Bringing Down the Curtain

I’ve been watching the various development projects in Menlo Park for some time now. Some of the larger ones aren’t having much of a negative impact, given that they are being built on sites that had been essentially empty for years: they were once home to large automobile dealerships, dealerships that had closed a number of years ago. Given the choice of an empty, slowly deteriorating automobile dealership and a new mixed-use development, most would probably vote for the mixed-use development. But every once in a while a development comes along that replaces a beloved part of the city, and it isn’t so clear whether the project will end up being a net positive or a net negative for the city. Not too long ago one such project got underway. This one:

(For the record, I took this picture on December 27. Today, as I write this, it appears that almost all of the remaining concrete you can see in the above picture has been torn down, leaving a mostly empty lot. Apparently the plan is to keep two of the building’s walls so that this project can be classified as a substantial renovation rather than as all-new construction.)

If you don’t recognize this spot, I don’t blame you: the structure you can see in the above photo doesn’t really give a hint as to what was once there. But this was, until not too long ago, the Guild Theatre.

The Guild Theatre originally opened in 1926 as the Menlo Theatre. It had been operating for the past 93 years, making it not only the first movie theater on the Peninsula, but the longest lasting: according to the San Francisco Chronicle the Guild was the “last of the single-screen movie theaters that once marked each Peninsula commuter town along El Camino Real.” Thus, it seems to have both ushered in an era, and seen it out. The Guild was a special place, not only because it frequently had midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show but because it often showed smaller independent films in addition to more mainstream ones. I have a number of happy memories of going to movies at the Guild (not Rocky Horror, though), and I will truly miss its unique style and its eclectic selection of films.

The three investors who bought and have subsequently demolished the Guild Theatre plan to build a new misc hall in its place, one that will host live concerts. So at least we aren’t losing a classic — and historic — theater to yet another restaurant or office complex. But the curtain has been brought down on the last of the great independents along the Peninsula, it seems…

I’ll get to the bigger Menlo Park projects in a minute — I’ve covered them before, but they are worthy of an update — but there is another interesting project that I was curious about, and thought that others might be, too. For quite some time now I’ve been driving by this place, wondering what work was being done:

In case you don’t recognize it from the photo, this building is on the corner of El Camino Real and Ravenswood Avenue. Its on your right as you are heading north on El Camino Real, and is just south of the Ravenswood Avenue intersection. You may not recognize it from this view — which is from the sidewalk in front of the building along El Camino Real — because there used to be seven 85-foot-tall coast redwood trees that helped screen the building from the street. Today those trees are gone, though, and at the moment there is a green cloth-covered construction fence obscuring much of the view.

The building itself isn’t that old — it was built in 1983 — so when I noticed a lot of digging going on in front of the building I wondered what was up. It appeared to be some sort of landscaping project on steroids, but that didn’t make much sense. I go by this building once or twice a week, but because I am usually driving I never made a note to remind myself to check into it. It was only after I walked along the sidewalk in front of the building and took the above photo that I finally did the necessary research.

Beneath this building (and beneath some of the front landscaping) is an underground parking garage. Apparently, water damage and erosion have caused some of the steel “tendons” in the garage’s ceiling to break. The repairs would have entailed cutting some of the roots of the seven now-missing redwood trees, which would have damaged them severely and made them prone to toppling. Thus, the trees were entirely removed.

The garage repairs appear to be largely complete, and so the landscaping is now being put back together. To make up for the loss of the seven trees (which were planted back when the building was built) 14 new heritage trees will be planted on the property. As well, an additional 62 trees will be planted elsewhere in Menlo Park. The trees being planted on property won’t be redwoods, however: their need for large quantities of water and their invasive root systems make them impractical for the site. Instead, the building’s owner plans to plant Brisbane box, London plane trees, and coast live oaks.

The loss of the redwoods is a bit sad, but the sheer number and variety of trees that are being planted in their stead is a net positive for the City of Menlo Park. I’m looking forward to seeing the final result, and I’m looking forward to the appearance of 62 new trees throughout the city.

