With Foothill College now completing its departure from Cubberley Community Center in south Palo Alto, the city is preparing to welcome a fresh class of nonprofit groups, studios, faith-based groups and educational programs into the sprawling former high school campus.
The most prominent new tenant will be Avenidas, the city's main provider of senior services. The nonprofit is undertaking a major renovation and expansion of its present headquarters in the Birge Clark-designed building on Bryant Street and plans to occupy Cubberley during the construction period.
The other 16 tenants will occupy roughly 29,000 square feet of space. They include the REACH Program, a nonprofit that serves stroke survivors; Genius Kids, an educational company that provides preschool, kindergarten and after school programs; California Pops, a nonprofit orchestra; Cardiac Therapy, which provides cardiac rehabilitation services; and Art of Living Foundation, which offers yoga and meditation programs. Ranger Taekwondo is a new tenant; so is Silicon Valley Karate.
Other tenants will be Acme Education, Brainvyne, Chinese for Christ Church, Dance Connection, Imagination School, Ivy Goal Education, Living Wisdom, Melody Music, Palo Alto Humane Society and Palo Alto Soccer Club.
To accommodate these tenants, the Palo Alto City Council on Monday night agreed to amend the 1991 "master plan" governing Cubberley, which is jointly owned by the city and the Palo Alto Unified School District. With the changes, buildings that were designated exclusively for education (and, in one case, for administration) will now accommodate nonprofits, community organizations and recreational and child-care programs.
In addition, the council agreed to give Avenidas a discounted rate of $1 per square foot, while nonprofits are typically charged $1.31 per square foot. In approving the discount, the council generally agreed that the nonprofit has a unique status because it offers essential services for seniors that, in its absence, the city would have to provide on its own. Under the longstanding agreement between the city and Avenidas, the nonprofit pays no rent for its existing facility on Bryant Street. It is, however, paying for renovations to the city-owned building.
Lisa Hendrickson, the former CEO of Avenidas who is leading the capital campaign, told the council that even with the discount, the rent payments present a challenge.
"The rental expense, while not a big number, is an incremental cost for operations and one for which we'll have to fundraise," Hendrickson said, "especially at a time when we're asking the community for a lot of money: $13 million for a new building."
The council agreed that the nonprofit deserves the city's help, though Councilwoman Karen Holman wondered why Avenidas would get preferential treatment over other valuable nonprofits. She pointed, as an example, to Friends of the Palo Alto Library, a nonprofit that is also located at Cubberley and that donates about $250,000 annually to the city's library system. Why, Holman asked, isn't the Friends group getting the $1-per-square-foot rate?
"Avenidas provides great services for the community, but show me one of these groups that doesn't," Holman said.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss countered that Avenidas offers something "truly unique" to the community, while Councilman Cory Wolbach called its contribution's "critically important." Ultimately, Holman joined the council majority in the unanimous vote in favor of the discounted rate.
While the new lease agreements solve the immediate vacancies in Foothill's wakes, allowing the city and the school district to continue collecting rent revenue, the long-term future of the 35-acre community center remains undetermined.
In December 2014, the city (which owns 8 acres) and the school district (which owns the remaining 27 acres) signed a new five-year lease agreement that commits the parties to jointly plan the future of the center. Both parties see it as a critical asset, with the school district considering it a potential site of a future school (Cubberley once housed the city's third high school), and the city looking to create a fresh mix of community-serving functions and amenities.
Both parties also agree that the community center is in urgent need of repair, with the city committing $1.8 million annually to an infrastructure fund (before 2014, the city paid this sum to the school district as part of a covenant in which the district agreed not to sell its other school sites; the new lease scrapped the covenant).
On other aspects, there is no clear consensus. In March 2013, a stakeholders' committee conducted a thorough assessment of Cubberley and released a report calling for the city and the school board to jointly fund a "master plan" for the center. While both sides have conceptually embraced the committee's recommendation, the broad planning effort has yet to get off the ground.
On Monday, staff from the Community Services Department assured the council that the new rent agreements will not preclude any long-term options for Cubberley. All leases are short-term, from three years to the time when the city's lease with the school district expires.
Even so, several members of the stakeholders' Cubberley Advisory Committee urged the council not to lose sight of the goals to improve Cubberley and make it work better for both the school district and the city.
Diane Reklis, a former school board member who served on the advisory committee, requested that the council proceed with more urgency on the type of “needs assessment” for Cubberley that her committee had recommended. The analysis, she said, is needed for both sides to make the best use of Cubberley.
“Our conclusion was that we didn't have to choose,” Reklis said. “We can build a thoroughly modern community center at Cubberley and, when the time is right, we can build a school -- a full-sized school. ... This can only happen if we work together and plan together.”