The building at 217 Alma Street has been vacant for so long that it remains best known for a tenant who hasn’t occupied it since 2016, when The North Face left the site on the northwest outskirts of downtown to the tonier surroundings of the Stanford Mall.
A few companies had considered moving into the 7,771-square-foot building, only to walk away when their plans failed to materialize. A proposal in 2016 to convert the building into a restaurant fell through when the owner could not meet parking requirements for the operation.
More recently, a floating resort studio had leased the space and applied for a conditional use permit to fill the building, according to Brad Ehikian of Premier Properties, the building’s owner. The city granted the permit in September 2019, but then COVID-19 shook up the retail environment, and the studio proposal took off in the spring of 2020. Today, the building’s approximately 4,200 square feet continue to be empty, while the rest is a pharmacy operated by Walgreens.
In a letter to the city, Ehikian cited lack of foot traffic and lack of parking as the main reasons The North Face left and why no one has occupied the majority of the commercial space since his business started. to bring it to market in 2015. His logbook shows visitors a variety of suites: a cat cafe, a fencing studio, a spa, and a furniture store. Always not.
Now, officials at Premier Properties and Palo Alto hope to make up for the lack of foot traffic by inviting foot traffic. A veterinary clinic called Modern Animal is planning to take over the building on Alma Street between Everett and Lytton streets and has already signed a lease. Before you can move in, however, the city council will need to approve a waiver of the Retail Preservation Ordinance, a law that has been passed in 2015 and which limits uses in downtown buildings. The board will consider the waiver at its September 12 meeting.
City planning director Jonathan Lait has already signed the waiver after accepting Ehikian’s argument that the building is not particularly suitable for retail. According to Ehikian, allowing Modern Animal to occupy the space would both fill a long-standing vacancy and create a rare opportunity to add an animal care facility, a use he says is limited in most. areas of Palo Alto.
“Due to Palo Alto’s restrictive zoning code, finding locations to locate the animal care services needed for all pandemic cats and dogs is proving extremely difficult,” Ehikian wrote to the city. “When you really look at this, the Retail Preservation Ordinance effectively resulted in a moratorium, or nearly so, on new animal care facilities in the city. This is especially true if someone one is looking to open an animal care facility in the busiest areas of the city, such as downtown.”
In approving the waiver, Lait agreed that animal care is consistent with the site’s “downtown commercial district” zoning designation. The proposed use, Lait wrote, “encourages active pedestrian-oriented activities and connections that are conducive to commercial uses.”
Modern Animal currently has five locations, four in the Los Angeles area and one in San Francisco. According to its website, it plans to open two more clinics next year, in San Francisco and Mill Valley. A letter to the city from Joe Pantano, the company’s real estate and development manager, says the Palo Alto facility will be a “general practice veterinary clinic” for dogs and cats, with services including “the wellness, procedures, dental and emergency care.” It will not serve as an animal hospital (although it plans to partner with animal hospitals and refer visitors as needed) or provide boarding or overnight kennel services, according to Pantano. .
In arguing for a waiver, Pantano argued that Modern Animal is a “perfect tenant” for the building and will “bring new life to the site with use in service to the community.” While other renters have been put off by the pandemic and its impact on retail, Pantano noted in his letter that more than 23 million U.S. households — nearly 1 in 5 — have adopted a pet since the start of COVID-19.
“The result of this is an increased need for veterinary care across the United States, and Modern Animal is doing our part to meet that need,” Pantano wrote. “Part of the reason we’re so interested in expanding into Palo Alto is how much this community values their pets. Palo Alto’s long history of investing in pet and animal care is well documented and we hope that Modern Animal can be the next chapter in this story.”
The waiver will be on the board’s “consent schedule,” meaning it will be automatically approved without discussion or debate, unless three board members choose to remove it from the schedule and schedule a full hearing on the proposal. at a later date.