Now, allow me to review the progress of the several other major projects that are currently underway in Menlo Park’s downtown. If you drive through the city along El Camino Real you’ll quickly realize that proportionally, development in Menlo Park seems about on par with Redwood City. (Menlo Park is just about half the size of Redwood City in terms of land area, and in terms of population Redwood City has about 2-1/2 times as many people.) Unlike in Redwood City, however, many of downtown Menlo Park’s largest projects are being built on long-disused parcels.

Starting near the southeastern border of the city we find the large Middle Plaza project, which is being constructed by Stanford University. Three automobile dealerships once stood side-by-side on the land that is being consumed by this project: Stanford Lincoln Mercury, University Ford, and Anderson Chevrolet (this last became for a time Tesla’s second-ever showroom).

Combined the properties total some 8.4 acres in size. Stanford will be building a complex that is a mix of housing and office space, plus a small amount of retail. There will be four residential buildings (two of which will be connected) ranging from three to five stories in height. Altogether they will contain a total of 215 apartments, eight or ten of which will be made affordable to those who qualify at the Low income level. Middle Plaza will also include three “non-medical” office buildings, for about 143,000 square feet of space. On the ground floor of one of the office buildings there will be about 10,000 square feet of space for either retail or restaurants.

Beneath all of this will be a couple of large subterranean parking garages, and that is where the work has been focused so far: the holes that are being dug for these are positively enormous. This one is at the southern end of the property; you can just make out the neighboring Stanford Park Hotel in the distance, behind that blue crane near the right edge of the photo:

Here is another garage, this one towards the northern end of the property:

A somewhat narrow section of land will remain between these two garages: this will be a road that essentially extends Middle Avenue onto the property, and will serve as the main vehicular entrance to both the property and the garages. Cars will drive onto the property here and then enter the garages from the rear, by the Caltrain tracks (which run just in front of the trees in the above pictures). Thus, most of the traffic entering and exiting the property will funnel through the signalized intersection of Middle Avenue and El Camino Real.

Walking north on El Camino Real, the next project I came to is just off El Camino Real: this one is actually located on Live Oak Avenue:

This project consists of four separate buildings, one three-story combination office/residential building (clearly visible above), one three-story apartment building (towards the right side of the picture), and a pair of two-story apartment buildings (located mostly behind the office buildings, and only barely visible in the above photo). Altogether they should supply some 17,000 square feet of office space and 17 for-rent housing units (two affordable), all above a two-story parking garage. From the outside, anyway, this project appears to be nearing its final stages, and hopefully will be wrapping up soon.

Continuing north on El Camino Real I passed the Guild Theatre site, which I’ve already covered. Next I came to the buildings at 505 and 556 Santa Cruz Ave., plus the building at 1125 Merrill St. (all just north of the building that houses Kepler’s books, and on the same side of El Camino Real):

The above are the buildings along Santa Cruz Avenue. Here is the view from Merrill Street, showing 556 Santa Cruz Ave. (to the left) and 1125 Merrill St. (to the right, where the steel framing is still exposed):

Each building will have housing on the upper one or two floors, for a total of nine units. The Merrill Street building will have non-medical offices on its first and second floors. One of the Santa Cruz Avenue buildings will have a café on the ground level and non-medical offices on the second and third floors. The other Santa Cruz Avenue building will have retail on the ground floor, and non-medical offices on the second floor. Parking will be located either on the ground floor (behind the retail or office space) or in an underground garage (beneath the café) using stackers in order to squeeze the required amount of parking into the rather limited available space.

