A ‘Country’ Rejuvenated

Palo Alto, CA – From afar, Palo Alto’s Town & Country Village might look like the type of fading, outmoded shopping center that would struggle to survive an economic recession.

Innovative when it opened in 1953, its ranch-style layout of low-slung wood buildings flanked by rows of parking spaces is a relic today.  And while they have loyal followings, decades-old specialty shops such as the Coin Broker and the Village Cobbler don’t project the most vibrant image to passersby.

Look closer, though – or try to find a parking spot at lunchtime – and it becomes clear this quaint landmark is in the midst of a renaissance.  At one end, wealthy tech workers wait for a table at a new cafe opened in January by celebrity ex-Google chef Charlie Ayers.  At the other, young mothers line up for artisan confections at Kara’s Cupcakes, which opened in September.  In betweeen, the few remaining vacant storefronts sport “coming soon” signs for zeitgeist-tapping concepts such as Snip-its, a children’s haircutting salon that intersperses video games with barber stools.

Among the new additions are several that embody the retail and restaurant industries’ latest trends.  Lulu’s, a Mexican retaurant that opened Monday, uses only fresh, locally sourced produce and antibiotic- and hormone-free meat.  LaBelle Day Spa re-opened in February boasting “eco-friendly” features like energy-efficient lights, low-VOC paints and floors, and biodegradable marketing materials printed with soy inks.

It’s the result of a $30 million renovation by Ellis Partners, the San Francisco-based developer behind Oakland’s revamped Jack London Square.  The makeover which began shortly after Ellis bought the property from the family of original owner Ron Williams in 2004, will culminate this fall with the opening of Palo Alto’s first Trader Joe’s grocery.  Already, it’s drawing praise from buiness owners and shoppers who appreciate the unusual blend of cutting-edge stores and nostalgic architecture.

“We came along and purchased what was basically a pretty run-down center,” said Jim Ellis.  “Sales had fallen precipitously over the previous decade.  Many of the tenants were kind of on their last strings, barel able to make enough sales to pay their rent each month.”

There was talk of scrapping the center and starting from scratch, but Ellis was told by residents and officials that it wouldn’t fly politically.  So he set about a more modest rehabilitation project that was more about the center’s stodgy reputation than the buildings themselves.

“When I first bought it I think Town & Country was known to the community as being a convenient place for your daily needs,” Ellis said.  “You could get your shoes fixed at the cobbler, go to the cleaners, go to the dentist.  But there really wasn’t anything else there that was drawing people to the center.”

Younger shoppers in particular were staying away.  Market studies showed the average Town & Country visitor was in his mid-fifties, Ellis said.  “In retailing, it’s really hard to achieve sustainable sales when your demographic has an average age that high.”

The rejuvenation effort got off to a bumpy start, as longtime patrons revolted when Ellis terminated the month-to-month lease of the popular Cook Book Restaurant in 2005.  “I regret the way it was handled,” he admitted Friday.  “It was our first dive into trying to reposition the center, and the community was suspicious of what we were up to.”

The complaints dropped off, however, once the restaurant was replaced by Day One, an all-in-one resource center for new and expecting parents.  One of the first of Town & Country’s new wave of businesses, it has helped attract younger customers such as Trish Jemison, who stopped by to check out the newly opened Mayfield Bakery and Cafe last Friday.

“When I moved here a few yers agao, it looked dark and unappealing,” Jemison daid of Town & Country.  “To be honest, I didn’t come here a lot.”

But as Jemison became a regular at Day One, she noticed gradual improvements in Town & Country’s landscaping and parking, and other new store openings grabbed her attention.  These days, her trips to the shopping center usually involve a stroll across the grounds to Peet’s Coffe and Books Inc., which recently relocated from Stanford Shopping Center.

“I really like it here now,” Jemison said.  “It’s a nice place to walk around.”  Even more so, she said, because the upgrades have not sacrificed the center’s original down-home charm.

No business exemplifies the new Town & Country better than Calafia Cafe and Market a Go Go, a project of former Google chef Charlie Ayers.  A creative hybrid of a sit-down restaurant and a lunch counter, its interior might look more at home in San Francisco’s SoMa district than in a 1950s-era suburban shopping mall.

On the market side, students from nearly Palo Alto High School can snack on pre-made chicken wings or mac’n’cheese, parents in a rush can pick up a gourmet chicken pillard dinner, and the health-conscious can wash down a vegan club with a wheatgrass shot.  On the cafe side, foodies dive into eggplant tiger bowls and lacquered beef short ribs on recycled paperstone countertops, lit by the overhead glow of recycled milk bottle chandeliers.

Like all three other restaurants opening this year at Town & Country – Lulu’s, Mayfield Bakery and Howei’s Artisan Pizza, which is scheduled to open this summer – Calafia emphasizes organic and locally grown ingredients.  Even Kara’s Cupcakes, whose custom confections are all aout indulgence, is on the green bandwagon, with sustainable bamboo paneling an low-gas-emitting Corian surfaces.  Ellis said he has intentionally sought out tenants with a reputation for environmental awareness.

Kara Lind, owner of Kara’s Cupcakes, said each new business that opens seems to add to the shopping center’s overall buzz.  “It’s really an exciting place to be now.  It’s just so cool to see new small buinesses and entrepreseurs doing what we’re doing, but with their own concepts.”

One of the center’s more venerable business owners is less impressed.  Jim Beer, co-owner of the 29-year-old Coin Broker, said the culinary additions could be “too much of the same thing.”  He added, “I’d like to see somebody here who can bring in people from all over the region,” no just the local area.

But two doors down at Nature Gallery, which has been at Town & Country for 15 years, owner Carol Garsten said she believes the changes are bringing in “a lot of new life and evergy to this shopping center.”  On Friday, she welcomed a new customer who had spotted her storefront while walking to LaBelle Day Spa.

“People who may not have come to Town & Country for a long time because the place was getting old and kind of stale are now rediscovering it because of the new restaurants,” Garsten added.  “At a time that’s challenging economically, when businesses are closing everywhere, we’re kind of bucking that trend.”

Ellis said he was initially disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to rebuild the center as a modern, mixed-use complex with retail on the ground floor and offices and housing above.  But he’s found some unexpected advantages to keeping things intact.

“It’s an icon that I think really speaks to a lot of the uniqueness of Palo Alto,” Ellis said.  “I think it makes it a much tougher retail environment to ever duplicate.  In that regard, we feel very good that when people come there, it’s going to be unlike anything they’ve experienced.”

Patty Silversher, a former Palo Alto resident who now lives in Los Angeles, was take aback by the metamorphosis when she stopped by last week while visiting family here.  “I said to my sister, ‘This place was dying.’ Now it’s back to life.”

Source: Palo Alto Daily News

Author Will Oremus