The future of Cubberley Community Center may still be in flux, but Palo Alto officials sent a strong signal on Monday night that they would like to maintain the city's investment in the eclectic but dilapidated complex on the south side of the city.
During a broad and wide-ranging discussion Monday night, the City Council voted 7-1, with Greg Schmid dissenting and Karen Holman absent, to publicly declare the city's interest in renewing the city's lease with the school board for the busy 35-acre center at 4000 Middlefield Road. But the council also made it clear at Monday's public hearing that the new agreement will have to be very different from the one that the city signed in 1988 and that is set to expire at the end of next year.
Though the council was hesitant about committing to any specific changes (it plans to consider these changes at a closed session next week), several members said they would like to eliminate the covenant not to develop that is included in the current existing lease. The council also voiced general support for a recommendation from a citizen-advisory committee to performing a community needs assessment as part of the process for determining Cubberley's future.
The public hearing on Monday was the latest chapter in the city's long and complex discussion over Cubberley, which is currently co-owned by the city and the school district. The city currently owns 8 acres on the northeast side of the campus and leases the rest of Cubberley from the Palo Alto Unified School District under an agreement set to expire in 2014. The contract costs the city about $7 million a year, in addition to maintenance costs.
The fate of Cubberley has been a source of anxiety for the many patrons of the campus, including residents who use its playing fields, artists who rent space at its studios and parents whose children use its day-care facilities. In March, a citizens committee composed of neighborhood leaders and former council and school board members, released a report urging the city to renew the lease for 10 years and to pursue with the school district a master plan for "joint use" of the community center. The new lease, the Cubberley Community Advisory Committee recommended, should include a commitment to "make concrete plans for long term sharing of the site."
"The CCAC believes that this shared use goal can be achieved to the betterment of the entire community -- if the City and the School District work cooperatively together with the common goal of a shared use that will serve both the educational and community services of future generations of Palo Altans," the committee's report states.
Numerous members of the committee attended the hearing to further drive this point home. Sheri Furman, who served on the advisory group, called Cubberley a "diamond in the rough" and urged the council to "let it shine" by investing in its redevelopment. The city, she said, should look beyond the lease negotiations and consider its "larger goals" with Cubberley.
"Ten years from now, we should have a new community center on the site," Furman said. "That should be the ultimate goal for the lease, five years to plan, five years to build. We cannot keep pouring money into an aging facility that will eventually be demolished."
Council members all agreed that the city should maintain its interest in Cubberley and pursue a new lease. But with a closed session on the topic scheduled for next week, some were hesitant to show their hand too much. Councilman Larry Klein urged his colleagues not to be too rigid about staking out a position on Cubberley before the closed session and argued that doing so would tie the hands of City Manager James Keene and the city's negotiators. And Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilwoman Liz Kniss both stressed that they should not be held too strictly to what they're saying publicly before the closed-door negotiations.
But even despite these precautions, the council voted to support Klein's motion to express the council's support for renewing and modifying the lease. Members also generally agreed that they should consider a needs assessment, as urged by community members, though they stopped short of voting on this topic. Instead, they directed the council's Policy and Services Committee to explore this recommendation further.
The Monday meeting was the council's first chance to discuss the broad and detailed report from the advisory committee since the March meeting when the report was first unveiled. The discussion indicated that on the broad topic of lease renewal, the council is by and large on the same page. The biggest disagreements Monday pertained to how much members were willing to publicly discuss before the May 20 closed session. While Klein urged his colleagues to be cautious about their public comments, Councilmen Pat Burt and Greg Schmid had no qualms about voicing support for pursuing a "joint use" vision for Cubberley with the school district, which hopes to one day build a third high school at the site.
The council, Schmid argued, is "not negotiating with an unknown force" but with one whose interests are in many ways aligned with the city's.
"We both are going to need to go to the voters for capital expenditures on the Cubberley site and the same voters are going to want to make sure that we have worked together cooperatively to create a future that worked for everybody," Schmid said. "I don't quite get the fact that we shouldn't show our hand. Our hand should be very public."
Some of his colleagues, including Mayor Greg Scharff and Klein, said that while they share some of these sentiments, they would rather not be too explicit about directions before the closed session. Councilwoman Gail Price, a former member of the school board, said that Cubberley offers the council and the school board a great opportunity to collaborate.
"We have a tremendous opportunity here to show how well we can work together -- the school district, the City of Palo Alto and community members -- to come up with innovative and creative and noteworthy resolutions," Price said.
Price also argued that the concept of a "joint use design" should be further refined before any commitments are made. Kniss and Shepherd both agreed.
"The devil is always in the details and these are devilish details," Kniss said.
Shepherd stressed the need to modernize Cubberley and suggested that it might be worthwhile considering a lease extension that goes beyond the 10 years that the committee had recommended. A longer-term lease, she said, would allow the city to "think longer-term about capital improvements."
Burt suggested that his colleagues adopt some basic principles, including eliminating the existing covenant not to develop and earmarking funds for infrastructure improvements at Cubberley. His proposal fell by a 3-5 vote, with Schmid and Marc Berman the only colleagues joining him.
The council's discussion Monday sets the stage for what promises to be prolonged negotiations between the council and the school board, a process that will begin with the closed-door discussion on May 20. The council was originally scheduled to hold its closed session on May 6, but members backtracked after members of the public urged council members to first have an open hearing.
Former Mayor Mike Cobb, who co-chaired the citizen committee and who serves as president of a softball league that plays at Cubberley, was one of many committee members who asked the council to postpone the closed session and to give the public a chance to voice its concerns. On Monday, Cobb urged the council to get on with the work of renewing the lease and proceeding with a master plan for the site.
"When you look back at your council careers, I hope you can look back with the idea that you helped the community come up with a truly visionary solution that will serve the needs of future generations," Cobb said. "If you can do that, you can look back with pride."