Editorial: The Cubberley conundrum

As Foothill College seeks to upgrade or move its Cubberley campus, Palo Alto school and city officials struggle over how to plan for the community's own future needs for the site

As with many Palo Alto issues, the current debate over whether the City of Palo Alto should enter into negotiations to sell part of the Cubberley Community Center to Foothill College is like a Rubik's Cube. Aligning all the well-intentioned stakeholders may be practically impossible, especially given the large number of uncertainties.

The complexity of the factors at play are staggering.

It begins with the fact that 8 of the 35 acres at the former Cubberley High School site at 4000 Middlefield Road are owned by the City of Palo Alto and the remaining 27 acres are owned by the Palo Alto Unified School District. This odd configuration stems from the city leasing the entire 35 acres from the district in 1989 but then acquiring ownership of 8 acres when a new middle school was needed and the city swapped the Terman Middle School site (which it owned) for the space at Cubberley.

The 8 acres are at the north end of the site and include most of the classrooms, two small parking lots and six tennis courts. The 27 acres owned by the school district consist of a few classrooms, the theater, gyms, multi-purpose rooms, two large parking lots and all the playing fields.

Foothill College currently leases about 40,000 square feet of space at Cubberley, roughly half of it from the city and half from the school district. The balance of the space is occupied by artists, two private schools, some city staff, nonprofit organizations and a few businesses. The city receives about $2.5 million a year in rent (at well below market rates) and its cost of operating the facility are roughly the same.

The 1989 lease deal came at a time when the school district was facing big financial challenges and, together with the city, orchestrated a complex deal that included a 35-year lease of Cubberley, an agreement whereby the school district pledged not to sell off its unneeded school sites and to provide space for after-school child care at all elementary sites.

It was deemed a "win-win" because it gave the city a community center in south Palo Alto, retained school sites for possible future use, and provided much-needed child care. But it came with a huge price tag, with annual payments that have now grown to more than $7 million. How did the city come up with the money to support this deal? By passing a Utility User's Tax that now generates more than $11 million a year from local residents and businesses.

Meanwhile, finances aside, there is concern over the growing enrollment at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools, the steady increases in elementary school enrollment and the prospect of additional students due to new housing development.

And in the midst of this, along comes Foothill College, sitting on millions of dollars in voter-approved bond money for capital projects that it would like to invest in a new "education center" in either Palo Alto, Mountain View or Sunnyvale. For the third time in the last four years it is eyeing the 8-acre site at Cubberley.

In the perfect world there would be a wonderful and innovative collaboration between the Palo Alto school district and Foothill College, facilitated by the city, in which Cubberley would be transformed into a unique campus functioning both as a high school and a community college, serving both teens and adults. It is that dream that led six City Council members Monday night to vote in support of sending a letter of interest to Foothill, despite an overwhelming negative response from the public.

At stake, one can assume, is Foothill's presence in Palo Alto. If it can't secure the space it wants here, it will probably go elsewhere.

For both the Palo Alto council and the school board, however, there is more at stake than Foothill's local campus. While the dream of an integrated education facility is one we share, it is even more important that policymakers responsibly plan for the long-term needs of our local school district, including the possible need for a third high school.

The city could proceed with talks with Foothill and put the burden on the school district to exercise its right of first refusal, meaning it would have to step in front of Foothill and buy back the 8 acres. But that kind of jockeying between public agencies is not in the spirit of cooperation that this community expects.

Cubberley is in disrepair, and neither the city nor the school district has a plan for dealing with it. That neglectful stewardship is shameful and is what makes the Foothill offer tempting. If further talks, ideally in public rather than in secret, can produce creative development ideas that preserve the ability for Cubberley to house a high school in the future, then it may be worth the effort.

Otherwise we have no choice but to let Foothill go, find replacement tenants, and begin a discussion on how to maximize the value of Cubberley to the community over the long-term.

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Posted by CrescentParkdad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 1, 2011 at 10:36 am

There should be no conundrum here at all. Palo Alto has sold former schools sites in the past and now regrets it. The City should take a lesson from Stanford, hold onto the land and lease it. Once it is sold, you don't get it back.

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Posted by Julian Gómez
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 1, 2011 at 10:45 am

Crescentparkdad: I second that!

