"We are here for upholstery!"
Susan Moskowitz's declaration rose above the murmur of a hundred competing voices at the pavilion of Cubberley Community Center on Jan. 24, where more than 150 residents convened to give their ideas about the future of the sprawling 35-acre campus in south Palo Alto, which is set for redevelopment.
Moskowitz and her small crew of upholstery enthusiasts — determined that space be carved out at the redeveloped Cubberley for their passion — took up one of about 20 tables that were equipped with maps, graphics, sticky notes, markers, specially appointed "facilitators" and six to eight residents, most of them brimming with opinions.
Taking a pause from a group exercise, Moskowitz told the Weekly that her twice-a-week upholstery class, offered by Palo Alto Adult Education, currently occupies a pre-World War II building next to the auto shop at Palo Alto High School. The class, she said, takes discarded furniture, tears it down to the studs and then restores it.
These days, she and her classmates are concerned that their hobby could find itself homeless, as a proposal's been floated for the building to be torn down to make way for a proposed Career Technical Education building, focused on robotics.
Moskowitz and others believe Cubberley could be the ideal place at which to consolidate all of the district's adult-education classes, which are currently scattered throughout the city.
"The reason we are here and are so well-represented is because we love our class. ... They want to tear (the Paly building) down, and we don't want it to be torn down until we have another place to go," Moskowitz said.
Over the course of 90 minutes, she and her tablemates debated issues having to do with the broader redevelopment of 4000 Middlefield Road: the best way to lay out space for the different activities, the best methods for improving traffic circulation and the most suitable architectural styles for the 64-year-old campus. Similar debates took place at every other table, where a facilitator tallied votes and tried to corral residents — with mixed success — into some form of consensus.
Across the room from Moskowitz's table, facilitator Megan Cole asked her table group to look at proposed locations for all of the new gyms, pools and other facilities and to consider other alternatives. Participants largely agreed with the proposed layout, with one notable exception: One resident said he would oppose against any proposal that did not include an expansive tennis center as part of Cubberley's new proposed Health and Wellness Center. Cole noted his dissent and tallied the votes on the giant, marked up sheet.
"Are we doing doing a good job with the property we have or should we be doing something different?" Cole asked her group.
Palo Alto's city and school district have been asking that question for nearly a decade, with few answers forthcoming. In 2013, with the lease between the school district and the city approaching its expiration date, a specially appointed citizen committee released an 800-page report arguing that the site should become a true "shared-use" facility between the two entities. The following year, then-City Manager James Keene and then-school Superintendent Max McGee signed a new five-year lease in 2014 to plan for Cubberley's future, a process that after years of inertia is now kicking into high gear.
Last month, the consulting firm leading the current master planning effort, which has included the Jan. 24 meeting and two other community meetings, released the newest plan for Cubberley. Concordia's document largely comports with the vision of the citizen advisory group and captures the ideas of roughly 400 residents who attended the first three meetings (a fourth and final meeting is scheduled for May 9). Under the current proposal, the community center will become a "shared village," with a school occupying the portion of Cubberley closest to Greendell School, a Health and Wellness Center situated at the opposite end near the Charleston Shopping Center, and an assortment of shared gyms, studios, classrooms and theater spaces filling in the space in between.
Bobbie Hill, a principal at Concordia, told the crowd at the Jan. 24 meeting that the goal is to come up with a vision that is "innovative, flexible and adaptable."
After years of almost complete inertia on the part of the city, Concordia's planning method looks like democracy on steroids. In the first meeting, more than 200 residents used building blocks to construct a model of the new Cubberley, an exercise that Concordia hoped would reveal the community's desire, and tolerance, for how densely built the campus should be. The residents also offered about 600 ideas about what the new Cubberley should include, ideas that residents then ranked and expounded on in the second meeting. Then, in the third meeting, participants tackled Cubberley's proposed layout, traffic circulation and architectural styles.
In just four months — warp speed by Palo Alto's standards — Concordia has come up with a plan that preserves community spaces, makes room for a school, modernizes outdated buildings and expands green space at the center by nearly 60 percent. Just as critically, the group managed to bridge the gap between the city and the school district — two sides with competing interests and different timelines when it comes to Cubberley. Now, they aren't just in the same room, they are literally at the same table. On Jan. 24, Councilwoman Alison Cormack, a long-time proponent of redeveloping Cubberley, and Bob Golton, the school district's bond program manager, were in the same group group during the building-block exercise, while school district Superintendent Don Austin walked around the room, city Deputy City Manager Rob de Geus chatted up community members and school-board member Todd Collins observed from the side.
