Guest Opinion: Could public-safety building, high school share Cubberley space?


As the dust settles following the discussions about the potential sale or lease of eight city-owned acres to Foothill College to utilize that portion of Cubberley for a Foothill College campus, other options emerge. While I still believe the original Foothill proposal had significant and real merit, it is over.

There's another option that should be explored to address the needs of both the City of Palo Alto and the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD). The entire 35-acre site should be planned jointly for a new public-safety building and a new alternative secondary school. A well-designed and thoughtful site plan could do both. The uses are compatible and achieve important outcomes.

The need for a new public-safety building has been clearly and repeatedly established. Most recently, the Public Safety Building Blue Ribbon Task Force (2007) produced a comprehensive and detailed report. The current Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission also identifies both the future of Cubberley and the need for a new public-safety building as important infrastructure and community issues.

The eight city-owned acres are significantly more than needed for a well-designed, sustainable and exciting building (compact footprint), landscaping and parking. A "stepped-back" design could reduce its "mass" from adjacent properties and Middlefield Road. Funding, design and construction alternatives should be explored, including bonds, public-private partnerships and buy/lease-back options. Potential solutions used successfully in other communities should be researched.

A noteworthy design would result in an award-wining 21st-century civic building that would also support one of our key city priorities: emergency preparedness. It would also complement the implementation of the Office of Emergency Preparedness and our many community emergency-preparedness programs. A new, innovative building could coincide with changing service-delivery models that are now under consideration. Other communities provide some excellent examples.

I will refrain from commenting on the condition of our current public-safety facilities; their decrepit state is well understood. What an embarrassment. We must do better. Surely, we can come up with a solution. With very limited resources to buy real estate, why would we not use some of the city-owned land for a public-safety building?

A well-planned site also would address the needs of the Palo Alto Unified School District. While cycles vary over time, currently student enrollment continues to grow. Several years ago, a high school task force identified the importance of Cubberley as a potential alternative school site for secondary school students. The task force concluded that a full comprehensive high school, like Gunn or Paly, might not be necessary or appropriate. A new campus could focus on specialized educational content or experiences.

How often do we hear about "schools within schools" or innovative models in education? This is our chance.

In my mind, we should be beyond "brick-and-mortar" solutions. The one-story sprawling campus is not a modern educational facility. A more compact secondary school, with flexible and adaptive spaces, combining online and traditional classroom teaching makes much more sense.

There are also a number of program and scheduling solutions that could serve students and staff, such as using classroom and community space for enhanced adult education, training programs, child care and the arts.

This type of flexibility would also be exciting -- and would require buy-in by educators, the city, students and the community. If larger entities, such as other school districts in the region, the University of California and Stanford University can do this, so can we. Some districts have "community schools," a separate entity that programs existing schools for after-school and evening classes and community programs. One excellent example that was highly responsive to community needs is Montgomery County, Md., where I formerly lived.

Again, with careful site planning these various uses are feasible; we would still be protecting recreational fields and open space for school and community use.

If the school district seriously needs a revised operating campus, now is the time to begin planning and budgeting. District officials have experience and will do a great job.

The city could also achieve multiple goals and needed facilities that would also improve the safety and security of our community and businesses.

As a City Council member and former school board member, I recognize and appreciate the needs and concerns of all stakeholders, including current tenants and users of Cubberley. All parties need to explore this concept and scenarios that would meet multiple and complex needs.

I believe this is a complex yet vigorous solution that has promise.

In a period of severely limited public resources, need for multiple use facilities is more acute than ever. Jointly, we would demonstrate our abilities to work together to be innovative and responsible. Let's step up and show what can be done -- change is an opportunity.

Gail Price is a member of the Palo Alto City Council and former member of the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education. She can be emailed at

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Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 16, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Marie is a registered user.

I think this is a brilliant suggestion! An economical compact public safety building (skip the gold-plated perks like a basement firing range) combined with an office of emergency preparedness would be very compatible with a high school. It seems clear to me PA needs another high school - not just because of cyclical factors but because PA's population as a whole is rising, thanks to many factors, not the least of which is the pressure by ABAG to add housing.

It is too bad the school district didn't bite the bullet and use some of the last bond issue money to construct a new high school instead of expanding Gunn and Paly into mega high schools with a 2,350 capacity each, which I think was a big mistake. This is especially a mistake since it seems likely they will have to open a new high school anyway due to demographics.

