It's been one year since the Palo Alto Unified School District superintendent and the Palo Alto city manager signed a Cubberley Futures compact, committing to a collaborative effort and a creative design process for this shared space. But there is no sign of the road map that was promised for last fall, let alone concrete plans for what could be built.
It's been four years since the Cubberley Community Advisory Committee delivered its comprehensive report. But there is no sign of the needs assessment it strongly recommended as the crucial first step in the process.
Who owns Cubberley?
Cubberley was built in 1955 as a high school and closed in 1979 due to declining enrollment and financial issues. The school district owns 27 acres at Cubberley and the city owns eight, with the lease between the school district and the city expiring in less than three years.
The lengthy backstory of the shared ownership has its roots in the city helping the school district during a difficult financial period by making significant annual payments for a covenant not to develop, and also includes a land swap of the Terman site.
How is Cubberley used today?
After offering to purchase part of Cubberley and being refused, Foothill College, a large tenant for decades, has left the building.
Cubberley has become a temporary home for whichever organization is rebuilding -- first the Mitchell Park library, now Avenidas, and next the Junior Museum & Zoo.
There are also softball, soccer, tennis, and basketball games, the Friends of the Palo Alto Library monthly book sale, music and dance practices and performances, language classes, child care and after-school educational programs, artist studios, religious and cultural services, a variety of wellness programs and other nonprofits. These organizations offer a wide array of opportunities and services for kids, seniors and everyone in between, making Palo Alto a better place to live, play and learn.
Since this site is jointly owned by the school district and city, I decided to attend the February session of the monthly city/school meeting. In preparation, I printed out the Cubberley Community Advisory Committee's detailed, 823-page report.
Now that I've read most of it (I confess to skimming the many leases with signatures of city managers and school superintendents from long ago), I am struck by the dire need for a concerted effort to better utilize the space and modernize the buildings. This need has been well-known for decades -- in fact, a master plan was produced in the early 1990s but never implemented.
Some of this sounds familiar to me and my friends from our work on the library bond in 2008 -- a decrepit building in south Palo Alto from the 1950s with no air conditioning, high maintenance costs, and poor use of the space. As the facilities subcommittee reported in 2013, "The 57-year-old facility is run down and energy inefficient, and its current layout wastes valuable space and is neither designed for, nor well suited to, modern school or community programming."
It's easy to get lost after you park your car or lock your bike because the layout is confusing and the signage is nonexistent or outdated. The grass fields are uneven and frequently flood. The roofing maintenance required is extensive and expensive. Walking down the halls to get to the bathrooms is a balance exercise because the walkway slopes so steeply toward the street. Frankly, the condition of the buildings is poor and only getting worse.
The school district is not going to need this site for a high school in the foreseeable future. Many of the community organizations currently renting at Cubberley offer important services and would find it difficult to locate and/or afford space elsewhere in the city. Playing fields continue to be in high demand.
Housing of all kinds understandably dominates the city's political agenda (currently, the waitlists for affordable housing in Palo Alto range from 500 to 1,000 people at each property, and it can take from five to 15 years to get called for a spot). Clearly, the time has come to look deeply and boldly at what we need, what we have and what needs to change.
The city/school committee put this topic on its April agenda with the hope and expectation that the city manager and school superintendent would come and jointly share the work that is being done and the plan for dramatically improving this space, the largest piece of publicly owned land in the city. Hopefully, they will hold the meeting at Cubberley so they can get a better sense of the problem.
I know, from personal experience, that it will take years of work to create a space that works for everyone. A task list for this project will likely include: Complete a robust needs assessment with community input, host a creative design charrette, develop a reasonable plan, build a strong implementation team, find the right financing, and then execute the plan. Continuing to put off this necessary work because it is difficult is simply poor management of this important community resource.
The city and the school district should have already started working on this challenging and exciting project, but it appears that the answer to my question about what is happening at Cubberley is, nothing -- and that's a shame.
Alison Cormack chaired the $76 million library bond campaign in 2008, has lived in south Palo Alto for 20 years, and has been a Palo Alto Unified School District parent for 15 years. She can be reached at [email protected]