"What we're planning now is to ensure that 20, 30, 40 years down the road this place is flexible and adaptable so that it can be what it needs to be in the future, to meet future needs," Hill told the audience at the onset of the meeting.
The pace of progress has astonished some officials in a city where it took nearly a decade to update the city's guiding land-use document, the Comprehensive Plan, and two decades (and counting) to come up with a plan for expanding the municipal fiber-optic network. Kristen O'Kane, assistant director of the Community Services Department, called the Cubberley process a "whirlwind" at a recent Parks and Recreation Commission. Palo Alto City Manager Ed Shikada told the Weekly he is "really impressed with the number of residents actively engaged in co-designing this valuable community asset."
"As you know, hundreds of community members have come out to develop a collective vision for the site," Shikada said in an email. "The community meetings have been designed to encourage community conversations and exchange thinking with the goal of planning a site that will be a destination for generations to come."
Cormack, who has participated in all three meetings and who spearheaded Palo Alto's successful drive in 2008 to rebuild the library system, said she has been pleased with both the high number of participants and Concordia's product, which she likened to "rapid-fire prototyping." She said she has never seen this many people participate in a Palo Alto meeting.
"It certainly seems like we're making really rapid progress," Cormack told the Weekly.
She also lauded Concordia for offering participants a roughly "80 percent draft," enough to understand what's being contemplated but no so much that it feels like anything is set in stone.
Participants largely agree. Annie Tsui, a Palo Alto High senior who volunteered to be a table facilitator, lauded both the process and the results. Prior to every meeting, Concordia consultants train facilitators on the upcoming activities and simulate the exercises. The meetings themselves give Tsui a chance to learn more about her community and to meet residents of all ages — a wonderful break from Paly life, where she's mostly surrounded by peers, Tsui said.
She is also learning about her school. Prior to the Jan. 24 meeting and Moskowitz's strong position, Tsui didn't know that Paly even housed an upholstery program. And the results, she said, have been impressive.
"It's insane how fast Concordia seem to be moving," Tsui said. "They definitely seem to be getting things done."
Raj Shetty, who was facilitating at another table, said the tenor of the conversation has improved since the first meeting, when he found himself in the middle of a heated debate between those arguing for less density at Cubberley and those arguing for more. In subsequent meetings, as more details were presented, the level of dissent has noticeably dropped, Shetty said.
"It feels like we're accommodating at least most people's needs," said Shetty, a Gunn High junior. "That's the goal. And that's why the project is moving in the right direction."
Not everyone is as thrilled about the speed of progress. Several attendees on Jan. 24 said they were somewhat concerned about Concordia effectively taking the input from a few hundred people in a city of 67,000 and framing it as community consensus.
At the onset of the meeting, one man interrupted the Concordia presentation to ask, repeatedly, how many people had participated in the early meetings. Was the list of preferred uses ranked based on feedback from Palo Alto at large, he asked, or just from the people who attended? When Hill noted that it was ranked the among those who attended, the audience member pointed out there there are only "about 200 people here, maybe." And when Hill countered that residents who didn't attend the meetings have a chance to respond online, another audience member interrupted to say the project website isn't easy to use.
Those who haven't had a chance to weigh in thus far will have plenty of opportunities to do so in the coming week, when Concordia presents its plan to the City Council (on Feb. 11), the school board (Feb. 12) and the Planning and Transportation Commission (Feb. 13). After these bodies offer their feedback, Concordia plans to hold its final meeting on May 7 on the revised document, which will include a "phasing" plan to accommodate an eventual construction of a school.
The expedited timeline pleased and stunned the Parks and Recreation Commission, which on Jan. 22 lauded the recent progress.
"We've been talking for I think a very long while, certainly longer than I've lived in Palo Alto, about what to do with Cubberley, and it's been a big conundrum," Commissioner Ryan McCauley said. "And this is a huge step forward."
O'Kane, while noting the suddenly fast progress, expressed confidence in Concordia, which spearheaded the construction of a multi-use center in Emeryville and which helped craft the plan for rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina — a plan that took nine months to put together.
