The former Cubberley High School site at 4000 Middlefield Road, close to Palo Alto's southern border and likely the most valuable piece of publicly owned real estate in the city, has been waiting a long time for the dawning of a new day.
The school was closed by the school district in 1979 when decreasing enrollment led to the decision to downsize to two high schools. Since then, in a complex lease agreement between the city of Palo Alto and the school district, more than $150 million has been paid by the city to the school for the use of the site as a community center and in exchange for the district's agreement not to sell off any more of its school sites.
It now stands as a shrine to government ineffectiveness — a 65-year-old set of deteriorating buildings that is the equivalent of an old shed occupying a residential parcel in Old Palo Alto.
In late 2014, the city wisely used its leverage to begin weaning the school district from the cash cow that Cubberley had become by limiting the lease's renewal to just five years and requiring that a plan be developed for the future of the site.
Now, thanks to that pressure, there is finally momentum behind a complete redesign and phased reconstruction of these prime 43 acres (the 35 acres associated with the old high school plus seven acres of the adjacent Greendell School and a school site at 525 San Antonio Road currently leased to the private Athena Academy). The city owns eight acres of the parcel (the tennis courts and some classrooms) while the school district owns the remainder, including the playing fields. But with the lease, the city operates the entire 35-acre Cubberley site.
Many discussions have taken place over the years, including a 2012 effort by a citizens committee that produced an 800-page report. That ended in failure because of a combination of a school board incapable of making a decision beyond wanting to keep all options open for reopening Cubberley as a school site and no city leadership or appetite for forcing the issue. Instead, the decaying buildings have been subleased by the city to a wide variety of programs and individuals and occupied by city staff.
With the lease again coming up for renewal at the end of this year, last June the city of Palo Alto and the school district agreed to share the cost of a $600,000 planning process led by Louisiana-based Concordia, the firm that in nine months developed the plan for rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
In less than a year, Concordia has accomplished more than what previous attempts have failed to do in decades. Hundreds of Palo Altans have participated in one or more of three planning meetings conducted in September, November and January — more people than have engaged on any public process in memory.
The Concordia process, which uses hands-on small-group exercises designed to suss out ideas and build consensus, is moving at a speed Palo Altans are unaccustomed to, with the intent of finishing a draft master plan with several design alternatives, cost estimates and phasing scenarios by this fall.
So far, the early outlines envision the complete demolition of the existing buildings and development of what's being called a "shared village" where facilities such as gyms, a pool, theater, a health and wellness center and studios would be located in the middle, where they could be shared by a potential future high school or middle school, if needed, and by the community. Some form of affordable, subsidized multi-story housing, for teachers or others, is expected to be included. The large outdoor spaces and playing fields would remain and the usable space would be increased by constructing two-to-four story buildings and putting parking underground or in garages.
A "final" meeting on May 9 will seek to get public feedback on design work now being done by the consultants, after which review will shift to the City Council and school board.
If there is a danger in this fast-moving process, it is that it risks focusing too much on input from the several hundred people who have had time to be involved thus far. They tend to be older, retired residents who are neighbors of or currently utilize the Cubberley facility. It is important to hear from younger families who will be the primary users of this new campus by the time it is completed and from other community members who don't wish to or can't attend meetings.
Implementing any plan will require broad community support since funding will largely need to come from bond measures passed by voters. We hope the city and Concordia make sure they lay the foundation for that support through effective public outreach in the months ahead.
The work to date is impressive, inspiring and visionary, and we look forward to it becoming more concrete over the next six months. Cubberley is an important community asset that is finally getting the attention it deserves.
• Watch the Feb. 8 "Behind the Headlines" webcast in which Palo Alto City Councilwoman Alison Cormack joins Weekly journalists to the planning effort to redevelop Cubberely.