Per the US Census, Palo Alto's population rose from 58,598 in 2000 to 64,403 in 2010. (Web Link).

It was much more stable between 1980 (55,225) and 1990 (55,900). Had to find a website in Germany for these numbers but the later years match the US census so I think they are right. I think (but don't know for sure) that ABAG was not pressuring Palo Alto to add housing at that time.

Web Link

With more pressure coming from ABAG, and a city council that is approving more and more dense developments, more students will come.

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Posted by Alex
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 16, 2011 at 12:51 pm

This is a bad idea.

1. We don't need to increase the size of the police department. The crime rate has been falling, so we need to downsize the police force to match the need for law enforcement. The police are only complaining that they have too little space because our police force is too large, thanks to the police union.

2. Police stations are all about police cars, parking them and getting them on the street fast. Parking at Cubberley is tough already. Where do you put the police cars? How would you accommodate parking for both a high school and police station?

3. Most of the police activity in town occurs in the north end of town, not the south.

4. I don't like the idea of police and high school students sharing the same space. Keep the criminals as far away from our youth as possible.

5. City council commissioned a survey in February 2007 and found out that there wasn't enough public support for a bond issue to build a police station.

6. If we put a police station and high school at Cubberley, what happens to the numerous nonprofits there?

7. A few years ago, Palo Alto had no debt. Then we voted for the library project, which was sold to us as a $60 million bond issue, but with interest will really cost about $130 million. We're also on the hook for recent school and college district bond issues. The pension liabilities of our city and schools must be high given the high salaries we pay. Given our current economy, we should be looking at lowering our debt, not getting in deeper.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 16, 2011 at 1:05 pm

No Gail. We don't need more "compact" monster buildings in clogging up the Middlefield/Charleston/San Antonio corridors. Developers seem to be all about the building, and nothing about the quality of life once the construction crews pack up and go home. the traffic is becoming unbearable. The best the city seems to be able to do to help the traffic situation is to REDUCE LANES on Charleston/Arastradeo to make it even more maddeningly slow to traverse the south end of the city.

We are being boxed in by monster building - completley out of size to the surrounding neighborhoods (Mitchell Park Library is RIDICULOUSLY oversized structure, the jewish community center on Charleston/San Antonio is horrible built right up to the sidewalk edge blocking all views and sunlight (but isn't it grand for the high priced health club members inside?!). No. Cubberly isn't going to be handed over to developers for the sake of lining developers pockets - again - at the expense of the neighborhoods.

We HAVE a city "public safety" building - a high rise in downtown palo alto - in a fine location for that purpose. USE THAT. We don't need to convey commuters into our neighorhoods. Its a mess, you just need to knock it off already.

By the way - HSR - not happening. Its a travesty of justice and nothing more and nothing less. its a lame, thinly veiled excuse for the developers to grab high priced real estate at rock bottom prices, and turn it for big profit as they develop it into construction-union-dream-dense-tacky-high-rise-in-your-face-to-hell-with-the-community-'tod'.

High speed trains don't belong in hundreds of miles of backyards, schoolyards, neighorhoods. Its time for the developers and unions to take a hike and get out of our neighborhoods.

More importantly its time for YOU to stand up for quality of life in Palo Alto.

By the way, on the Cubberly site - we don't need a building, landcaping and parking. We need a SPORTS FIELD an auditorium and classrooms. HELLO!

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Posted by Bob
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 16, 2011 at 1:27 pm

@Alex: I agree with most of your points re the potential for putting a public safety building at Cubberly (lack of parking, proximity of criminals to kids, the location not being centrally located, etc.); however, as for the police department being overstaffed, I checked and the city actually has dozens fewer officers now than it had 10, 20, or 30 years ago, even though we have a lot more residents. You may still think that the current number is still too many but let's be fair.

Also, I don't think the main complaint about the current building is crowding, but rather the fact that it is seismically unsound. I too would be all in favor the smallest building possible, devoid of bells and whistles. But I don't think it is unreasonable to want the police and dispatchers to be in a building that won't collapse in an earthquake. After all, we do want them around to help us.

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Posted by Cubberley Neighbor
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 16, 2011 at 1:53 pm

I think it was a great shame the City's 8 acres were not sold to Foothill. At least if the remaining 21 acres owned by the PAUSD became a Middle or High School a follow on educational facility would be right there.

I don't quite understand why the City allowed the School District to dictate to them what they should or should not do with land they own. Perhaps it's time the School District actually paid money and bought the 8 acres from the City instead of just letting the City swing in the wind!!!