"The efficiency is having everybody in the room doing this, instead of having a lot of subcommittees," Hill told the commission. "We've learned that over the years."
The new Cubberley Community Center is intended to be a mix of old and new. Most of the activity spaces that are on the site today, including the theaters, the studios and classroom spaces will remain, though they will likely look nothing like they do today. In fact, one of the areas on which the consultant and the residents have reached an overwhelming consensus is the need to demolish every existing building at Cubberley and start redevelopment from scratch.
Another area of consensus is that the new Cubberley should be neither the sprawling, single-story center it is today nor a dense cluster in which all critical functions are jammed in the center's interior, leaving the rest of the center open for playing fields and landscaped open spaces.
During the second community meeting, residents considered three different concepts for how the new center could be laid out. The most popular option, according to Concordia, was the "shared village" model in which most community facilities would be housed in the north part of Cubberley, toward Charleston Road, and the school facilities would be in the south, toward San Antonio Road. Between them would be a host of shared facilities: three gyms, art classrooms, a culinary kitchen, a gallery, a makerspace and a large, flexible event venue, according to Concordia's document.
The shared-village model won by a "big margin" among attendees of the second community meeting, said Steven Bingler, a principal at Concordia.
"You said you had a tolerance for adding buildings of maybe two-to-four stories, but not five or six stories, not high-rises," Bingler said on Jan. 24 as he recapped participants' views. "But it also made sense that one-story is probably not the best use of the properties."
The program document makes a case for the wholesale reconstruction, noting that the single-story 1955 buildings scattered throughout the complex have reached the "end of their functional lifespan" and lack basic amenities such as air conditioning and do not meet the modern energy requirements.
They are also laid out in an inefficient manner, "especially given the value of land in Palo Alto," the document states.
"Most buildings on site are single rows of classrooms that open to the outside in underutilized paved gaps between buildings," the document states. "All but one of the buildings are single-story."
It also doesn't help that a huge portion of the center is occupied by parking lots and "underutilized paved areas," a layout that Concordia is proposing to change by increasing green space by 60 percent and switching to garage parking.
How will these new buildings be used? According to the program document, much like they are today. Adult education and performing arts programs, which already have a strong foothold in Cubberley, were among the top vote-getters at the community meetings and are very likely to remain in the center. Green spaces, makerspace and health-and-wellness facilities are also very like to remain and, in may cases, expanded.
There would also be new uses, all of which are integrated into the site. The truly new additions, according to Concordia's program document, include "a cafe, pickleball courts, a wood workshop, media center, art classrooms, gallery, a skate spot, a biking and walking track, a culinary kitchen and a playground." Under the plan, existing softball and soccer fields would be preserved and a new swimming pool would be installed.
Parks and Recreation Commission David Moss, who lives in the adjacent Greendell neighborhood and attended the Jan. 24 community meeting, told the Weekly that he was "amazed at the sheer number of things they want to put in here and the fact that they still have the fields."
"They're not touching my tracks, which I use everyday, and they're going to put in pools and gyms," Moss said. "Rinconada (Pool in north Palo Alto) is filled to overflowing, so we need a second pool, and the gyms are all owned by the school."
For others at the meeting, including resident Michael Bein, the main objective was to make sure the new Cubberley wouldn't overwhelm the surrounding neighborhoods, many of which are dominated by one-story Eichler-style homes. Bein lauded Concordia's presentation but said he found the consultant's process "not quite kosher," given that it was based in large part on the views of early-meeting attendees.
Bein also suggested that the consultant use 3D models so that he and his Greendell neighbors would have a feel for what the area would look like in the context of the new Cubberley.
"We're trying to keep this neighborhood the way it is," Bein said.
For Palo Alto, the completion of the Cubberley master plan will be a major milestone, both in terms of determining the site's future and for addressing the goals of its recently completed parks master plan. Then, the city and the school district will embark on a far trickier endeavor: turning the plans into action.
Funding promises to be a major challenge. Though the cost estimate has not yet been formulated, the city's existing infrastructure projects suggest it would easily top $300 million (consider that the city's soon-to-be-constructed police headquarters — which is just one building — has a price tag of $106 million).
During the Parks and Recommendation Commission discussion, McCauley was one of several commissioners who wondered if the proposed vision is too good to be true.
