Palo Alto will not sell Cubberley site

City Council declines to sell 8-acre property to Foothill College; calls for partnership with school district

Foothill College's prospects for building a major education center in south Palo Alto suffered a fatal blow Tuesday morning when the City Council decided not to sell a portion of Cubberley Community Center to the college.

For the second straight meeting, the council held a late-night discussion that dragged on past midnight and featured comments from community members urging the council not to sell the Cubberley land. But unlike on June 27, when the council asked staff to consider sending a "letter of interest" to Foothill, on Tuesday members decided that the city's best response to the college district is, "Thanks, but no thanks."

The council decided to send the Foothill-De Anza Community College District a letter stating that it is not interested in selling the Cubberley site, but indicating the city's willingness to work with Foothill on exploring other sites for Foothill's use. The council reached its decision not to sell the land after a wave of protests from city residents and former elected officials, most of whom argued that the Cubberley space would be needed for a future school.

Their arguments proved convincing. Instead of negotiating with Foothill, the city will now work with the Palo Alto Unified School District to come up with a new plan for Cubberley.

Larry Klein, who supported sending a letter of interest to Foothill two weeks ago, quoted Kenny Rogers in explaining why he now proposed sending a letter of non-interest.

"Like the old country song says, 'You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.'" Klein said. "To put our staff, ourselves and the community through a useless exercise just doesn't make any sense."

The council voted 8-0, with Gail Price absent, to direct staff to work with the school district on creating a plan for the busy and dilapidated community center at Middlefield Road. The city owns an 8-acre parcel of Cubberley; the school district owns the rest.

In recent weeks, school officials took a stronger stance on the Cubberley land, which they see as a potential site for a new school. On June 28, one day after the council voted 6-3 to direct staff to draft a "letter of intent," the school board passed a resolution stating that it believes the district "will need the 35-acre contiguous Cubberley site to provide high quality and comparable K-12 educational services to all students in all neighborhoods."

"We also believe that working together with the City of Palo Alto to define and address our joint Cubberley interests will produce effective and mutually beneficial decisions for the residents we serve," the district's motion stated.

The council's decision Tuesday morning still leaves room for the city to negotiate a land deal with Foothill some time in the future, though given the lack of available land it's unclear what such a deal might look like. Foothill, which already has a campus at Cubberley, is seeking to build a new state-of-the-art Education Center and intends to make a decision on the site of the new center later this summer. The college district is eying a site in Sunnyvale and has issued a request for offers to private parties.

The council's decision not to sell the Cubberley parcel also raises the possibility that Foothill will leave Palo Alto once it builds the new education center in another community.

Some council members, particularly Karen Holman, have argued that the city should focus not on the 8-acre site, but on the entire community center, which is poorly maintained and facing an uncertain future. In addition to serving as Foothill's Middlefield Campus, Cubberley houses an eclectic mix of businesses and organizations, including day-care centers, music schools and dance studios.

"I hope we can get beyond looking at eight acres and look at the site as a whole," Holman said.

Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh and Nancy Shepherd continued to call for a stronger dialogue with the school district. Yeh's motion, which the council passed, calls for City Manager James Keene to return to the council on Oct. 3 with a plan for working with school officials on shaping Cubberley's future.

The discussions would include the school district's process for building a school at Cubberley and the possibility of leaving a portion of the 8-acre site available to community groups.

Though this week's discussion was less heated than the one two weeks ago, when dozens of artists, dancers and city residents urged the council not to sell, the arguments from the public were similar. Former mayors and school trustees criticized the council's process for dealing with the Cubberley site -- citing, among other things, the late hour -- and urged members to keep the land. Former Mayor Mike Cobb said selling the land would be a "tragically bad decision" while former Mayor Lanie Wheeler called the Cubberley parcel the "only site remaining in the community that's suitable for reuse as a secondary school."

Carolyn Tucher, a former member of the school board, also argued that the school district needs the space and urged city officials to work with school officials to find adequate space for the students.

"Let's get to work," Tucher said. "Let's find the answer for today and tomorrow and see if we can find another solution that benefits the city, the school district and Cubberley's neighbors."

Mayor Sid Espinosa said it was "unfortunate that we got to this place with Foothill," but noted that the council's decision still leaves the door open for future discussions.

"We didn't close the door completely," Espinosa said.

Espinosa and Klein both noted that the Cubberley dilemma has, at the very least, forced the city and the school district to collaborate more closely on a very important local asset.

"I don't know if this is a silver lining, but it's at least a bronze," Klein said. "I think we'll have some serious discussions with the school district."

