponent of this project first approached the City with an idea for an office tower, and it was staff that suggested that the project would go over better with an arts element, as public benefit. So the theatre is something of an afterthought, despite the fact that it was described in the local media as “a theatre project” and then you go down the story and it says office space and in fact it is three times as much office space as theatre.

Another thing – a semantic thing about the proposal, a quibble – is that they call it an “arts and innovation district” but in terms of innovation we are talking not about start-ups, spin-offs, clusters of entrepreneurs, incubators, that are the heart of the Silicon Valley ethos, as distinct from a mature company, with a thousand employees, that the proponent says he wants to lure to 27 University – and that in terms of arts it is really one art – live theatre – and only one potential beneficiary.

What I find interesting, and I am interested in hearing staff or leadership make this more clear as more daylight reaches this project – and I work in the arts – is that at that same time, August, 2011 myself and others were looking at 456 University, the historic and beloved Varsity Theatre, and whether leadership could work with that private owner and find a suitable nationally-recognized concert promoter to take that lease. Staff was given a list and did some outreach to people who run, for example, the Warfield, the Fillmore, Fox Theater in Oakland, Yoshi’s, Freight and Salvage [which completed a $15 million capital campaign, to rebuild and renew in Downtown Berkeley, for concerts, at a time when Palo Alto City Manager Jim Keane was city manager of Berkeley, he is familiar with the project, and instructed staff here to research 456 University]. I am curious for someone to compare the two proposals, in terms of the need for a downtown arts amenity.

Anyhow I am anxious to hear more discussion here and that there is more public input. Thank you board and staff.
(the buzzer rang — today of all day’s I was cognizant of what Shakespeare called “the brief candle”)

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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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