"I never thought we'd be talking about Willie Nelson's shower size," said Menlo Park Planning Commission Chair Drew Combs at one point during Monday's livelier-than-usual Planning Commission discussion about a proposal by a local nonprofit, the Peninsula Arts Guild, to transform the El Camino Real Guild Theatre into a live music and community event venue.
Combs was responding to a comment by resident and self-described "strong downtown advocate" Marc Bryman, who urged the commission to ask that the project support the community in the "best possible way."
"Give Willie Nelson a bigger shower," he said, referring to just one theoretical performer who could come to Menlo Park.
Since the project was first proposed in January, the City Council has thrown its support behind it and asked city staff to prioritize it as a top-five project for the year.
Ultimately, the commission voted 6-0, with Susan Goodhue absent, in favor of recommending the project to the council, with a few additions: that the owners develop a parking plan for employees; that the allowances the city is making be deed-restricted; that there be efforts to ensure access to the venue by people from all areas of the city; and that there be more information about what days, at what cost, and when community groups might be permitted to book the site, as requested by commissioner Andrew Barnes.
The new nonprofit, started by Drew Dunlevie, Pete Briger and Thomas Layton, was launched with a goal of creating an event venue on the Peninsula so that locals don't have to schlep out to San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland to see top-tier performers, Dunlevie said.
One way to attract top-tier acts without being a big city or a big venue, Dunlevie said, is to guarantee they'll be paid, and have a green room, or a comfortable area, with showers, where performers can spend time before the show. Typically, performers have to spend most of their time on tour in buses, he said.
Bryman was one of at least a dozen people to speak publicly about the project before the commission, including two City Council members, Ray Mueller and Catherine Carlton. They both expressed strong support for the project.
Many others from across the city – and not only the usual residents who weigh in on city projects – submitted emails to the council's inbox, voicing support for the "New Guild."
While the large majority of comments were supportive of the project, the property and business owners near the Guild expressed some reservations.
Octopus restaurant owner Jeffrey Son said he is worried that it will be hard for customers to access his business during construction. Eugene Perez, who runs Menlo Flooring, said he was worried about disruptions during the project's construction, and that the venue will make it harder for customers to find parking.
The owner of the properties on either side of the Guild said that he had not yet been approached about the project. "I'm here to say there should be some dialogue," he said.
Dunlevie assured the commissioners he would work with neighboring business owners to minimize impacts.
The proposal is asking for a lot, by Menlo Park standards – a waiver of the typical parking requirements and approval of a building with more square footage than is usually permitted in town, said Combs. While he characterized the requested permissions as "extraordinary," he added, "I do think this is an extraordinary project. ... It's not something you see being built in communities that often."
The architectural plans for the new Guild are by Chris Wasney of CAW Architects, the firm behind the Greek Theatre in Berkeley and the Allied Arts Guild restoration in Menlo Park.
Dunlevie said Wasney knows how to create "alchemy between the audience and performers so that they're both really happy to be there."
The venue would be flexible and could be used for events such as school plays, jazz shows, comedians, author talks, band or singer performances, speaker series, and movies. As a community benefit, whenever the facility is not booked for a live show, or potentially private events, members of public could book it, he said.
According to a staff report, there would be a green room with showers and storage in the basement, a tiered audience area with a bar and stage on the ground floor, and an upper mezzanine with extra viewing space and another bar.
The new Guild would be about 11,000 square feet with a maximum height of 34 feet, and with a capacity for about 150 to 200 seats, or about 500 people at a standing-room-only show.
The renovations would be more extensive than originally planned, Dunlevie said. That's partly because the existing walls are about 6 inches over the property line and will have to be moved back to the original line, according to evaluation by City Attorney Bill McClure, Dunlevie said.
Because the facility will be operated as a nonprofit, all sales will go toward operating costs, including paying musicians and staff. Any extra money will go back into the program, and could yield ticket discounts, Dunlevie said.
Movies will continue to be part of the Guild, though it's not yet clear how often. Dunlevie said he's working with Menlo Park's "Save the Guild" group, headed by city resident Judy Adams, to develop plans. She said she's hoping to line up film festivals. Dunlevie noted that the group plans to get movable theater-style seats that can be set up for film screenings and high-quality projection equipment.
When asked whether the proposal had been cleared by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, Wasney said that the project was still being reviewed by the district, but that the new building "will be far better off than it is now."
Currently, Wasney said, there's the front exit; an exit that opens on to the backyard of Clockworks, which has no exit; and a third exit that opens onto a 6-foot alleyway, "festooned with trash cans."
The existing building has not yet been seismically adapted, nor are there sprinklers, while the proposed project would be brought to current city safety codes.
"I didn't realize the theater was such a fire trap," said Commissioner John Onken. "I try not to think about that (while at the movies.)"
The City Council is scheduled to review the project in May.
From the time the project is approved, Wasney said, he expects the project to take 16 months to build.