Los Altos theater rendering

The New Theater Working Group presented this illustration of a small theater as part of members’ pitch to the Los Altos City Council last week.

Amid vocal support and opposition, the Los Altos City Council is moving forward with a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that would continue the quest for a new downtown theater.

Led by Mayor Neysa Fligor’s motion, the council majority directed city staff Nov. 9 to draft an MOU that would basically reserve parking plaza space over the next five years for a possible theater site. The draft MOU is scheduled to return to the council for consideration at its Nov. 30 meeting. The MOU would involve no financial commitment on the part of the city. Fligor’s rationale for the MOU was that the city commitment would improve theater backers’ chances of raising funds.

Councilmembers Jonathan Weinberg and Sally Meadows voted in favor of Fligor’s MOU motion. Lynette Lee Eng and Vice Mayor Anita Enander voted against it.

The top location under consideration is the plaza closest to Walgreens behind Main and between Second and Third streets. The site was identified as a good spot for a theater in a Downtown Vision document the council signed off on in 2018.

The MOU is intended to give members of the 16-member New Theater Working Group, sanctioned by the council last spring, time to pursue options, raise funds for a feasibility study and attract private donors. The group requested the council allocate $50,000 for a study that could cost as much as $200,000.

“I want to exhaust all possible sources of city funding to help get this feasibility study off the ground,” said Vicki Reeder, following the Nov. 9 council meeting.

Reeder is leading the theater group. She wants the council to consider drawing from American Rescue Plan Act funds distributed to the city. The council is slated to discuss those funds at its Nov. 30 meeting.

Residents weigh in

Some see a downtown theater as key to community building and economic vitality. Others see it as a potential drain on city finances and a loss of downtown parking. More than 20 speakers, many ceding time to others to make longer presentations, lobbied for and against building a new theater.

Theater group backers, many of them supporters of Los Altos Stage Company, envision a small – fewer than 200 seats – theater built at a cost of $15 million to $20 million. Advantages of a downtown theater, according to proponents, include nearly $1 million in added annual sales downtown. They also pointed to the Downtown Vision study, which reported a theater would occupy the smallest downtown footprint, at 12,000 square feet, to accomplish that.

Most proponents took a macro approach in describing why Los Altos should have a multipurpose theater, calling it an important investment in making Los Altos a better community.

“You will not regret it if you go ahead with the exploration of a downtown theater,” said Los Altos Hills resident Ying Liu, a member of the Los Altos Stage Company Board of Directors.

“What I find compelling about the downtown multipurpose theater is the opportunity to create a public-private project where philanthropy can play a key role,” added Los Altos resident Claudia Coleman, a member of the New Theater Working Group.

Scott Hunter, executive director of the downtown Los Altos Village Association, said his board supported a theater because of the social and economic vitality it would bring.

Some speakers expressed concerns the city would end up doing the lion’s share of planning and building a theater, as well as operating and maintaining it.

“I do not believe the public should fund the theater,” said resident Teresa Morris. “I believe it should be funded 100 percent by private funds. If it cannot be funded by private donations, it shows a lack of intent and a lack of feasibility.”

Coleman said it was important for the city to “have some skin in the game” by contributing funds.

Others believed greater analysis and other detail work should be conducted before getting to the MOU stage.

“They come with no public outreach to average people, no financials, no business plan,” resident Pat Marriott said of those promoting a downtown theater.

Right idea, wrong time?

Freddie Wheeler of the residents’ advocacy group Los Altos Residents said her group conducted a recent online survey about the theater, drawing 444 responses.

Among the findings revealed over the course of the two-week survey: 43% support a theater versus 39% who do not; 52% don’t want a theater to replace a parking plaza; 51% don’t want the city to contribute money; and 50% want a ballot measure if city land is used for a theater.

Wheeler noted the survey indicated 21% would attend a theater frequently, 28% occasionally and 39% rarely or never.

Resident Scott Spielman pointed to current and projected city revenue shortfalls – $5 million last year, $6 million for 2021 and as much as $25 million over the next five years.

“Where does a theater fit in the overall priorities of the city?” he asked. “What would the obligations be in the form of cash and staff? … I think a new theater is a right idea – it’s just the wrong time.”

Enander agreed.

“It’s very clear that it’s unclear,” she said of the city’s budget status. “Everyone seems to agree it’s going to be dismal. For me, right now is not the time to try to move forward on this with the applied council support that this group is seeking.”

Supporters believed differently.

“You have an opportunity before you tonight to continue to improve our community,” said Curtis Cole, former Los Altos mayor. “My wife asked me why people oppose a theater downtown, and I said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe some people don’t like theaters, don’t use them, don’t want the city to have them.’ These are the kind of people who don’t build community.”

Reeder said she plans to reconvene the New Theater Working Group in early December to explore prospective feasibility consultants and potential donors.

Disclosure: Town Crier co-publisher Dennis Young is a member of the New Theater Working Group.