More recently, a float station studio leased the space and applied for a conditional use permit to operate, according to Brad Ehikian of Premier Properties, which owns the building. The city granted the permit in September 2019 but then COVID-19 rocked the retail environment and the studio proposal floated away in spring of 2020. Today, about 4,200 square feet of the building continues to be empty, while the remainder is a pharmacy operated by Walgreens.
In a letter to the city, Ehikian cited the lack of pedestrian foot traffic and insufficient parking as main reasons why The North Face left and why no one has filled the majority of the commercial space since his company began marketing it in 2015. His log of visitors shows a variety of suitors: a cat cafe, a fencing studio, a spa and a furniture store. Still, no go.
Now, Premier Properties and Palo Alto officials are hoping to compensate for the lack of foot traffic by inviting paw traffic. A veterinary clinic called Modern Animal is planning to take over the Alma Street building between Everett and Lytton streets and has already signed a lease. Before it can move in, however, it will require the City Council to approve a waiver from the retail preservation ordinance, a law that was passed in 2015 and that limits uses in downtown buildings. The council will consider the waiver at its Sept. 12 meeting.
City Planning Director Jonathan Lait has already signed off on the waiver after accepting Ehikian's argument that the building is not particularly suitable for retail. Allowing Modern Animal to occupy the space, Ehikian argued, would both fill a long-standing vacancy and create a rare opportunity for adding an animal-care facility, a use that he said is restricted in most parts of Palo Alto.
"Due to Palo Alto's restrictive zoning code, finding places to locate the animal care services necessary for all of the pandemic cats and dogs is proving extremely difficult," Ehikian wrote to the city.
"When you really dig-in on this issue, the retail preservation ordinance has effectively resulted in a moratorium, or close to it, on new animal care facilities in the city. This is especially true if someone seeks to open an animal care facility in the city's most retail heavy areas such as downtown," he wrote.
In approving the waiver, Lait concurred that animal care is consistent with the site's "commercial downtown neighborhood" zoning designation. The proposed use, Lait wrote, "encourages active pedestrian-oriented activity and connections that are conducive to retail uses."
Modern Animal currently has five locations, four in the Los Angeles area and one in San Francisco. According to its website, it plans to open two more clinics next year, in San Francisco and Mill Valley.
A letter to the city from Joe Pantano, the company's head of real estate and development, states that the Palo Alto facility will be a "general practice veterinary clinic" for dogs and cats, with services including "wellness, procedures, dental and urgent care." It will not serve as an animal hospital (though it plans to partner with animal hospitals and refer visitors as needed) or provide overnight boarding or kenneling services, according to Pantano.
In making the case for a waiver, Pantano argued that Modern Animal is a "perfect tenant" for the building and one will "bring new life to the site with a community serving use." While other tenants were put off by the pandemic and its impact on retail, Pantano noted in his letter that more than 23 million American households — nearly 1 in 5 — adopted a pet since the onset of COVID-19.
"The result of that is an increased need for veterinary care across the United States, and Modern Animal is doing our part to address that need," Pantano wrote. "Part of the reason we are so interested in expanding to Palo Alto is because of how much this community values their pets. Palo Alto's long history of investing in pet and animal care is well-documented, and our hope is that Modern Animal can be the next chapter in that history."
The waiver will be on the council's "consent calendar," which means it will be automatically approved with no discussion or debate unless three council members opt to remove it from the calendar and schedule a full hearing on the proposal at a future date.
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