The remnants of the building’s past lives lay around the facade: a forlorn “Borders” sign leans upside-down against the wall, and an even older marquee labeled “Varsity” protrudes from the University Avenue facade. In spite of these clues of former incarnations, the building at 456 University Ave. remains quiet. Often thought of as the resting place for the Borders bookstore and Varsity Theater, this building will not remain empty for much longer.
Systems, Applications & Products in Data Processing, a Germany-based software company, is sponsoring the construction of HanaHaus, a new public tech café. The goal of the café is to stimulate growth and development of new ideas in Silicon Valley by offering a creative space for collaboration as well as a help desk available to anyone via reservation.
“We are planning to create a tech bar or help desk where we will bring in experts in [for] design thinking or user interface design,” says Sanjay Shirole, leader of the Startup Focus section of SAP. “People would be able to speak with these experts and get professional level assistance.”
Café-goers may bring their laptops to work with their peers and enjoy drinks provided by Blue Bottle Coffee Company.According to Monica Powers from Made PR, a company that handles Blue Bottle Coffee’s public relations, the café will also include meeting rooms and a designated speaker and special event area, all part of a plan to give café-goers a community experience.
“We are trying to define the tech café experience … to create a public café where everyone can come in and sit down and talk and buy their coffee,” says Shirole.
According to the building’s owner, Charles J. Keenan, the project aims to reflect a traditional workshop similar to those found in Italy during the Renaissance.
“[In] 16th century Florence … the young artisans would come into the studio and watch the older artisans working, and people would bump into each other with ideas and techniques,” Keenan says. “This [HanaHaus] is supposed to be sort of a meeting place where people will gather and ideas will flourish.”
Preserving the performing roots of the theater, HanaHaus also plans to have successful individuals such as CEOs or venture capitalists speak on the auditorium stage, according to Shirole.
Before SAP and Keenan started the construction in the Varsity Theater’s old home, the project needed to be approved by Palo Alto’s Historic Resources Board.
Steve Staiger, a historian from the Palo Alto Historical Association, says that despite the various transformations from theater to bookstore to café, the building has not changed but instead simply kept up with the times.
“It’s not like you’re saying, ‘Well, we’re going from old fashioned to new,” says Staiger. “I think it was new then to new now … this is a place that people are going to hang out, which is what you do in a theater, right? You’re going to interact with your friends, [and] you’re going to have a good experience.”