A public hearing last week on plans to expand and upgrade a more than 40-year-old El Camino Real building turned into a plea for help from one of its tenants.
Michele LaBarbera, daughter of The Boardwalk restaurant founders Bernie and Doris Tougas, asked the Los Altos Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) Thursday to postpone a design review recommendation for renovation plans at 4940 El Camino Real “so we can sit down and negotiate our deal so this restaurant can stay in your community.”
LaBarbera specifically noted that she was seeking the postponement so that she could negotiate the terms of a new five-year lease extension – but has just three weeks remaining to accomplish it.
“We want to stay in Los Altos and we’re trying to figure out how we can remain in this building,” she said.
As previously reported in the Dec. 4 issue of the Town Crier, ownership group RKT Group LLC, led by Vish Agarwal, is seeking approval for a 3,647-square-foot addition to the two-story building, which has been the restaurant’s home since 1975.
Among the changes sought by Agarwal’s group is a 915-foot addition at the front of the 1960s-era building that faces El Camino Real – something LaBarbera said was a cause for concern.
She noted that the addition would cause the current restaurant area to lose its frontage to El Camino Real. Adding 915 square feet, she added, is appealing but comes at a price that ultimately may prove too costly.
“Obviously, we’d love to have El Camino (Real frontage),” LaBarbera told commissioners. “That’s what we bargained for when we signed up for a lease, but we’re concerned. We’re concerned with the rent increase as well as the additional square footage that we’re asked to take.”
Reached by the Town Crier, Agarwal characterized his negotiations with LaBarbera as “in good faith,” adding that he understands the restaurant’s place in the community. Agarwal said he’s confident negotiations will eventually result in a positive outcome.
“There are no hard feelings – we’re good friends,” he said of LaBarbera. “We’re each just trying to protect our interests.”
Several commissioners were quick to point out that the lease issue was outside of the appointed body’s purview. Still, Commissioner Jon Baer offered that while he personally believes in progress, it shouldn’t necessarily come at the expense of longtime Los Altos businesses like The Boardwalk.
“If a new Los Altos means that we lose the things that make Los Altos special, then we haven’t made any progress – and that’s not good,” he said, pointing to the recent loss of longtime businesses like Beausejour Restaurant and the pending relocation of the European Cobblery.
“I understand that we need to make progress, but we need balance,” Baer said. “We need to maintain the feel, the character (and) some of the traditions in this town if we’re going to maintain what makes us special. I’m not interested in us becoming Mountain View.”
Commission Chairman Jerry Moison, himself a commercial property owner, added that The Boardwalk is a rare commodity for landowners, noting that restaurants are often the “most difficult” tenants in terms of longevity.
“If I had a tenant that had been in a property for 38 years, I would absolutely find a way to keep that tenant,” he said, while reiterating that the matter was outside of the commission’s scope.
As to the original purpose of the meeting, the PTC voted to continue the building’s design review to a future date – but not out of concern over LaBarbera’s negotiations with Agarwal. Instead, the committee agreed to continue the matter because Agarwal didn’t provide a sample board showcasing the materials he plans to use to upgrade the building’s exterior – a city requirement.