The Los Altos Vault and Safe Deposit Co. up for sale

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
The Los Altos Vault and Safe Deposit Co. is on the market for $4.5 million. Its fortified steel and concrete structure has been compared to the U.S. Federal Reserve’s gold depository.

A downtown Los Altos structure “built like Fort Knox” is up for sale – with an asking price of $4.5 million.

The Los Altos Vault and Safe Deposit Co. at 121 First St. hit the commercial real estate market March 18. On its website, the company compares the fortified steel and concrete structure to Fort Knox – the U.S. Federal Reserve’s super-secure gold depository in Kentucky. Online real estate listings suggest that the buyer could use the site for housing, a restaurant or a banking service project.

Gerald Colombi, owner of the private vault company, died last year at the age of 91, and his business partners decided to sell, according to Jan Strohecker of Coldwell Banker.

She noted that the business partners hope the buyer will lease the 3,363-square-foot space back to them so that current staff can continue operations.

Exclusive access

In 1999, when the Los Altos City Council approved the design for the brick and limestone building with 12-inch thick, concrete-reinforced walls, Colombi and his partners described the operation as “a secretive, private and exclusive establishment.” They said the structure was “built like Fort Knox” and touted client amenities including 24-hour access by appointment, a plush lobby with a wet bar and a 1,513-square-foot covered drive-thru with a rolling metal grille-like gate. The business opened in 2003. By 2006, the humidity-controlled vault featured 4,000 safety-deposit boxes in 10 different sizes.

As a private enterprise, Los Altos Vault & Safe Deposit Co. is allegedly “safe from state and federal government intrusion,” according to the company’s website.

Mark Paul, director of U.S. Private Vaults Inc., of Beverly Hills, said he is aware of 15 private vault companies in the country. It’s a growing business because many banks are transitioning out of the safety deposit box business – the boxes take up valuable space and are not profitable. But private companies like his and Colombi’s are doing well because they offer privacy, efficiency and state-of-the-art security like biometric scanners.

“This may seem unusual in the U.S., but it’s very common in Asia and it’s fairly common in Europe,” Paul said.

Although those unfamiliar with the private vault business may associate it with hiding assets from the government, Paul said there are many legal reasons someone might desire such a service. For example, visa holders from other countries don’t have U.S. Social Security numbers and are therefore unable to open traditional safety deposit box accounts. And cash-heavy businesses like restaurants and bars may desire to store their profits temporarily in a convenient and high-security location.

Another growing segment of private safety deposit renters is legal cannabis distributors. Although their business may be sanctioned in the state of California, it’s not legal on the federal level, so they can’t conduct business through banks.

While not associated with Colombi’s business or its impending sale, Paul said he met with Colombi in Los Altos approximately four years ago during the planning stages of his own company.

“He was a real character,” Paul said.

Unique property

Strohecker said there are already a great number of buyers interested in Colombi’s building.

“It truly is a one-of-a-kind property,” she wrote in an email.

Longtime Los Altos commercial real estate broker Ron Labetich toured the vault last Friday and speculated that finding the right buyer could prove challenging.

“It’s a special-purpose building,” he said. “You have to provide on-site parking, and parking is a big issue in Los Altos right now. Plus, the price is hefty. Other than that, it’s a great piece of property.”

To view photos of the property and for more information, visit 121firststreet.com.

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