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Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 1, 2011 at 10:52 am

" Foothill College currently leases about 40,000 square feet of space at Cubberley, roughly half of it from the city and half from the school district. The balance of the space is occupied by artists, two private schools, some city staff, nonprofit organizations and a few businesses. The city receives about $2.5 million a year in rent (at well below market rates) and its cost of operating the facility are roughly the same. "

It's time to put up or shut up. Foothill has been working with a FUTURE OUTLOOK for the Cubberly spaces it uses. It appears that they will invest resources in the campus and have set up a system that Palo Alto's AGED and HANDICAPPED will NEED more of in the future. Yes Palo Alto is aging along with the residents...the lack of care shows in the buildings at Cubberly...I imagine the same will apply to the residents..

Hmm, private schools, dancers, non-profits and businesses getting supported by the TAXPAYERS!!?!!!

It's time to ask for them to pay the costs for keeping the buildings properly maintained, or get them to move on.

It's called TANSTAAFL. Palo Alto has to make some hard choices.

IMHO,The Foothill College option means someone will get the property used properly and not squander the resources it has..

I've made my suggestions about the BMW Yuppie crowd in my other comments on the Cubberly site.

For the other people who get a real deal on using the Cubberly campus:

You appear to have the money to let your car sit in a handicapped spot with the A/C running while you pickup your " artiste "..

How about moving to that vacant daycare site? The same applies to the taxpayer subsidized private businesses. It's time to move on.

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Posted by Thoughtful
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 1, 2011 at 11:11 am

One other long-term question is: Given that either Foothill or PAUSD is likely, in the next decade, to need the facility at Cubberley, what can or should the City be doing to try to find another place for some or all of the current Cubberley tenants? In Milpitas, the Sobrato foundation operates a center where many local nonprofits are located. Is there a philanthropist in Palo Alto able and willing to step forward with such a spot? Rentals are increasing in Palo Alto but there must be at least some empty sites tnat could be provided to nonprofits if the money was found. This is a generous and affluent community; I really hope that someone could be forward-thinking about helping the nonprofits relocate. What a wonderful way for a local family to leave a lasting legacy for Palo Alto!

I also think that PAUSD's numbers are pretty clear: If the city just sells to Foothill that's going to make the future for the schools population very grim. I hope that's not what happens.

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Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 1, 2011 at 11:44 am

I appreciate the nice job the PAW did to summarize the Cubberley conundrum and I agree with the comments that the focus of the effort should be on reatining Cubberely as a facility to be used by PA residents and the PAUSD. Foothill is a fine institution but Palo Alto should not even be considering them as an option for Cubberley given the space constraints the city and school district already face.

I'm trying to understand why some of the city council members are going down this path. I believe one of the reasons is that selling Cubberley will help to fund the union pension liabilities. So instead of dealing with the problem, Price and her gang continue to find ways to fund her labor backers at the expense of the PA citizens.

We need to remove Price, Klein, and Yeh (at least) from office.

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Posted by curious
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 1, 2011 at 11:59 am

Can someone explain why Foothill is so interested in Cubberly? Don't get me wrong, I love Foothill college and have appreciated taking Foothill classes at Cubberly so I don't have to drive so far to their campus and deal with their parking. I know that Foothill has been cutting back some classes and programs, and that is why I'm wondering if and how Foothill can afford expansion and fixing up Cubberly.

I think most of us palo alto residents would prefer to retain Cubberly. Sounds like the rents should go up to pay for maintenance.

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Posted by Close neighbor
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 1, 2011 at 12:08 pm

One thing this article did not mention is that the City's long term lease for the remaining 27 acres of Cubberley ends in December, 2013. Selling or leasing the City owned 8 acres to Foothill is only part of the future puzzle.

Cubberley is thoroughly deteriorated and run down. It contains asbestos, lead paint and other hazardous materials and does not comply with modern earthquake standards. The School District needs to reveal their future plans for the 27 acres because it will all need replacing within the next 5 to 10 years.

Meanwhile the City has this opportunity for Foothill to spend it's bond funds by replacing the deteriorated buildings it owns at Cubberley; this is a very tempting offer.

As a close neighbor I'm tired of looking at Cubberley's deteriorated facade, we cannot keep it idefinitely in it's present condition. So, I support the idea of Foothill being allowed to rebuild the City owned 8 acres, unless the School District comes up with the money to buy it.

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Posted by Dan
a resident of Southgate
on Jul 1, 2011 at 12:17 pm

I didn't realize I was paying a Utilities tax to subsidize the various activities at Cubberley. $11M is quite a lot. Isn't there new CA law that says that utilities can't charge more than their cost?

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Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 1, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Very good editorial summation of the Gordian Knot.

The City may not have the $7M needed in 2014 to continue its lease payments. Then what? Meanwhile the site becomes more run down and expensive to refurbish.

