As Palo Alto's elected leaders prepare to consider the future of Cubberley Community Center, the city's Parks and Recreation Commission took a stand Tuesday night against including housing at the sprawling, 35-acre campus.
After a debate that could foreshadow a broader community discussion over Cubberley, the Parks and Recreation Commission threw its support on Tuesday behind a letter penned by three of its members: Chair Don McDougall, Vice Chair Jeff Greenfield and Commissioner David Moss. By a 5-1 vote, with Commissioner Ryan McCauley dissenting and McDougall absent, the commission signed off on the letter, which urges the City Council not to include any housing on city property at Cubberley.
The vote comes just days before the council is set to have its own debate about Cubberley, a community center that is jointly owned by the Palo Alto Unified School District and the city. Under a lease that expires at the end of this year, the city leases from the school district 27 acres and owns the other 8). The city and the school district are now in the process of putting together a master plan for Cubberley, which envisions the center as a "shared campus" with space for a new school, a swimming pool, art studios, gym space, nonprofit spaces and other uses.
The biggest wild card is housing. At the fourth and final community meeting on Cubberley, which took place on May 9, city staff and consultants unveiled four options for including housing at Cubberley. The options ranged from including 32 units on the school district-owned site at 525 San Antonio Road, adjacent to Cubberley, to building 164 units throughout the Cubberley campus, which would include building a four-story building on the city-owned portion and adding two stories to the community center itself.
The proposal to build housing at Cubberley was met resistance at the meeting, with nearly 75% of the 140 residents who filled out surveys at the meeting choosing Option 1 (32 units for school district staff at 525 San Antonio), Option 2 (64 units, all designated for district staff and located near the proposed school site) or writing in "no housing."
The Parks and Recreation Commission took a similar stance by endorsing the memo, which recommends that Cubberley be "designated as a public recreation resource to meet our evolving program and services needs over the lifetime of the new Cubberley Community Center."
"As stewards of our recreation and open space resources, the Parks and Recreation Commission strongly advocates maximizing recreation facilities and programs at Cubberley and not including any housing on City property at Cubberley," the memo states.
Greenfield, who had participated in all four Cubberley community meetings, argued Tuesday that while housing is a pressing need, properties that are zoned for "public facility" use (including Cubberley) should be devoted to increasing the recreational opportunities for the city's growing population, not used for housing. Recreation assets like Cubberley, he said, "will become even more scarce and valuable and important to our community as we grow."
"Over the lifetime of the new Cubberley center, which is Palo Alto's largest hub for recreation programs and services, continuing to meet our community's increasing recreational needs is going to be a challenge," Greenfield said.
Commissioner Keith Reckdahl concurred and urged his colleagues to send a clear message to the council about preserving Cubberley for recreation.
"What we have right now, we have to do our best to conserve," Reckdahl said. "Even though I see the advantage of putting housing on it, I don't think this is an appropriate spot."
Not everyone felt as strongly about taking a hard line on housing. Moss said he could see a scenario in which the city would want to build housing for utility workers or emergency responders, recognizing that having these employees living in the city could constitute a public good. And Commissioner Jeff LaMere, while agreeing that recreation should be given a high priority, was hesitant to rule out housing completely.
While both ultimately supported the letter, McCauley firmly rejected it. Housing, he argued, need not conflict with recreational amenities. The two functions can support each other, he said, pointing to the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, which includes the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center and the Moldaw Family Residences, a senior-housing complex (others, including Greenfield, noted that this is a private development on private land and, as such, is fundamentally different from Cubberley).
"I'm concerned we're viewing it as sort of an all-or-nothing issue, where it's housing or no housing and nothing in between," McCauley said. "I guess I don't see the inherent conflict between having a reasonable number of housing units in that space and the recreational purposes that we are all dedicated to."
McCauley proposed deleting from the memo the sentence calling for "not including any housing" at Cubberley but his colleagues rejected the change, which Reckdahl argued would dilute the message.
The memo will now go to the council, which is scheduled to consider on Monday tonight its next steps for Cubberley. Specifically, the council will consider hiring a consultant to develop a business plan for Cubberley's redevelopment and future operations. It will also decide which of the four housing options — if any — should be evaluated in the upcoming environmental analysis for Cubberley.
The parks commission's input notwithstanding, at least one council member has already voiced support for including housing on city property. Councilwoman Alison Cormack, who serves as liaison to the commission, first brought up the idea of including affordable housing for seniors at Cubberley last fall, when she was a council candidate in a debate (the debate, which was hosted by the Weekly, was held, incidentally, at Cubberley).
Cormack said she is not surprised by the backlash to the idea of including housing, which she said is normal whenever any housing project is proposed. But like McCauley, she rejected the notion that more housing will mean fewer recreation opportunities.
"I don't believe having housing on the site would be taking away the opportunities that we have today," Cormack said during the Tuesday meeting.