After years of discussions, an effort by city and school officials to redevelop Palo Alto's sprawling Cubberley Community Center made some concrete progress this week when both sides endorsed a path for crafting new vision for the 35-acre complex.
Now, the City and Palo Alto Unified School District are preparing to commission a consultant who will oversee what promises to be a long and complex planning exercise. The council's Policy and Services Committee voted on Tuesday night to support moving ahead with a request for proposal for a consulting contract. The school board did the same at its meeting Thursday morning.
Once hired, the consultant will be expected to jumpstart a planning process that so far has proceeded at a glacial pace. The school district (which owns 27 acres of Cubberley) and the city (which leases these 27 acres and owns the remaining 8 acres) renewed their lease for Cubberley in November 2014. The five-year lease committed them to jointly pursue a master plan for the Middlefield Road site. The master plan was one of 17 recommendations issued by the Cubberley Advisory Committee, a stakeholder committee that analyzed Cubberley's conditions and uses and submitted its report in April 2013.
The scope of work in the new consultant contract calls for a two-phase planning process. In the first phase, the consultant, city and the school district will come up with a work plan and a schedule; review the report from the Cubberley Advisory Committee; create a stakeholder engagement plan; and evaluate the community's "recreational, educational and cultural assets" to identify opportunities for Cubberley that would best comport with public preferences and needs; hold design workshops and come up with between three and six "conceptual designs" for a future Cubberley layout.
These options would then be presented to the school board and the City Council.
The second phase would involve using the feedback to the conceptual designs to prepare a master plan in collaboration with community stakeholders, city and school board officials and local commissions.
During its discussion Tuesday, members of the council committee agreed that Cubberley is both a valuable resource and an underused one. Rob de Geus, director of the Community Services Department, pointed to an analysis by a subcommittee of the Cubberley committee that suggested that with a new design, all of the center's existing uses can be accommodated on 8 acres.
"Despite the age of the facility and the fact that it's falling apart, in some areas it's a pretty amazing place," de Geus said. "While I love it, it can be much, much more."
The committee supported moving ahead with the planning process, which has been hampered by different priorities from the city and the school district. The challenge stems in part from the school district's enrollment projections, which currently do not support building a new school at Cubberley, according to the scope document. The document notes that the district's time horizon is "10 years or more before the possible need to emerge."
"While there are two discrete property owners (City of Palo Alto and school district) within the 35 acres, the master planning process must recognize the benefit of planning the 35 acres collaboratively so opportunities for maximizing and sharing public space are included and the most benefit to the community is provided."
The goal of the process, the document states, is to "create an inclusive yet flexible process that can accommodate changing needs for the immediate and long-term future of the site."
The Policy and Services Committee agreed that it's well past time to begin planning for the future of Cubberley, which Vice Mayor Liz Kniss said is "aging in place and not very prettily." She suggested that Cubberley can be a suitable site for housing, particularly for teachers. She also said she supported densification at Cubberley, which today houses playing fields, a theater, artist studios and a wide network classrooms and meeting rooms.
"We should intensify the use of that property -- there's no question," Kniss said.
Councilman Cory Wolbach said the master plan has been "a long time coming" and agreed with Kniss that Cubberley can be a suitable site for housing city and school district employees. He also suggested that the new vision for Cubberley consider nonprofits and senior services.
"I'd want to really emphasize that there's really an opportunity to at least explore a future where we don't just have a downtown senior center and a senior municipal program but maybe have an opportunity to mirror that in south Palo Alto," Wolbach said.
The city plans to release the request for proposals in late August or September with the goal of having a contract in place by December 2017. The lease between the city and the school district calls for the two sides to jointly develop a master plan by Dec. 31, 2019.