An ambitious plan by billionaire John Arrillaga to build a theater and a large office building near Palo Alto's downtown Caltrain station could help TheatreWorks achieve its dream of finding a place it can call its own. Theater officials have told the Weekly they have been in discussions with Stanford University and the city over the new plan and are hoping to become the occupant of the proposed theater, which would be built at 27 University Ave., the site of the historic MacArthur Park restaurant.
The project is still in its embryonic phase, but Monday night, March 5, the City Council approved 7-0, with Mayor Yiaway Yeh absent and Councilman Larry Klein recused, a staff recommendation to spend $250,000 on design work and environmental analysis. The money would be taken from a $2.5 million fund that Stanford University pledged to provide the city as a "public benefit" last year as part of the massive expansion of its hospital facilities.
If the project were to proceed, it would be a major coup for TheatreWorks, a nonprofit company that currently alternates between the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts and Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Community Center. Theater officials say the current setup creates both logistical inconvenience and confusion for patrons. Robert Kelley, the company's artistic director, said the company typically moves into a venue for a show and then packs up after about five weeks.
The new proposal isn't the first time the theater company has discussed possible collaboration with the city and Stanford University. In 1999, the city and the university explored teaming up to build a new theater at El Camino Park, just west of the site currently under evaluation. But Stanford opted in 2000 to pursue its own plan.
Kelley said that there's "tremendous virtue" to the University Avenue site, namely its proximity to mass transit, El Camino Real, Stanford University and downtown Palo Alto. The existence of other arts-and-culture facilities in the area would help establish the strip as a cultural destination.
"It's in the midst of a burgeoning arts community and an arts district that includes the new Bing Concert Hall (on Stanford's campus) and the Stanford Theatre," Kelley said.
Phil Santora, managing director of TheatreWorks, said the company is looking for a venue that could seat 600 (the same as the Mountain View center). Ideally, it would also include a smaller "flexible" space that could accommodate between 150 and 300 seats.
The new proposal has one advantage over prior discussions that Stanford and the city eventually tabled — a pot of money specifically dedicated to improving the area around the Caltrain station. The development agreement between Palo Alto and the Stanford University Medical Center specifically allocates $2.25 million to pedestrian and bicycling amenities near the border of Stanford and Palo Alto. The new proposal also has, in Arrillaga, a backer with deep pockets and a long history of major donations to his alma mater, Stanford.
Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie called the timing of the proposal a "fortunate situation" because it allows the city to consider pedestrian and bicycle improvements to the area in the context of the project. Had the proposal come in after these improvements are made, the city likely would have to make substantial modifications to accommodate the new facilities. He noted the project remains far from certain and said staff expects to come back in two to three months with more details.
"This is a very fluid and a very tentative proposal at this point," Emslie said.
Even so, council members reacted favorably to the idea of bringing a new theater to the MacArthur Park site, a project that would require the restaurant's relocation to a site of the city's choosing at the applicant's expense. The proposal also includes at least one office building and an underground garage.
"I think this can really open things up for the downtown area — make it much more integrated," Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd said.
Councilman Sid Espinosa said the project has the potential to "really transform this wall between Stanford and Palo Alto.
"This can really be a transformative move for the city, and that's why I'm excited," Espinosa said. But "I'm cautious because I just want to be sure we build a process that reaches out to the neighbors, reaches out to businesses and thinks about how to really engage them."
TALK ABOUT IT
What do you think about the idea of building an office building and theater near the University Avenue train station? Talk about this issue on Town Square, the community discussion forum, on Palo Alto Online.