Related material:

Editorial: The Cubberley conundrum

Push comes to shove on possible Cubberley deal

School board asserts need for Cubberley

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Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of another community
on Jul 12, 2011 at 6:02 am

"The district has notified Sunnyvale that it might be interested in space at the Onizuka Air Force Station, Foothill-De Anza Chancellor Linda Thor said. In addition, it has solicited proposals from private developers and received one response "that appears to be viable," Thor said, declining to elaborate." - 6/24/2011

Very good. This will enable Sunnyvale to go ahead with using available land at the former Onizuka AFS site or another plot on Kiefer Road for the campus. Knowing the foot-dragging in Palo Alto, the Cubberly buildings and land will become a dilapidated eyesore over the coming years.

Like this comment
Posted by Time to step up!
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 12, 2011 at 8:46 am

Now the real leadership test begins! PAUSD, City Council, community leaders...Let's keep working together to make something real happen. Thoughtful (but timely and concrete) solutions for crowded schools and for the community!

Like this comment
Posted by Tiunme to roll up our sleeves.
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 12, 2011 at 11:10 am

This article missed part of the story.

Council was very clear last night that they have felt "rebuffed" by the school district in their efforts to plan for future. Inexcusable. This planning process should have been part of bond measure planning before now, and the city should have been included if the district is going to depend on the city so heavily for subsidy. It is a reasonable expectation on Coucnil's part, that the school district should actively participate in a planning process.

I hope the PTA and community service providers will join them at the table and that everyone will familiarize themselves with the budget challenges that both the city and school district are facing. This is the beginning of a long and challenging negotiation about the future of Cubberley, a critical community asset...and the community needs to engage thoughtfully. As Council said, we MUST start now because the Cubberley lease is up in 2014.

Like this comment
Posted by Close neighbor
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Now Foothill is out of the picture, the City and the School District need to do another land swap.

Originally the City wanted 8 acres of the playing fields at Cubberley when they returned 8 acres of the Terman buildings to the School District, but the School District wanted to keep the playing fields at Cubberley so they gave the City 8 acres of decaying classrooms. Now they want those buildings back!!

The City should return the 8 acres of buildings at Cubberley for 8 acres of playing fields as originally negotiated. Then when the lease between the City and the School District for the remaining 27 acres ends in December, 2013; all the Cubberley buildings should be returned to the School District so they can do with them whatever they want.

Meanwhile the City should maintain the playing fields in the same condition they keep the playing fields at Terman which they own.

Problem solved - the School District gets all the buildings back and someone else (the city) maintains the playing fields on the same terms as the Terman playing fields.

Like this comment
Posted by Deep Throat
a resident of another community
on Jul 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Close Neighbor,

Your solution is not good enough for the school district.

They want to own all 35 acres AND they want to continue getting the annual lease revenue they are currently getting from the city AND they want the city to continue paying for capital improvements and maintenance of the buildings and playing fields.

Like this comment
Posted by Close neighbor
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 12, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Deep Throat, you're probably right but negotiations have to start somewhere and right now the School District doesn't have the money to buy back the 8 acres of Cubberley from the City and yet they don't want the City to sell what they own to anyone else!! So another land swap may be the only answer.

The City is now getting short of money and when the new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center are opened it doesn't make sense for the City to hold on to Cubberley indefinitely. If they renegotiate now, two and a half years before the end of the lease in Dec. 2013, the School District will have time to put another bond measure on the ballot.

Like this comment
Posted by pa parent
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 28, 2011 at 11:33 pm

Close neighbor,
Right now the School District absolutely has the money to buy back the 8 acres of Cubberley, real estate prices have never been lower, and the city has always been willing to cut the district a sweetheart deal, they even approached them about it a few years ago.

Measure A language clearly gives the board the discretion to buy that property, and there are ways, already proposed, to move tens of millions over to not only buy the cubberley property but also to improve it, without compromising improvements at existing campuses. Again, Measure A allows for this if the board chooses. You have no idea how rare this opportunity is.

As long as the board doesn't see this as yet another opportunity to keep stringing the city and the community along and doing nothing about strategically moving us into the future.

Why doesn't the city partner with Foothill to buy a huge piece of real estate, using the $40 mil it just got from Stanford. We have so little community space here. Wouldn't it be great to have spaces that could be rented out cheap to groups who could prove they benefit the community -- hey, let the bowling alley move someplace so the kids don't lose yet one more community space -- and adjacent to a new Foothill campus, it would be amazing for our city.

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