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Arrillaga Wants to Build 'Landmark' Palo Alto Theater

Project would marry plans for improved pedestrian and bicycle access Downtown with longstanding vision for a new city theater.

John Arrillaga has big plans for another giant gathering space—this time a large performance complex that would be a “community landmark” near Downtown Palo Alto, according to a City Council Staff Report released Friday.

The Palo Alto billionaire has approached the City of Palo Alto about building a 60 to 80,000 sq. ft. theater with seating for 800 people at 27 University Avenue, near El Camino Real, on Stanford-owned land.

The development concept calls for the theater building—which would also house a 300-person capacity experimental studio theater—a separate multi-story office building, and a three level underground garage.

“It’s very, very exciting in its potential for the city,” said City Manager James Keene.

Palo Alto Council Member Pat Burt said the new theater could be a perfect home for TheaterWorks, which outgrew its performance space at Lucie Stern more than 15 years ago and has since been sharing space at the Mountain View Center for the Public Arts.

"My understanding is it’s the largest independent reparatory theater in the country that doesn’t have its own facilities," said Burt.

“The prominence of the site enables a theatre to be a community landmark while having a physical association with Stanford,” according to the report.

"We don’t really have a big nice venue like that, and having great performing arts is a wonderful plus for Palo Alto," said Vice-Mayor Greg Scharff.

The City has much to gain beyond a new theater, however—plans are alraedy in place to dramatically improve the pedestrian and bike paths crisscrossing the roads between Stanford and Downtown.

"It has the potential, if done correctly, to be an iconic building and one that would do something that has been part of the planning process in Palo Alto for quite a long time, which is to have a real connection between Stanford and Downtown, and also at the same time do significant improvements to the intermodal transit center," said Burt.

The City locked down $2.25 million from Stanford University Medical Center (SUMC) toward that end, in a Intermodal Transit Fund, of which $2 million would go towards the development of “an attractive, landscaped passive park/green space with a clearly marked and lighted pedestrian pathway, benches and flower borders.” The other $250,000 would be used for design expenses.

Enter John Arrillaga.

The site for the proposed theater is exactly where the City wants to build the pedestrian and bicycle improvements. So Arrillaga may have to essentially fold all of that into his design.

Furthermore, a 2000 study commissioned by the City, the Palo Alto/Stanford University Performing Arts Initiative, identified a prominent location on the Palo Alto side of El Camino Real for a large theater, but today that site is being used for a .

27 University is right next door to that site.

“The importance of a site in this area is the link between the University and the City of Palo Alto,” according to the staff report. “The area provides direct link to the University Caltrain station, direct vehicular access and public visibility.”

Even though the City has not received a formal application for the project—it is in an early design review stage—staff want to retain a consulting architect, urban designer and planner to work with Arrillaga “to integrate the City’s urban design interests at an early and formative stage of the project.”

Funding would also be needed to start technical environmental reports including a traffic study, arborist report, storm water management plan, sanitary sewer study and storm drain analysis, according to the staff report.

Burt cautioned that any project proposal would first have to garner public support, especially given its size.

“I hope we’ll have something that the community will embrace, but I don’t know what that is yet.”

Council will decide Monday night whether to authorize the $250,000 from the SUMC Development agreement in order to "get ahead of the curve," Burt said, by pairing designers from the City with Arrillaga's people, to make sure the city's needs are met.

“The project presents a unique opportunity to create an attractive, vibrant, urban destination and identity for people arriving by transit to Palo Alto,” according to the report, “one that complements the scale and character of downtown, and enhances connectivity to downtown and Stanford.”

commuter March 02, 2012 at 11:48 PM
Renovating the existing Varsity Theater is a better idea. That location is better for most residents and there is a big demand to maintain the historic building.
Mark Weiss March 06, 2012 at 06:37 AM
Speaking of theatre works, try "there is something rotten in the state of Denmark" Hamlet, I:iv. Um, did council just vote to give $250,000 to subsidize a billionaire's pipe dream? What's up with that? What's up with that? Aaron, I would caution you about posting everything the developers give you without sussing it out a bit; you risk Patch becoming a real estate rag like two or three of your competitors.
Mark Weiss March 06, 2012 at 06:40 AM
Or "What Up With That?" the reference: http://www.hulu.com/watch/102975/saturday-night-live-what-up-with-that-james-franco
Aaron Selverston March 06, 2012 at 08:57 AM
The $250K is from Stanford Hospital, and it's for expanding intermodal transportation between campus and downtown. Arrillaga's project happens to be right in the middle of where those upgrades would go, so yes, the City better make sure those dollars get spent wisely on bike and pedestrian access leading to, from, and if necessary, through whatever gets built.
Mark Weiss March 15, 2012 at 08:00 PM
it is still unclear to me whether he is donating the theatre shell in exchange for rights to build and lease and profit from the office complex or whether the office complex is also donated to someone.
Cheryl Lilienstein March 16, 2012 at 12:34 AM
This project seems like a good use of the centrality and mass transit accessibility of the site. I'm excited about improving the array of cultural events here.

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