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Palo Alto cautiously advances plan to redesign Cubberley

City Council supports hiring a consultant to shepherd the master planning process; school district to consider topic tonight

With the future of Cubberley Community Center still hazy, members of the Palo Alto City Council raised fresh concerns Monday night about the many challenges they face in forging a new vision for the sprawling campus off Middlefield Road.

The council ultimately voted 7-1, with Councilwoman Karen Holman dissenting, to direct city staff to release a request for proposals for a consulting firm that would assist the city and the Palo Alto Unified School District with the master plan for Cubberley -- a 35-acre campus in south Palo Alto that currently includes a theater, playing fields and eclectic mix of artist studios, dance and fitness classes and nonprofit groups.

The school board also discussed the request for proposals at its Tuesday night meeting, though the board isn't scheduled to take a formal action on the item until a future meeting.

For the council, the biggest complication in crafting a new vision stems from fact that the city owns only a fraction of Cubberley -- just 8 acres. The school district owns the remaining 27, which it leases to the city. In 2014, after years of negotiations, the two sides agreed to modify the lease and renew it for another five years, with the understanding that the two sides would use this time to come up with a new plan for a jointly owned facility.

The planning process that the council tentatively approved Monday and that the school board is set to consider Tuesday night would push the two agencies to the very brink of this deadline. It would consist of two phases, the second of which is set to conclude in December 2019, concurrent with the expiration of the lease.

The cost will be split evenly between the city and the school district -- an arrangement that school Superintendent Max McGee told the council he fully supports. Even so, both sides are preparing to spend significant amounts. The council has budgeted $414,877 for the master plan, though the exact cost won't be known until after the proposals come in.

The planning process aims to build on the work of the Cubberley Community Advisory Committee, a stakeholder group that was formed in 2012 to analyze existing uses at Cubberley and consider future uses for the park. The group recommended that the community center be redesigned for shared use by the two public agencies.

The first phase of the master plan will include the creation of a work plan with a concrete schedule, the development of a stakeholder group through an public application process (members would be chosen by the city manager and the school superintendent) and a "community asset evaluation" that will identify community preferences and explore ways to fill service gaps, according to the request for proposals.

The first phase will also include "visioning" and "design" workshops involving stakeholders and officials from the city and the school district.

The second phase would use all this feedback and analysis to develop between three and six options for Cubberley's future layout, followed by a draft master plan for the community center. The draft document would undergo a review by the school board, the City Council and various boards and commissions before the final plan is adopted.

During its Monday discussion, the council was both eager to get the process underway and anxious about potential pitfalls. Mayor Greg Scharff worried that the planning process will fail because the council doesn't have a clear idea of what the school district wants to do with its portion of Cubberley.

Without a clear idea of future lease agreements and district plans, it's difficult for the council to know what its planning horizon should be for improving Cubberley, Scharff said.

"The school district has to tell us the fundamental question of: Are we planning for our 8 acres or are we planning for 35 acres, and over what time period?" Scharff said.

Vice Mayor Liz Kniss agreed that it's crucial for the council to have a clearer idea of the school district's plans and suggested that the two sides schedule a joint meeting to discuss their respective visions. She urged staff to "proceed with caution" and with minimal assumptions about the district's plan.

"Let's not have assumptions be such that we think we know where we want this to go and the school board thinks really something quite different," Kniss said.

Holman argued that the request for proposals is deeply flawed for a host of reasons, including its failure to include a formal needs assessment of the sort recommended by the Cubberley Advisory Committee and its failure to explore scenarios in which the city would purchase a greater share of the community center from the school district. Assistant City Manager Ed Shikada countered that it's too early in the process to discuss land transactions and that the school district might perceive such talk as "potentially threatening." Holman also maintained the process delegates too much power to the City/School Liaison Committee (which includes two members from each body) and doesn't offer enough opportunities for the full of the council to weigh in.

"There are too many gaps in it -- too many missing elements," Holman said, in explaining her vote against the request for proposals.

Holman wasn't the only proponent of a fresh needs assessment. Two Board of Education members — Todd Collins and Jennifer DiBrienza — agreed on Tuesday that this should be included in the new request for proposals.

Trustee Melissa Baten Caswell said that it "doesn't make sense" to rely on the needs assessment conducted by the Cubberley Community Advisory Committee given it was several years ago.

Bob Golton, the district's bond program manager, said he would discuss adding explicit language about a needs assessment with city staff.

Some board members expressed concern about incorporating specific plans into the request, even if only potential proposals, such as to build teacher housing, without full discussion and approval from the board.

"Anything that's on this list of what we would be using Cubberley for needs to be discussed by the board and we need to vote on it," Baten Caswell said.

Board members and staff acknowledged that the district's plans for Cubberley remain hazy. Golton said that there's a "school of thought that the school district can't decide" how it wants to use Cubberley down the line. He analogized it to having a savings account to plan for future purchases.

"The district is not going to have even at the end of this process as much clarity about how we will want to make use of our acreage on that site as the city will, and that the building timeline is going to differ between those two entities," said board Vice President Ken Dauber. "I wouldn't be surprised if what results from this process is a fair amount of clarity about what a community center would look like … but not necessarily a decision that we're going to build teacher housing or an administrative building or a school or how that's all going to work."

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