Business & Real Estate

Los Altos Vault & Safe Deposit to close pending no new lease agreement with LACI

Megan V. Winslow / Los Altos Town Crier
Los Altos Vault & Safe Deposit Co. assistant manager Phil Van Poetsch, left, with manager Chris Lampe, run Los Altos’ “Fort Knox."

When the First Street Green project was pulled last October, employees of Los Altos Vault & Safe Deposit Co. thought they were getting a second chance. But with the landlord offering a six-month and then month-to-month lease, the Vault plans to close its doors permanently June 1.

Located at 121 First St., the Vault is just one of a handful of private vaults in the U.S. The massive brick building, which is fireproof and can withstand a 9.2 earthquake, was constructed in 2004 specifically for the business – its purpose was to be the Fort Knox of Los Altos.

Over the years, it has guarded museum-worthy treasures such as a 1791 Stradivarius violin, Civil War pistols and love letters dating to World War II, according to manager Chris Lampe. He added that the owners of all three items gave him permission to speak about them.

In recent years, however, the Vault has been in a limbo of sorts when it comes to its future. Current business owner Betine Lee sold the building two years ago to Los Altos Community Investments, which is backed by 23and- Me CEO Anne Wojcicki. Soon after, Lee quickly learned that she was truly a tenant in a building she used to call her own.

The Vault, along with six other parcels of LACI-owned land, was in the early stages of being converted into the proposed First Street Green – a 77,000-square-foot office building and park. However, Wojcicki pulled the project in October, sparing the Vault from imminent demolition.

“When the project was pulled, she indicated publicly that she had no immediate plans to do anything here,” Lampe said of Wojcicki. “We were hoping and we thought that this would give us another year or two in business.”

Lampe said some of that time could possibly go into constructing a similarly sturdy building at another location – allowing the Vault eventually to continue operations elsewhere. But hope is waning, as Lee has continuously pushed for a longer lease to no avail.

“They did come by and talk a little bit (a few weeks ago), and I told them the situation,” Lee said of her negotiations with LACI. “Month-to month for my business doesn’t really work. I need an answer as soon as possible, because I’m losing customers every day.”

As of Monday, Lampe said Lee has given LACI a deadline of March 15 to get back to her on the Vault’s request for a two-year lease.

No place to go

Both Lee and Lampe attested to the fact that current and potential customers are dwindling and taking their business elsewhere due to the Vault’s uncertain future. In fact, the day Lampe found out about the potential closure, four new customers came in to buy safe-deposit boxes, and all four left with their belongings in hand, unwilling to rent for such a short period of time.

Months from now, more customers will be leaving with belongings in hand with virtually no place to go. Lampe said the Vault is a unique alternative for people who don’t feel safe storing their valuables at a bank or at home. No Social Security number is required to rent a box, and all business is conducted on paper, making it completely hacker-proof.

The uniqueness, however, is part of what makes the business model of a private vault so rare. When Los Altos Vault closes its doors, residents will be forced to turn to banks, safes in their homes or the closest other private vault locations – Beverly Hills and Las Vegas.

Los Altos resident Beth Seibert is just one of many local residents who called the Town Crier to voice support for keeping the business open. She said she’s stored valuables at the Vault for 10 years and is still searching for a place to go once it closes.

“I knew that at the time that I initially looked at it, the Vault was a better option for me,” Seibert said. “I’m sure they still are a better option.”

Collector Gautam Agrawal, on the other hand, is packing up his valuables and taking them to a vault in Dallas. He said the Los Altos Vault is of a higher caliber than many other private vaults in the country, including the one in Beverly Hills. To find that quality, he’ll now have to fly halfway across the country to store his valuables.

Vibrancy vs. vacancy

Based on all of the supportive phone calls the Town Crier received from Vault patrons, it’s no surprise that Lampe said the business is thriving. He noted that in the 30 days before they decided to close in June, they sold 17 safe-deposit boxes.

“(LACI) owns the building right next door, and that has basically sat vacant for as long as we’ve been here,” he said. “It breaks my heart if we do go out of business June 1, (that) I think this building is just probably going to sit vacant, too.”

Business is booming at the Vault, where the smallest box, 5-inches-by-5-inches-by 24-inches, costs $398 per year and the largest, 72-inches-by-24inches-by-24-inches, runs approximately $8,000 annually.

But it isn’t just the Vault’s own business that’s flourishing – Lampe argued that its presence is conducive to a thriving downtown business community.

“We have clients from all over the world,” he said. “When they come, one of the first questions they always ask is, ‘Hey, where can we get a bite to eat?’ We tell them to go to Pompeii, Los Altos Grill (and the other) local restaurants in town. Our clientele, when they come here, (are) spending money throughout Los Altos, too.”

In a few short months, though, that will all change, and one more building in downtown Los Altos will be vacant. Lee said she plans to continue her fight for a longer lease, but she doesn’t see much promise.

“Had I known that was their plan, I would never have sold it to (LACI),” she said.

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