One block further north along El Camino Real is the positively enormous Station 1300 project, which will contain 220,000 square feet of commercial space (office, retail, and restaurants) plus 183 apartments all in three buildings sitting atop a huge multi-level parking garage. The sheer size of this project makes it hard to photograph: I had to do it in pieces. One tip: the residential portion of the project is mostly built using wood framing, whereas the commercial portions use steel. Thus, when you drive by and see this:

You know that these two buildings will contain offices, stores, and restaurants. (The main driveway onto the property will be between these two buildings, where the large American flag is flying.) The large residential portion of the development is located away from El Camino Real, towards where Oak Grove Avenue crosses the Caltrain tracks. Thus, although you can get a glimpse of it from El Camino Real, perhaps the best view of that part of the project is from Oak Grove Avenue:

As you can see, the framing for this project is largely complete. However, this project still has a long way to go. I expect it to wrap up sometime in the year 2021.

Directly across from Station 1300 on El Camino Real are two smaller projects, both of which appear to be nearly complete. The first is located at 1275 El Camino Real, and is where Menlo Park’s other single-screen movie theater along El Camino Real was once located: the Park Theatre stood here from 1947 until 2014. Very soon, however, the doors will open to a mixed-use three-story building with parking and a commercial space on the ground floor, office space on the second floor, and three residential units on the top floor. As you can see, the building is very modern in style; it is very different from the theater that once stood here:

Just a couple of doors farther along, to the north, is the other small project. This one is located at 1285 El Camino Real, and replaced two small buildings containing a few retail spaces and some private offices. Almost complete is a three-story building that will have a 15 apartments on the upper floors and small amount of retail and the building’s parking on the ground floor.

Lastly, back on the northeastern side of El Camino Real and a few blocks down, is the project that is finally well underway on the site where Beltramo’s Wines and Spirits once stood, at 1540 El Camino Real. This project will consist of two buildings — a two-story, “non-medical” office building along the front of the property and a three-story residential building sporting 27 units along the back — above a large underground parking garage. As you can see, work on the garage is moving right along now:

This project took a long time to get off the ground. For a while the old Beltramo’s building served as a temporary home to Treadmill Outlet while approvals were being obtained and the necessary arrangements were being made to enable this project to go forward. But Treadmill Outlet eventually moved back to Redwood City, the Beltramo’s building was torn down, and today someone walking along El Camino Real is presented with what you see above.

I could probably do a whole blog just about Menlo Park (or San Carlos, for that matter) given the number of projects going on there. But Walking Redwood City is just me, so I’ll continue to focus on the great many projects in Redwood City, with the occasional foray into our neighboring communities to the south and to the north. Incidentally, if you really want to get an idea of the magnitude of what is going on in Redwood City these days, check out my latest weekend column for the San Mateo Daily Journal (you’ll find it in the Opinion section of either the print or the online edition for Saturday, January 4). In it I put together a review of the major goings-on in Redwood City throughout 2019, and list of things I came up with to mention is, frankly, pretty overwhelming.

9 thoughts on “Bringing Down the Curtain

  1. Hello Greg,

    Can you please comment on the rumor that Stanford bought the Franklin apartments on El Camino in Redwood City. I heard that there are over 200 apartments in the complex.

    • Oh, that’s no rumor. It is a done deal, in fact, and Stanford has already put up the sign. Just before Greystar started leasing the building Stanford bought Greystar’s “Elan Redwood City” building (not the next-door Franklin 299 apartments), which sits on Jefferson Avenue between Franklin Street and the Caltrain tracks. That building has 175 apartments. Stanford is apparently working with the city to designate 37 of the units as deed-restricted, below-market-rate housing for very-low- and low-income households. That will make those units available only to households earning up to 50% (very low) and 80% (low) of San Mateo County’s Area Median Income. The rest of the apartments are being leased at rates that are below what is typical for our market these days: studios start at $2,413, one-bedroom units start at $2,725 and two-bedroom apartments start at $2,972. Priority in leasing will be given to people working at either Stanford’s Redwood City campus, which is only about a mile and a half from The Cardinal Apartments (that’s the building’s new name), or Stanford’s main campus. Since Stanford already runs a shuttle from Redwood City’s Caltrain Station to its new Redwood City campus (and because they also of course run one from the Palo Alto Caltrain stations to their main campus) people living in this new building will have an easy daily commute that won’t involve driving — which these days is a very good thing for all of us.

