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Palo Alto: Board OKs 'working cafe' for Varsity Theater

By Jason Green, Palo Alto Daily News, Calif.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 09--Plans to turn downtown Palo Alto's nearly 90-year-old Varsity Theater into a "working café" are moving forward after winning the backing of the city's Historic Resources Board.

On Wednesday, the board voted 5-0 to recommend approval of the so-called HanaHaus project to the city's director of planning.

The brainchild of SAP Chairman Hasso Plattner, the working café would provide a place where "creative individuals ... can come together, meet, socialize, share ideas and connect with experts," said Sanjay Shirole, vice president and global head of HanaHaus at SAP.

Shirole likened HanaHaus to Lloyd's Coffee House, which birthed insurance giant Lloyd's of London.

"The primary objective of HanaHaus is to make it a public working café," he said. "It will be open to all. We will provide a unique combination of services that offer benefits to café patrons who come in."

SAP, which has offices in Palo Alto, is looking to build its "global street presence" with similar working cafés in Berlin, London and Shanghai, Shirole said. Palo Alto would be the first.

The plans call for relatively minor modifications to the exterior and interior of the historic building at 456 University Ave., which required the board's blessing. Steven Turner, the city's advance planning manager, said the project complies with federal rehabilitation standards.

"We are looking to maintain a soft touch to the entire building," added Shirole.

Built in 1927, the Varsity Theater showed movies through 1994. It then housed a Borders Book and Music Store from 1996 to 2011. Samsung moved into the second floor last year, but the rest of the building remains vacant.

Other projects have been proposed at the site, including a restaurant, which would have required a cover for the courtyard, as well as a large kitchen. Board Member Beth Bunnenberg called the latest plans a "superior product."

"It seems to me that this looks like a proposal I can support," she said.

The board, while enthusiastic about the project, had a handful of concerns. The biggest of them was an exterior blade sign for Blue Bottle Coffee Co., which would operate the café portion of HanaHaus.

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"I understand why the coffee house wants to have somebody be able to see that they're there as they're walking, but we've had a number of projects come before the board that want to adorn historic facades and that's not really consistent with the Secretary of Interior standards," said Board Member David Bower. "I'd like to keep that façade as untouched as possible."

Bower asked Shirole to investigate other options such as putting the Oakland- and Brooklyn-based company's name in the marquee or in one of the two exterior poster boxes.

Board Chairman Roger Kohler also quipped that outdoor furniture proposed for the courtyard looked as though it had been plucked from a garage sale in the Stanford Research Park.

"I look at the interior drawings of the seating and everything and it sort of looks like the inside of the SAP office building," he said. "To me it doesn't seem to reflect the historical feel of the structure."

A member of the project team said the outdoor seating was selected for its ease of removal for special events.

Shirole, a 17-year resident of Palo Alto, said he believed the project would preserve an important piece of local architecture while injecting new life into University Avenue near Middlefield Road.

"I would not be part of a project that does anything that takes away from Palo Alto's vitality in downtown," he said.

Email Jason Green at [email protected]; follow him at twitter.com/jgreendailynews.

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(c)2014 the Palo Alto Daily News (Menlo Park, Calif.)

Visit the Palo Alto Daily News (Menlo Park, Calif.) at www.paloaltodailynews.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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