The City owned 8 acres will not work for a Public Safety Building. In fact other south Palo Alto locations have already been considered and rejected because most of the Police work takes place Downtown and on California Avenue.

Too many Police Officers would have to spend too much time and money driving north to City Hall and University Avenue. Also the Police Officers like being near Downtown, it is a recruitment tool.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Putting teenagers and police facilities on the same site is not a good idea. Although it may deter bike theft and pot smoking at the school, putting teens next to a facility which will house weapons, felons, speeding cop cars is not one of the best ideas, unless of course the cops need to get to our high schools quickly (not a Palo Alto issue).

Not one of Gail's best ideas.

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Posted by Undecided
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 17, 2011 at 11:18 am

I appreciate Gail's typical thoughtfulness in considering our city's issues.

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Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 17, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Hi Marie,
I agree with you about the Mega School situation and how poor the planning has proceeded. But it's not too late to do something, most of the money hasn't been spent yet, though it soon will be when construction proceeds on the extra classroom spaces at Gunn and Paly.

It's too bad that it's being spent that way, too, because the extra classroom space necessitated several multi-story buildings, which are just more expensive per square foot to build and maintain for school construction. Gunn and Paly both had needed improvements -- more money could have gone into those improvements, plus money left for improving the Cubberley site, it Gunn and Paly weren't being expanded so much. Simply eliminating the extra classroom space and multistory would save tens of millions of dollars that could be better used. The Measure A funds can be used to improve Cubberly and buy back those 8 acres -- that's what they would use to buy that 2 acre daycare lot if they could.

I appreciate the willingness to think of new solutions as in this editorial, but I think PAUSD would do well to consider buying back the 8 acres and putting a middle school there, next to a choice high school.

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Posted by Cubberley Neighbor
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 17, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Marie describes the future Gunn and Paly facilities of 2,350 as being mega high schools. Wrong, Los Angeles has mega high schools of over 5,000. 2,350 is merely an average high school in todays world and the School District knows it. The bottom line is PA cannot afford a third high school, Cubberley would have to be torn down and rebuilt because it does not comply with modern earthquake standards. To just operate a third high school would cost several Million in overhead.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 17, 2011 at 3:49 pm

What if we combine the Main Library with a public safety building? We have an abundance of library space already and the renovation at Main has not yet begun.

Gail - I like your creative thinking!

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Posted by Cubberley Neighbor
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 18, 2011 at 10:59 am

Improvements to the Main Library will go ahead as planned because that's what the voters voted the money for. If you want to change the rebuilding program at Main Library and include a Public Safety Building it will have to go back to the voters for approval.

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Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 18, 2011 at 11:37 am

I don't know what high schools cost out here, but in Massachusetts a couple of recent ones were in the $200 million range; I would assume out here would be more expensive. That's well outside the scope of the current bond, which is for $378M and covers every school and facility in the district. A new high school would require a new bond in my opinion.

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Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 18, 2011 at 10:44 pm

You are very free with your opinions, but what about facts? Do you even know how that bond money is being spent currently? The fact is, the school board never took a factual look comparing what it would cost to reopen Cubberley to what it is costing to build and run megaschools. I haven't witnessed much effort trying to give us the most for our money in the planning, either.

According to the state of California, basic construction data:
Web Link

For high school construction, cost per student: $21,928
Cost per square foot: $238 (more for multi-story)
Assuming 1200 students at Cubberley (it would probably be more like 600 to start):

That's $26.3 million and change.

Assuming we want the best for our kids and spend twice as much as anyone else, that's still a new school for $50million, not much more than we would save just by not having to build multistory on the other campuses and the extra square footage for classrooms.

Foothill is building its new campus for $40million. We're building our new community center and library for $45. We do not have land costs (except for those 8 acres), and the economy is down.

I just scrolled through one large district's construction projects in the last ten years, and they built several new schools between $4million and $42million, most in the $12 to $15million range. Granted, WE won't be able to do $4million, but our construction projects weren't exactly planned the most cost effective ways.

As for Cubberley neighbor, if you think a 2500 student school isn't a megaschool just because they have larger schools in LA, I have news for you: this isn't LA. And we just voted ourselves some hefty taxes over already paying through the nose so that we could improve our schools, not make them so large we create systemic challenges to quality and social environment.

