Downtown performing arts center supporters are emboldened by last week’s Los Altos City Council approval of an agreement that would hold parking plaza space for a new theater.
Vicki Reeder, head of the New Theater Working Group, said the group is “excited to move the project forward” and solicit bids for feasibility studies.
Reeder also serves as president of the Los Altos Stage Company, which now has a nonbinding memorandum of understanding with the city to reserve a 60-stall portion of Parking Plaza 2 for a period of no more than five years. The plaza is located behind Walgreens, between Second and Third streets. It was identified as a possible theater site in the city’s Downtown Vision plan from 2018.
Supporters envision a small theater, fewer than 200 seats, at a cost of $15 million to $20 million to build.
“We’re gathering together expert advisers and will begin making plans in January,” Reeder said. “We already have two substantial pledges for funding the study and expect many more to follow.”
The council, on a narrow 3-2 vote, approved the MOU. Mayor Neysa Fligor, who initiated the theater discussion earlier this year, and councilmembers Jonathan Weinberg and Sally Meadows voted in favor. Vice Mayor Anita Enander and Councilmember Lynette Lee Eng voted against.
The MOU does not include a financial commitment from the city, and can be made null and void at any time.
Supporters of the idea see the theater as a key to more social and economic vitality downtown. Reeder’s group estimated a theater or performing arts center could generate an additional $1 million in annual revenues.
Detractors expressed concerns such a project would ultimately involve ongoing city support and noted that Los Altos has numerous priorities above funding a theater. They also feared a loss of parking and suggested the council majority was catering to a small group of backers.
Los Altos resident Scott Spielman cited numerous capital improvements the city faces that should be prioritized before approving an MOU.
“To delay this a few months is prudent and will show the council really wants to do things the right way,” he said. “Otherwise, what this looks like is favoritism when a project just rises to the top from the unknown. So, take the time and do it right.”
“The theater is definitely not a priority,” said resident Roberta Phillips. “I don’t think we should be shortsighted on all the details. The Los Altos Stage Company has not done their due diligence. They should be bringing a feasibility study forward to us … before they move forward.”
First step: MOU or feasibility study?
Meadows encouraged a measured process.
“This is a little bit chicken-and-egg,” she said of the debate over whether the MOU or feasibility study should come first. “A lot of the questions being asked are questions that will stem out of the feasibility study. This is a step-wise approach to move forward with fundraising to enable a feasibility study.”
“Let’s just take a breath – this MOU is not binding, but it is an important small step in the right direction that will allow us to move this project forward,” said Pete Dailey, a member of the New Theater Working Group.
Enander adamantly opposed the MOU.
“I’m not sure what this MOU’s real effect is,” she said. “(There’s) no framework whatsoever. … I’m looking for something a lot more from the excited theater folks that says this is something we can make happen, this is what it would take, before I’m willing to take a big chunk of a city asset and say, I’ll put that aside – but I’m not really putting it aside because I could take it away from you anytime. The whole thing seems ridiculous to me.”
Resident Bill Sheppard urged the council to move forward.
“We have a consistent group of naysayers who seem to consider parking the best and highest purpose for much of our downtown land,” he said. “We know that the parking plazas downtown could be put to better use than sitting mostly empty most of the day. … It’s premature for (a business plan) to be expected now, before we have even a minimum commitment for land, clearly the most essential component of this project. … Please approve it and see what we can do.”
Fligor, who introduced the downtown theater idea and the formation of the New Theater Working Group, called the MOU “a good-faith effort.”
“A lot of concerns would be addressed in a feasibility study,” she said.
She made a point of adding to the MOU that the Los Altos Stage Company was an established group in town, having operated the past 27 years.
“I am very proud to be able to say I helped the Los Altos Stage Company get to this next step,” Fligor said.
Disclosure: Town Crier co-publisher Dennis Young is a member of the New Theater Working Group.