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Guest opinion: History of Park Theatre, from owner's perspective

By Howard Crittenden

I know many residents of Menlo Park were disappointed and frustrated when the Park Theatre was demolished in November of 2013. It was heartbreaking for me, too -- I have owned the property for 27 years and invested over $400,000 in architectural plans, consultants, attorney fees, and required city costs to try and make it a viable property and keep its historical essence intact.

There have been many misconceptions regarding the theater and why it was torn down, and as the owner of the building, and as someone who worked hard to find a common ground, I would like to explain my side of the story and clear up any confusion as to why demolishing the building became the most sensible option.

I purchased the Park Theater property in 1986 as a real estate investment. Around the late 1990s, the theater tenant, Landmark, declared reorganization bankruptcy. They were a good tenant, and the theater was popular, so I reduced the rent to $.61 a square foot (in a market where $1.75 a square foot was the going rate). The space was drastically under-performing, so I tried numerous times to make the building a mixed-use space, with office space in addition to the theater.

Repeatedly, the Menlo Park Planning Commission did not support my attempts to add office space -- or add more parking -- even when I came back with plans for underground parking options.

During the late 1990s and through the 2000s, I spent tens of thousands of dollars on architect plans and consultants, and I devoted countless hours to presenting my ideas to the City Council, hoping that somehow, together we could come to a workable solution that would keep the historical theater in place, while allowing me to operate an investment that could be profitable.

In the following years, the city decided to encourage development downtown by creating the Downtown Specific Plan. Encouraged by the new rules, I dusted off my original plans and hired a respected attorney to help me push forward with renovating the building.

To meet the city's requirements, the new construction bid came in significantly higher than what the architect had estimated, making the project financially untenable. I attempted to work with the city to grant a variance on some of the parking restrictions, and I asked Caltrans to partner with me in installing bike parking along El Camino Real, as this was the only way to preserve the theater's marquee from being hit by passing trucks. The city wasn't ready to accept this idea, and the added requirements would have added additional years to the project's completion.

Reluctantly, I was finally forced to abandon the project. We demolished the building, and the property has now been sold. I regret that there were no winners in the demolishing of the Park Theatre, and I want to offer my sincere apologies to the members of the Menlo Park community who wished to see the theater stay. I put a huge amount of financial resources and time into the project, but I finally realized it wouldn't be viable in the current environment.

Thank you for reading this and hearing my side of the story.

Howard Crittenden

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