As Palo Alto officials plow ahead with negotiations over a new lease for Cubberley Community Center, they are setting aside until a later date broader questions over what types of uses the sprawling and eclectic complex should accommodate.
The future of the 35-acre center on the southern edge of the city became a hot topic over the past two years, with the lease between the city and the school district heading for its final stretch. The city owns 8 acres of the complex and leases the other 27 acres from the school district under an agreement set to expire in December 2014. Last month, the City Council for the first time publicly declared its desire to renew the lease for Cubberley.
But the city is in no rush to start planning for Cubberley's future. On Tuesday night, the council's Policy and Services Committee voted 3-1, with Karen Holman dissenting, to defer until a future date a decision on whether to proceed with a "community needs assessment" for the site.
The needs assessment is one of 17 recommendations issued by the Cubberley Community Advisory Committee, a group of citizens that in March submitted a detailed analysis of Cubberley issues. The group, which included neighborhood leaders, city commissioners, school volunteers, and other stakeholders, recommended that the city and the school district renew the Cubberley lease and that the center become a "joint use facility." The group also urged the city to develop within the first five years of the new lease a community needs assessment.
"Deciding which buildings to build or remodel as well as deciding on renting and leasing priorities
for a community center requires a very thorough community needs assessment to identify what
services and opportunities are needed by the community, where such services exist now, and
what services are best offered at Cubberley to meet community needs," the report states. "We need professional expertise to do this work well. Only by investing in such a systematic study with the school district as a willing partner can we be sure we are planning well for a facility that will serve Palo Alto for years to come."
But this systematic study will have to wait a while. City Manager James Keene urged the council not to proceed with the needs assessment at this time. He noted that the effort would potentially extend well beyond the Cubberley site, and staff's efforts are focused on lease negotiations with the school district. He also said that proceeding with the master plan at this time would be premature because the city doesn't yet know how the negotiations would be resolved.
"I don't see how the staff can support a concurrent needs assessment, particularly on a project that's really not defined at all," Keene said.
His argument won over three of the four members of the Policy and Services Committee. Councilwoman Gail Price said she was concerned about staff impact and proposed deferring the conversation over the needs assessment until after the lease is negotiated.
"It seems to me that it's clear there's an interest and need for a needs assessment based on the Cubberley Community Advisory Committee and other conversations," Price said. "But staff is already doing several activities that can provide background for this discussion and foundation for future work."
These activities include an update to the city's Comprehensive Plan (its land-use bible) and a new parks master plan. The city is also about to launch a process for creating a community vision for 27 University Ave., a site next to the downtown Caltrain station.
Price also said that until the city and the school district come up with a new agreement, the council is "working without a context."
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who chairs the committee, concurred.
"We're not sure at this point what we're actually working with," Kniss said.
Even though the council anticipates a lease extension, she said, "no one has signed on the dotted line yet to say that's gonna happen."
Councilman Larry Klein joined Kniss and Price in voting to defer a discussion on whether to conduct an needs assessment until after a new deal is reached on the Cubberley lease. Holman, who dissented, said she would like to see the planning work begin sooner and suggested that the Parks and Recreation Commission can help get the ball rolling. It might be worthwhile to consider the importance of the needs assessment as compared to other planning processes that the city is currently undertaking.
It's important that the council understand what the community wants as it proceeds with other major projects, including the planned construction of three new athletic fields at the renovated Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course.
"It's a a practical exercise and a dreaming exercise, but it helps refine what's important," Holman said of the needs assessment.
Jennifer Hetterly, vice chair of the Parks and Recreation Commissions and member of the Cubberley advisory group, urged the council not to wait too long before making a decision about the needs assessment. While there's no need to actually begin the assessment at this time, the city should make a decision soon on whether to go forward with it at all, she said. Funding for the planning effort could become a factor in the negotiations between the city and the school district.
She noted that the city is currently working on several other strategic documents, including a parks master plan and a community vision for the area around 27 University Ave. A broad community needs assessment, she said, would lead to more thoughtful planning project for both Cubberley and 27 University.
"Reinventing the wheel on a site-by-site basis seems very inefficient," Hetterly said.
Committee members also had different ideas about what this future needs analysis might entail. Klein recommended asking members of the community to include in their suggestions for new amenities ways to pay for these amenities, including public-private partnerships.
"It's easy to give your opinion when there's no money involved," Klein said.
Requesting funding suggestions, Klein said, would "focus the mind" and promote a "bottom-up approach" to planning for improvements at Cubberley and elsewhere.
"It really puts people to the test: Are you willing to do something other than just say, 'I think something is a good idea.' "
Holman disagreed, and said the council should welcome all suggestions, whether or not they are coupled with funding recommendations.
People proposing something -- let's say a bocce ball court -- may not know how to fund it, but if it's put on the table, there may be others who see this list and know how to fund it," Holman said.
The council should welcome the public's suggestions on how to fund new facilities, Holman said, but not require them.
"I'd hate to edit people's thoughtful suggestion," Holman said.