by Diane Reklis and Jennifer Hetterly
Cubberley Community Center is special. It is easily accessible from neighborhoods and schools by walking, bicycling and transit and serves as many as 600,000 visitors each year. Cubberley offers a rich tapestry of services and programs to Palo Altans of every age and ability throughout their years, including:
* Health and wellness. Indoor and outdoor sports for all ages, fitness classes, senior lunches, and stroke and heart attack recovery programs.
* Visual and performing arts. Music ensembles and lessons, theater, dance for all levels and ages at three large studios plus several smaller studios, and 22 artists in residence.
* Education and child care. Pre-school through college and life-long learning.
* Nonprofit organizations. Includes Wildlife Rescue and Friends of the Palo Alto Library, meeting rooms, hourly rentals, and many city services.
There is nowhere else to put the resources offered at Cubberley. Available spaces for new community facilities are few, diminishing and prohibitively expensive. Most of the existing Cubberley tenants say they would close their doors or move out of Palo Alto if they lose their space at Cubberley.
Our city is growing. The number of Palo Alto children and older adults is getting larger and this trend is expected to continue. Our school district expects to need most of the Cubberley site for a new high school in the not too distant future. A growing population deserves increasing community services and future students deserve facilities comparable to Gunn and Paly. An efficiently designed and shared Cubberley site offers the best, and perhaps only, opportunity to meet our growing needs for a community center and high school.
The recent Cubberley Community Advisory Committee considered the array of services at Cubberley, and the challenges and costs of uncertain timelines for a new high school. We concluded that the community could not justify the maintenance costs to preserve the site as-is for school use ($18.8 million according to the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission) only to lose those investments and vital services when a school moves in. Neither could we afford to risk insufficient space for a third high school or open its doors as a run down, inefficient, 70-year-old facility. If we exercise some creative problem-solving and start planning together now, we won't need to make those sacrifices.
The advisory committee determined that a modern, efficient layout and design of the site could recapture 9.4 acres of space for indoor or outdoor use without going to a second story. That is comparable in size to six football fields or more than 300,000 net square feet of single-story buildings. The effective creation of 9.4 new acres would result in ample space for both a community center and a high school comparable to Gunn or Paly. If some of the buildings were two stories, we would have even more usable space. The committee's analysis highlights a unique opportunity to maximize use of space, preserve flexibility for the school district, and capture synergies of shared use. The Cubberley site may be smaller than the other two high school sites, but its potential to carry an equal or better school facility along with a community center could deliver unparalleled community benefits.
However, such an outcome requires informed planning, cooperation and long-term investment. We can only get there if the city and school district work together.
A professional, city-wide needs-assessment is essential to understanding community priorities and how Cubberley would best fit into the network of services provided across Palo Alto, in school and city facilities. Without that understanding we cannot hope to design programs or facilities that will meet the current and future needs of the community — we're stuck with doing tomorrow what we did yesterday. Programming decisions must be well informed and they must drive design.
This best use of the Cubberley site cannot happen without cooperative planning and shared use of certain facilities. Without shared use of parking, access and service roads, for example, costly duplication will severely impair site efficiency, forcing over-development of least-valued uses at high cost to residents in dollars and program offerings. The committee strongly recommended that the city and the school district begin planning now for the entire site. By doing so jointly, they could:
* Identify the best locations on the site for a community center and shared parking and roadways that preserve the most flexibility for future school design;
* Create significant and long-term efficiencies by incorporating plans for circulation, mechanical, maintenance and safety operations that will ultimately support all uses;
* Design flexible programming spaces that can serve future school use or community use as needed;
* Define construction phases that can roll out over time;
* Give taxpayers a clearly defined long-term vision to explain and support sequential fundraising initiatives.
A long-term plan for phased construction, allowing completion of a community center before school construction begins, would avoid significant gaps in services, enabling tenants to transition in and out of different Cubberley facilities as construction progresses. Phased construction would increasingly reduce deferred maintenance costs as each phase is built and allow time for PAUSD to refine its expectations and design plans for a high school without holding the city hostage.
The city and school district are preparing to enter negotiations regarding the terms of a renewed lease at Cubberley. The lease negotiations represent a key leverage point in building a working relationship between the two parties and determining the future of Cubberley. Whatever that future, we will be asked to pay for it. If we want this vital public asset to be used to its best and most efficient potential, now is the time to say so. We must:
* Invest in an accurate understanding of our city-wide public resources and current and forecasted needs that will inform program planning and associated facility design;
* Demand that our elected leaders, on the City Council and the School Board, work together, in good faith, toward an efficient, shared solution;
* Express support for long-term investments in a redesigned Cubberley facility.