There should be meetings now between the PAUSD and the City to make long term plans for the 37 acres if the land is neither sold or leased to Foothill. Today's elected leaders must address this problem rather than unfairly forcing it to be resolved by future councils.

The citizens want to retain the land, but the PAUSD doesn't have the money to rebuild or even maintain the property. Make some plans today instead of wailing about what a wonderful site it is. It isn't now and will be worse in the future.

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Posted by Please don't sell.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 1, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Don't sell. Foothill is a fine institution, but this is the wrong place for what they want. Foothill wants to buy land or get a VERY long-term lease (multiple decades--long enough to justify spending millions on construction of new buildings). Leasing that long is as bad as selling the land in terms of flexibility for future use as a middle school and/or high school site.

The impacts of a regional facility (with parking for 700-1,200 cars just for the eight acres Foothill wants) would exacerbate existing congestion problems in the area. (The current ENTIRE Cubberley facility has 750 parking spaces.) This will be an enormous intensification of use and will preclude PAUSD future options to use the site. Remember that most of the site is playing fields which shouldn't be built on...but likely will be built on if Council makes the wrong choice here.

There are many regular folks living here who can't afford membership in the newly built very expensive private clubs that pretend to be "community centers"--CJL and Elks. We need Cubberley's affordable space for the arts and child care and other badly needed services in our community.

More importantly, we need this space for future public school use which will be driven by infill development and turnover of existing housing that has not had children in the district in decades. This is the wrong time to abandon the strategy to preserve this space for public schools and use it in the meantime for community services. That strategy was and is a brilliant and successful vision. PAUSD and city, find a way to preserve Cubberley. It is the right thing to do.

Sunnyvale wants Foothill. The site Foothill has proposed in Sunnyvale is easily accessible to Palo Alto adult residents. Let them go.

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Posted by utility tax
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 1, 2011 at 1:57 pm

The utility money is not subsidizing cubberley. It is subsidizing schools, plus pothole filling. This is legacy of the 1980s when funding for schools was drastically cut and utility taxes only needed majority to pass. The cubberley thing is just to wash the money.

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Posted by Deep Throat
a resident of another community
on Jul 1, 2011 at 2:30 pm

And when the Cubberley lease with the City expires and the school district takes back Cubberley, the school district and their allies on the City Council will look for some other excuse to keep giving the same annual rent payment to the school district although the City will no longer be renting the property.

The school district has its own taxing authority that should be used to replace the rent payments the school district is now receiving from the City.

The City can't legally get money from the school district taxes to maintain streets and sidewalks, pay police and fire fighters, or pay for City programs, but when the rent payments are no longer going to the school district the City will have General Fund dollars from the utility tax to pay for City services to residents.

Of course, the current City Council would probably rather spend the money on a new building that can't be staffed properly due to lack of funds.

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Posted by Silent mostly
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 1, 2011 at 3:36 pm

The district has the money now to repair or even rebuild Cubberly, Measure A was clearly written with that in mind. There has been a noticeable lack of strategic thinking in planning the high school updates. Cubberley could easily be brought online for the money saved by gunn and paly planned as more reasonably sized schools and Cubberly on line sooner than later. Time for some people to swallow theiroverinflated egos and roll up their sleeves with a view to the future for our kids.

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Posted by No More Bozos!
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jul 4, 2011 at 8:38 pm

1. BUY and HOLD! Quite selling our school sites. Stop rezoning and approving new residential projects until we become effective and sustainable.

2. Throw the Bozos OUT! My neighbors and i support strong schools, a strong police department and a strong fire department!

3. I am tired of the opinions of City Staff and city hired consultants who don't base their decisions on FACTS.

4. Remember we live in earthquake country! Remember that in 2003, over 20 people died the the southern California large fires that burned in to towns like Palo Alto. We scream whenever there is a bad accident in town. Remember that our children step in front of trains. Our children can and do bring weapons and explosives to school. We are an aging community where rapid response of paramedics, ambulances and transport to advanced care facilities like Stanford University Hospital maintain the quality of our lives.

5. We used to be a model community; now we are moving towards a community that is losing it's shine. Why not model ourselves after Stanford or Mountain View {both areas that have rebuilt their infrastructure and they are maintain their city services.

6. We need some new leaders. NOW!

Like this comment
Posted by Elizabeth Alexis
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 6, 2011 at 10:27 am

Think selling land is the worst.idea.ever?

Sign a petition! Web Link

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Posted by paly parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 6, 2011 at 11:52 am

If the City decides to sell - PAUSD has the right of first refusal over Foothill. We should be campaigning PAUSD, not the City.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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