"How do you get from this vision, with the price tag that's probably really large at the moment and only going up? How do you get there in view of the different constituencies in play between the school district and the city of Palo Alto and the recognition of limited sources?"
When asked about funding Cubberley, Shikada told the Weekly that it will likely take "a combination of sources."
"This could include public financing such as a bond measure, private fundraising and grants," Shikada said.
So far, the most likely scenario would be a bond measure undertaken by the school district, the city or both. In 2012, the appointed Cubberley Community Advisory Committee put together a 823-page report that identifies several funding scenarios for redeveloping Cubberley.
Under one scenario, a city bond would pay for the new community centers, including shared studios and the Health and Wellness Center, while a school bond would fund the new educational facilities, including the new school. In another scenario, the school district would spearhead the bond campaign for all the educational and shared facilities, with the city's cooperation and support.
"If the city and district are collaborating on design, construction and joint use, funding scenarios are much more flexible," the Community Advisory Committee's Finance Subcommittee concluded in its report. "There seems to be some precedent in California that funds raised by schools through general obligation bonds can be used to build joint-use facilities including child care, libraries, gymnasiums, fields and performing- and visual-arts buildings. Therefore it is perhaps the case that bonds can be issued by the district for capital improvements to build most of the community-center uses."
A school bond has one additional benefit: It requires support from only 55 percent of the voters to pass, a far lower threshold than the two-thirds majority that a city bond would need.
Cormack, who this year will serve on the City/School Liaison Committee, said that a bond is "the logical solution to how we make this project happen for the whole community."
"What form that takes and how the city and the school district work together and the choices they make remains to be seen," Cormack said.
There are, however, some positive signs. Just five years ago, the city was accusing the district of dragging its feet on Cubberley (the district, for its part, was understandably reluctant to relinquish up any rights to its valuable land). Now, the conversations appear to be more amicable. Cormack cited the school district's decision last fall to include the Greendell site and its property at 525 San Antonio Road in the master plan — which expanded the planning area from 35 acres to 43.1 acres — as a signifier that "the district understands that this is a real long-term decision we're making."
Austin, who has attended all the community meetings, said the district's main priority has been to "preserve opportunities for a school in the future, shall the need arise.
"Beyond that, I think there's a lot of potential for other uses of the site," Austin said.
Austin said he feels the city and the district have been working well together thus far, though he expects the converations to get more concrete in the weeks and months ahead, as more details emerge about the Cubberley plan. Like Cormack, he said he's been impressed by the high level of enthusiasm among participants at the meetings.
"I think it's really exciting for everyone involved," Austin said.
That said, Austin said it would be premature to talk about funding before the plans are out. The school district will have consider the proposal and potential benefits before determining if they're high enough to warrant going after funding sources, he said.
Those involved in the Cubberley master plan believe that at least some financial assistance may come from private sources. When Bobbie Hill was asked at the Jan. 22 meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission about funding constraints, she suggested that a collaboration between the city and the school district could create great opportunities to "attract additional resources to the table."
It helps that both the city and the district have plenty of precedent for private funders stepping up, with projects like the new Paly gym and the soon-to-be-reconstructed Junior Museum and Zoo both benefiting from millions in donations.
The Cubberley Community Advisory Committee also noted that Stanford University can have a big role "in informing the designing, constructing and equipping school facilities" at Cubberley. Stanford Hospital can also partner with the city on the Health and Wellness Center, which can include programs for patient recovery. The report cites as an example the partnership between Cardiac Therapy Foundation, a Cubberley tenant, and Stanford researchers on a program to reduce stress through mindfulness.
Ideas for funding the needed improvements will be included in the final Cubberley master plan. The document will also include a phasing plan, which will allow the city and the school district to construct some buildings in the near term (mostly likely the community and shared facilities) and pursue the educational facilities (which in addition to the new school could include a new district headquarters and teacher housing).
Hill said she believes if the city and the district collaborate, "that's something outside funders would find very attractive."
"You wanna be as creative as you possible can and have the biggest vision you possibly can in order to get people excited and really want to do it — and at the same time with not a blank check book," Hill told the Parks and Recreation Commission. "It's really a balance of trying to put those two things together. And I think you can create these spaces in a way that can be super-exciting."
More information about the Cubberley master plan, including the online survey, is available at pausd.org/business-services/cubberley-co-design.