Palo Alto's famously secretive data-mining giant Palantir entered the spotlight this week when its event organizers installed a gigantic white tent on the soccer field at Cubberley Community Center to house its upcoming employee party.
The event, which is expected to bring more than 1,500 employees from all over the world to Palo Alto, will include two events at Cubberley, one on May 3 and another on May 5. But because of the logistics associated with installing the 35-foot-high tent at the Cubberley, the portion of the field reserved for the celebration is off limits to the public between this week and May 10, according to a flyer distributed to neighbors by Blue Flame, the company organizing the event for Palantir.
Not everyone is thrilled about having Palantir, one of the city's largest employers, take over a community playing field for an extended period of time. Dozens of residents took to Facebook to express outrage over the city allowing commercial use of a site that, under the city's policies, should be dedicated for athletic, cultural or educational uses.
Several also attended the Tuesday night meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission to voice their discontent about the city's agreement with Palantir. Edith Groner, a resident of Greenmeadow, said she and her neighbors are "shocked and disturbed to see the field used for a commercial enterprise." And Rebecca White, a resident of Greenmeadow, said the company does not reflect the city's values and said she and her neighbors plan to picket the event.
"Our neighborhood is super stressed about this," White told the commission. "So, in the future it would be better if you engaged us and asked us whether or not we thought a commercial event is appropriate for our community, particularly a company like Palantir."
The concern isn't limited to the area just outside Cubberley. With Palantir recently making headlines for its role in building an intelligence system that could be used by the federal government to track immigrants (according to The Intercept, an investigative reporting site, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had awarded Palantir a $41-million contract in 2014 for the system), some have argued that the city's decision to assist the company clashes with its purported belief in inclusion and diversity.
Winter Dellenbach, a community activist who lives in Barron Park, noted that the council recently passed a resolution opposing attempts to undermine the security and rights of Palo Alto residents, regardless of immigration status.
"The resolution states that City staff and departments are to promote resident's safety and security, leading by example through equitable treatment of all," Dellenbach said. "Yet City staff has gone out of its way here to accommodate Palantir by granting its exclusive use of half a field for 17 days. This is a clear contravention of our resolution and should never have happened."
Others argued that while renting out public space can be appropriate, the city's arrangement with Palantir goes too far. Resident Bill Bucy said he believes people would be less upset if the facility was used for just a few days.
"You want to accommodate people's needs, but two weeks? That's kind of arrogant and over-the-top," Bucy said.
Palantir declined several requests for comment, but city officials said that in approving Palantir's request, they were simply trying to accommodate a local company's needs. City Manager James Keene alerted the City Council in an email this week that Palantir had planned an all-employee event in the city but was unable to find a space of adequate size. The company then reached out to the city "desperate for a solution and hopeful the City might be able to help."
"After careful consideration, to minimize potential impacts to residents, Cubberley user groups and neighbors with reasonable support and accommodations for a local business in an unfortunate predicament, the City has agreed to allow Palantir the use of half of the field for two all-employee events,” Keene wrote.
Rob de Geus, director of the Community Services Department, told the Weekly that the company reached out about two weeks ago and expressed an interest in holding their annual event in Palo Alto.
"We suggested other places, including bigger venues not in Palo Alto that may be better suited for big events like this," de Geus said. "They very much wanted to be here in their hometown. I can appreciate that.”
De Geus said the company will pay the city $41,000 for field use, along with other fees relating to permits and security. The company had also pledged to contribute $10,000 to each of the two groups that were scheduled to use the field: Stanford Soccer Club and Palo Alto Soccer Club.
Charlie Williams, board president of the Stanford Soccer Club, said there was some "hassle" and "pushback" about the sudden change of plans from some of his group's members, but he said the city has been good about helping his group find a temporary place to practice. Williams said he had no direct conversations with Palantir, though he confirmed that he was contacted by Blue Flame and was treated “very fairly.”
On Thursday afternoon, Williams was still dealing with the logistical challenge, which was made more complex by the fact that there is a citywide soccer tournament happening this weekend. Even so, he said the city has been very considerate about assisting the group.
"Toil and trouble is what we're going through," Williams told the Weekly. "It's a hassle but worse things can happen."
But some residents, who just learned about the event from a letter, remain concerned about the agreement between the city and Palantir. White noted that the letter, signed by Blue Flame co-founded Treva Cooke, doesn't even mention Palantir. Rather, Cooke wrote to Cubberley neighbors that Blue Flame is organizing a "private event" and warned residents that they should expect some additional bus traffic to accommodate guests to the event.
"In order to ensure public safety is maintained and disruption is minimized, we are working with the City of Palo Alto and the staff at Cubberley to ensure that the event results in the least amount of inconvenience to the community both at Cubberley and in the surrounding vicinity," Cooke wrote.