As for costs of running a third school -- it doesn't necessarily cost more. When things get too large, they actually get less efficient. Many people are talking about using schools within schools at Gunn and Paly anyway, which requires separate administrations (four administrations), which would be more expensive than having just one third school. The third school will mean shifting students to another campus, but they need teaching staff and administrative staff regardless of where they are -- it's not like adding staff outright, staff would be shifted from other places. And it could actually mean saving money, as a third school could take students from both Paly and Gunn areas, possibly eliminating the need for redundancies at the two other schools because of high enrollments.

Stop pulling numbers out of your aspirin bottles. It's irresponsible. I wouldn't be so bothered by it except that it seems to be the way at the district office, too.

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Posted by pa res
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 18, 2011 at 11:09 pm

"2,350 is merely an average high school in todays world"

Actually, what is large depends on the district, but if we're defining "large" as where academic quality typically elbows down (in studies of high school size), that's around 2100 students. Start reading research on school sizes, the movement is now toward schools in the 600-1500 student range, because in the past the movement was all toward larger and we now know what a bad idea that was.

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Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2011 at 12:02 am

I'd be happy to learn more about high school costs out here, but here are the examples I was referring to from Massachusetts:

Newton North High ~ $200M (on existing site, so no land cost, capacity about 2000 student) - Web Link

Wellesley High School - $115M (again, existing site, about 1300 students) - below $135M estimate due to lower than expected construction costs Web Link

Here's an article about schools costing >$100M - the highest is LAUSD with a facility at >$500M and two others >$200M. Web Link

So the price tag can vary dramatically, I'm sure, depending on size, amenities, etc. My guess is that if you build a new smaller high school in Palo Alto, you're looking at well over $100M - heck the new gym at Gunn is costing >$13M, new classroom building >$24M, new pool ~$5M - that's over $40M and we're just getting started and there's no land required.

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Posted by MKL
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2011 at 2:07 pm

I offer this knowing that most readers will get incredibly defensive, because God forbid anyone bring up an elite school that is not contained within PAUSD. Palo Altans seem to think there are no other schools comparable or superior. In any case, we bought in Palo Alto this year and relocated from Santa Cruz County, where my daughters chose to remain to finish high school. The school is called Pacific Collegiate School and it is a relatively young public charter school with less than 600 total students. The grade levels are 7-12, the API's are in the 940's, the average SAT scores are slightly higher than Gunn's. Students must take a minimum of 5 AP's as part of the general curriculum and most all take more. The class sizes are reasonable and the kids know their teachers well. College Board ranked the school's AP World History program as the best in the country. US News & World Report ranked them 7th in the nation based on the number of AP exams per student and college readiness.

That being said, the school is in old buildings that are leased through the County. Some classes (choir for example) are in rather sad looking portables. It is not a pretty school, but it is an excellent one. I would be all for a college prep charter school similar to PCS. At the elementary level, PAUSD offers two alternative schools? Ohlone & Hoover, but I don't think these are charter schools, correct? They are simply alternatives? I don't know why parents don't get together and forge a charter plan for a small, community oriented school like PCS here. Is the Cubberly site, in it's current condition not available for this purpose due to various laws relating to seismic considerations? (It looks better to me on the outside than PCS!)

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Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Dallas just this year put online a new high school of almost a quarter million square feet for just over $30 million (no land acquisition costs).

There are two buildings going in at Gunn, a single-story building that is $8million, and a multi-story building that will be $20 million. If that latter building could be single story and we didn't have to build for 2500 students, that building could be $8 million or less, too. And if we'd spent any time at all trying to get what we want in the most cost effective way possible -- and I can personally attest there was none of that, it was all left up to the construction professionals who are the cost-foxes-guarding-the-hen-house -- we could probably get all the improvements wanted for far less than that.

You're using examples that don't apply, unless you think it we should aspire to spend as much as possible and not examine all the many known factors that inflate school construction costs nor try to get the most for our money. (Oh, wait, we're already doing that...)

I don't know much about LAUSD, but in 2010, a community k-12 school in California set a record as the costliest school ever at >$500M, so you are basically bringing up an outlier record-breaker, and those ~$200 million projects you mention are in the news because they have been so unusually costly, too. Nationwide, schools that cost more than $100million are still in the minority, i.e., not de rigeur. You are using outliers -- for what purpose? If you are the Me Too from other school discussions, you are not a dispassionate observer.

