The Andy Duncan proposal to convert the building into a dance studio for his mother's California Academy of Dance has proved to be more expensive than expected. Mr. Duncan's current plan would make the city the final owner of the property. He would restore the building at his expense, and lease it back from the city, making a one-time upfront rent payment to cover a number of years.
The City Council thought this was a workable solution and agreed to have the city staff and two council members work with Mr. Duncan to negotiate an agreement.
The other proposal came from Menlo Park real estate broker Tom Hilligoss. I met with Mr. Hilligoss several times to learn more about his idea. He explained his interest in restoring the building and making it a movie house again, along with a live theater and meeting hall. What he plans to spend to buy and restore the building will require that he earn $30,000 per month just to pay the financing cost, not including utilities, insurance, staff, maintenance, advertising and more.
This financial burden will require heavy use of the facilities.
He mentioned that he would need to get several variances and a conditional use permit. He will need a parking variance for the 600 seats he intends to have, and then the required beer and wine license. He wants to remove the trees along El Camino Real that are blocking the sign and replace them with newer, shorter trees. Also, he plans to enlarge the lobby of the theater and remove and rebuild the existing restrooms to make them ADA compliant.
There will be traffic and parking concerns when 600 people regularly attend an event at the theater. Where does one put all these cars? How does someone drive through Menlo Park when the streets are jammed with people arriving or leaving the theater? These are roadblocks that have the potential to ultimately kill his proposal.
Mr. Duncan's plan is the most worthy of support. He has run through the thorn patch of the city's Planning Department and emerged intact. His plan is workable and has benefits for all parties concerned. With the city being the owner, future councils will be in control of the property and do with it what they want after a short 10-year lease. In a decade, the cost to the city today will seem like a bargain.
I think that Mr. Duncan's plan is the best we will see. Over the past years there has been no White Knight to save the theater. I should know, and I don't think one will come along anytime soon, if ever. Mr. Duncan's plan makes the most sense.
We all should agree that the Duncan plan is not perfect but the best we will see. If not, we should be prepared to have this vacant boarded-up building greet those coming into Menlo Park for years to come.
Howard Crittenden owns the Park Theater in Menlo Park and lives in Atherton.