      Thanks for asking — I could have sworn I wrote about this (it was in the news), and I did — but not for the blog. I had written a column for the San Mateo Daily Journal all about this sale, and then neglected to mention it in the blog. Hopefully this will make up for that just a tiny bit…

  2. Agree with Kris, development can be well thought out and implemented. Kudos to Menlo Park for good oversight on the design of incoming buildings! Remember, whatever get’s green lighted will be on your horizon for the next 75+years so it’s worth paying attention to the footprint,impact on light planes and overall design. Our downtowns and their proximities are precious. You only have one time, now, when it’s all being designed and built to weigh in and insure suitability. After the fact, is simply remorse, there is no recourse. So speak up and show up now or just get ready to live with it for 75+ years.

  3. Menlo Park recently got ranked as having the highest average residential rent in the Bay Area. Historically commercial rent in Menlo Park is higher per sq foot than anywhere else in both Santa Clara and San Mateo county, at times some of the highest in the entire country (admittedly bolstered by Sand Hill Rd). So while previous developers in RWC may have been “creative” with their numbers …there’s no way the numbers for a project in Redwood City are going to be similar to one in Menlo Park, at least west of 101. While Menlo Park is lovely I’m not sure this is the type of area Redwood City should really be looking to for inspiration. Redwood City has always been larger than Menlo Park and thus I find it appropriate that it’s downtown core should have both taller buildings and be more lively…which is does.

    https://www.rentcafe.com/blog/california/bay-area-rent-report-june-2019/
    https://www.smdailyjournal.com/news/local/commercial-rents-jump/article_ba855f3e-88a5-11e8-9a8e-8bc28cb4ea01.html
    https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2016/09/20/silicon-valley-vcs-pay-highest-rent/q2s9rxQEP4eHhZfDLXhOBN/story.html

    On an unrelated note the construction company doing the Guild rebuild somehow got permission to close one lane of ECR for an extended period of time during construction…mind you this portion of ECR is already only 2 lanes and is a major bottleneck. At the moment they only have the parking out front blocked off…

    https://almanacnews.com/news/2019/12/16/menlo-park-tough-construction-impacts-to-test-public-support-of-new-guild-theatre

  4. I was 1 year old when my parents built a house in Menlo Park. I lived there until I joined the Navy, got married before shipping out to Vietnam, and have lived for the past 52 years with my wife in Redwood City. It somewhat saddens me looking at all the old buildings being torn down. I grew up going to the Park theater, and was one of the first customers when I was 13 years old at the Original Round Table.We just drove by the Gulld Theater today and were looking that way and didn’t notice that the trees were gone across the street. Oh Well, I guess it is called progress. I have been following your blog for some time now, and it is always interesting. By the way, I also worked at Foster’s Freeze for a year when I was 18. Now it is a super large pile of buildings. I DO however, have one of the bricks that was on the siding of Fosters sitting in my living room.

  5. Wow, I admire from afar these large but magnificent projects in Menlo Park. They max out at five stories and are beautifully designed and well-scaled for a mid-peninsula suburb. Yet, despite peaking at five stories, they are still able to turn a profit. Meanwhile, in RWC, we were hoodwinked into believing that developers needed to build up to 8-12 stories or they wouldn’t invest in our community because of the inflated property values. It’s also part of the rationale for the 17-story office park being proposed at Sequoia Station by a tone-deaf developer. I still hold out hope that we could learn from what other communities are demanding from developers and stop being the cheap date on the peninsula.

    • I believe you are telling the truth Kris, about how easily RC gives into these greedy, self-centered developers!

  6. Thank you for your most informative articles in the changes to our cities. I live in Menlo Park/Atherton and so your most recent article was of great interest.

    Specifically, I live in the condominium complex at 3421 El Camino Real directly next to what used to be the Bonsai restaurant (in the corner of Loyola).
    Could you tell me what is happening there now? It is a shell of a building and has been this way for some years! Do you know the plans for this site? Thank you!!

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