From the following article about overly expensive schools: “Architects and builders love this stuff, but there’s a little bit of a lack of discipline here,’’ said Mary Filardo, executive director of 21st Century School Fund in Washington, D.C., which promotes urban school construction.
Web Link

That's not what we should be aspiring to. But I can see how it happens, given how there has been literally no attention to planning our own project with the list of things that inflate school costs in mind, i.e., the above quote definitely applies in our case, too.

I thought this page on "High Performance Schools" was interesting. We definitely didn't do anything like that, but it sure seems like something we would go for in this community. Web Link

If Dallas can put in a spanking brand new quarter-million square foot school for $30 million, we can certainly put in a smaller, nicer school for -- twice that?

The problem is that you, like everyone else, is arguing a lot of specious stuff that just doesn't apply instead of actually looking at what we have and trying to get what we need in the best way. No on has sat down to try to do that, all the planning at Gunn and Paly was done completely divorced from any hard look at what could and should be done at Cubberley. And using a lot of specious and tenuous stuff like you've done above as a poor excuse for avoiding that responsibility.

We have to define what we want, and decide our budget, and then figure out how to get it. That was not done here, period. And what we want is certainly within the realm of possibilities for our budget. Maybe not, if as they have stated publicly, the board feels they can always come back to our community for more money later.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Neighbor - Construction costs in any part of Texas will be MUCH lower than in California, Massachusetts is much closer in cost of living, and their enforcement of building codes. In a town where it can cost a homeowner $500K just to get permits - building a school with a gyms, classrooms, science buildings, pool, tennis courts, track, baseball and soccer fields, performing art center, library, etc. would easily cost $100-200 million. I can't imagine we would build a 3rd high school with significantly different facilities than the other 2.

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Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Well, no wonder construction people think they can have their way with us. Just because someone in Switzerland built a record-breaking $12 billion dollar house, and costs in Switzerland are more like Palo Alto than, say, Pineville, Louisiana, does not mean eyeing that expensive house's construction cost is any more valuable to what I might build in Palo Alto than pulling a number out of my aspirin bottle.

Okay, let me post this again, because you are just speculating and drawing big conclusions about what we can and can't do from nothing. This would be laughable except that this is our children's future and trust.

Here, once again, are the School Facilities Fingertip Facts published by the state of CALIFORNIA: Web Link

Their numbers are based on actual data of school facility construction costs, as of August 2009, when the economy was better and costs were higher.

Rather than repeat what I already posted from the table above, I would just point out that they give the cost of an 1,800 student school on a 44.5 acre site at $39.5 million (not including land costs). This is far bigger than we would need for Cubberley.

They point out that local costs can vary. However, in a study looking at the impact of Project Labor Agreements on School Construction in California, which looked at every inflation-adjusted square foot construction project for 551 school projects in California built between 1995 and 2009: Web Link

"Average inflation-adjusted cost per square foot for these projects in California was $228.56..."

But let's not go with the average. Let's assume we in Palo Alto couldn't build anything good for less than the most expensive, least cost-effective way, with the worst most expensive labor agreements (despite the economy) and that we would be on the far end of the standard deviation at $302.98 per square foot plus $102.21 making us the most expensive on the curve (of actual data in school construction IN CALIFORNIA for the last decade and a half).

Referring back to the School Facilities Fingertip Facts, and assuming we are unable to do anything else but spend at a rate higher than anyone else has in all the CALIFORNIA-specific data these studies include, that's still less than $45 million for a 1200 student school (which is what Gunn and Paly were originally planned for).

Just for comparison, again, about $40million is what Foothill plans to put their state-of-the-art facility up for, and $45 million is what we are putting in our new library and community center for, a more valid comparison.

Can you please stop bringing in stuff that is irrelevant to this discussion? Our kids deserve at least that much. I think we care enough in this district, and are smart enough, to do better than the worst anyone has done, and all the available information points to our ability to put up Cubberley for almost no more than we would save by just redoing our plans with Cubberley in the picture and eliminating some of the unnecessarily costly decisions that were made when the plan (as currently proceeding) was just to turn Paly and Gunn into megaschools. (Which is, by the way, an old trend that we are insane to do when we have the resources to avoid it, and the incentive with the social issues we want to solve.)

Again: We have to define what we want, decide our budget, then figure out how to get what we want for that budget.

Based on all available reasonable facts (as opposed to self-serving speculation), that is eminently possible. Such an effort has not been made, period. It should be. Especially since Measure A would cover such a project, and the district would be negligent to assume they could always get more money from us rather than do the best job with that huge pot of money they already have as possible.

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

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