For Palo Alto officials, the sprawling Cubberley Community Center in the southern portion of the city is both a head-scratching conundrum and lucrative opportunity.
The center, which the city is leasing from the Palo Alto Unified School District under a 25-year agreement, houses a host of studios, nonprofit groups and playing fields, along with a Foothill College campus. But with the lease set to expire in 2014 and the school district eyeing the center as a critical location for new school facilities, the future of the Middlefield Road center and its tenants remains one of the city's most glaring wildcards.
On Tuesday (Nov. 1), the City Council took a major step toward resolving the Cubberley dilemma when it approved a staff proposal to proceed with a new master plan for the 35-acre center. The process, which the council approved 8-0 with Gail Price absent, entails a 14-month work plan involving three committees comprised of high-level staff from the city and the school district, Cubberley tenants and a broad swath of stakeholders from surrounding neighborhoods.
The school district has maintained that it needs the entire Cubberley site to support a swelling student population. The city currently pays the district about $7 million a year to lease the site.
In approving the plan, the council stressed the need for transparency as it seeks to figure out Cubberley's future. Council members Nancy Shepherd and Karen Holman were particularly adamant about the process being open to the public. Earlier this year, the council faced criticism from Cubberley tenants and former elected officials for not being transparent enough in its negotiations with the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, which was hoping to buy an 8-acre portion of Cubberley and build an education center at the site. The council voted in July not to sell the land after hearing from tenants who were worried about losing their space if the education center were built.
The new process should allow these tenants to have a greater say in what happens to Cubberley. One of the committees would include a large swath of community stakeholders, including tenants, neighborhood leaders, members of environmental groups and planning commissioners. Another committee, called the Technical Advisory Group, will be chaired by City Manager James Keene and school Superintendent Kevin Skelly and will be charged with doing the necessary research to facilitate a policy discussion next year.
When the technical group completes its work, the Policy Advisory Group -- consisting of council members and school-board members -- would consider possible scenarios for Cubberley and make recommendations to the council and the school board.
Keene said the process could be a "huge win-win" for the community if the two elected bodies can work well together.
"Nothing in the process will work well if we aren't able to work in a spirit of mutual interest and consensus in terms of the school district, the city and community stakeholders," Keene told the council Tuesday night.
The council had some disagreements about the proposed process, with Holman calling for the Planning and Transportation Commission to be involved in the land-use decisions surrounding Cubberley and Councilman Larry Klein calling her proposal a "classic 'Palo Alto Process' overkill," given the deadlines. The council ultimately agreed that the commission should have some involvement, though the nature of this involvement would be considered at a future date. The council also accepted a suggestion from Holman and Councilman Pat Burt to include connectivity between Cubberley and surrounding neighborhoods in the study.
Council members characterized Cubberley at Tuesday's discussion as a prime redevelopment opportunity for the largely built-out city. Holman said it's rare for a site as large as Cubberley to be available for redevelopment in a city of Palo Alto's size and called Cubberley an "enormous project."
"Whatever it takes to do it right, we ought to commit to that," Holman said.
Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh was one of several council members who praised the plan as a reasonable way to reach a mutually beneficial decision about Cubberley's future.
"I think that, in the best sense possible, this has set up a great bureaucratic process and I'm very happy we get to be engaged in this discussion across the stakeholder groups," Yeh said. "While there's tight time frames, I feel there's adequate time to address these issues."