Palo Alto residents and City Council members clashed Monday night over a question that has come to dominate the recent discussion over the future Cubberley Community Center: Does housing belong at a public facility that has long been designated for recreation and education?
After dozens of comments and passionate arguments from both sides of the debate, the council left the door open for the possibility of building up to 112 units at the sprawling 35-acre campus, which is jointly owned by the city and Palo Alto Unified School District. Some of these units could go up on city land, the council decided after a heated debate that stretched into the late night hours.
The council voted 6-1, with City Councilman Greg Tanaka dissenting, to explore up to 112 units housing in an upcoming environmental analysis for Cubberley, an eclectic campus whose current uses include playing fields, artist studios and nonprofit spaces. The proposed plan would retain all these uses, while adding a gym, two swimming pools and various community spaces that would be shared by the city and the district. It would also increase green space by nearly 70%, largely by shifting parking from the existing layout of surface lots to an underground garage.
The plan for the new Cubberley was forged over a series of "co-design" meetings, which were spearheaded by the city's consultant, Concordia. It was largely embraced by the community up until last month, when housing suddenly entered the mix. Since then, residents have split over whether the new plan for Cubberley should include housing, with some calling it a desperately needed amenity and others arguing that housing, while critical, does not belong on public land that is designated for the entire community.
The Parks and Recreation Commission took the latter view, voting last week to adopt a memo urging the council not to include any housing on city land at Cubberley. Its recommendation was largely consistent with the position of most of the residents who attended the May 9 community meeting where the housing options were first unveiled. About 75% of those in attendance voted to reject the two housing alternatives that involved city land, though most were content with the two that limit housing to school district sites.
Jeff Greenfield, vice chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission and one of the co-signers of the memo that recommended against building housing on city land, told the council on Monday that including housing at Cubberley would effectively breach the public's trust and jeopardize the planning effort. The housing options, he said, didn't get added until the last minute, surprising many of the participants. He also argued that recreational assets will only become scarcer and more valuable over time, as the city's population increases. As such, Cubberley is the wrong place for housing.
"Recreation is a broad umbrella, including a wide range of programs and services. For even the most liberal definition, housing does not fall under the recreation umbrella," Greenfield said.
Dozens echoed his view, both in writing and in public comments. Resident Sonya Bradski observed that Cubberley is a well-used facility with many different functions and said she would like to see it "remain a community center for all the people." Former Mayor Lanie Wheeler said there is "no excuse to deny recreation, cultural and social opportunities for our future residents." She also framed the issue as one of "public trust," which has been compromised by the late addition of housing.
"It's up to you now to uphold the integrity of the process," Wheeler said.
That argument was counterbalanced on Monday by others, who argued that recreational and residential uses are not mutually exclusive. Former Councilwoman Gail Price advocated for housing at Cubberley, particularly for teachers and public employees. Palo Alto needs more housing of various sites, she said, particularly affordable housing, and Cubberley could be a suitable site, she said.
Stephen Levy, an economist and member of the nonprofit housing advocacy group Palo Alto Forward, rejected the notion that adding housing would diminish recreational opportunities.
"As a resident, I see housing for low-income seniors and teachers and staff as one of the highest public benefits I can imagine. I look at those site plans and I see complementary uses, not competitive uses," Levy said.
The council struggled to reconcile the different position and took three different votes before finally landing on one that secured majority support. Council members vacillated between Councilwoman Alison Cormack's proposal, which would have evaluated up to 164 units at the Cubberley site, and Councilman Tom DuBois' proposal, which sought to explore up to 100 units but specified that these would be at 525 San Antonio Road and the adjacent site of Greendell School. Underscoring the divisive nature of the housing discussion, Cormack's motion prevailed and failed in rapid succession, with Mayor Eric Filseth initially voting to support Cormack's motion, allowing it to advance by a 4-3 vote, with DuBois, Lydia Kou and Greg Tanaka dissenting. He then called for a revote and voted against it, killing it.
Cormack noted that over the past five years, the council has only approved about 6% of its regional housing allocation for low-income units. Meanwhile, the city's existing senior-housing facilities have waiting lists with hundreds of residents, requiring years of waiting. The opportunity to redevelop Cubberley, she said, will allow the city to address the deficit while still expanding the center's recreational offerings.
"This is about more than zoning. This is about what kind of a community we will build and who can be a part of it," Cormack said.
DuBois countered that the city has already taken numerous actions to address the housing deficit, including a recent zone change that created "overlay" districts for employee housing and below-market-rate housing, allowing developments in these districts to exceed normal density regulations. The city also adopted this year a new "housing incentive program" that give significant density bonuses to projects in most commercial areas — though the new program has yet to spark any housing developments.
"We recently added a ton of housing sites in Palo Alto through our housing incentive programs and zoning changes," DuBois said. "We should expect our demand for community services to grow."
Vice Mayor Adrian Fine supported the most ambitious of the four options on the table, which ranged from 32 to 164 units. The first two options, which called for 32 and 64 units, respectively, reserved housing exclusively for school district staff on district property. The third option added a building on city property with 68 units, which could be earmarked for low-income seniors or city workers, for a total of 112 units. The option with 164 units added two stories to Cubberley itself, taking it from a two- to a four-story complex.
Fine, who is one of the council's staunchest housing advocates, made the motion for studying the most ambitious scenario in the environmental analysis before making any decisions on Cubberley.
"To me, the community center is mostly about the people, frankly. It's not about buildings, or the grass or the bike parking. It's about the people who can be there and participate in that space," Fine said.
After his proposal to modify DuBois' proposal by increasing the number of units failed by a 3-4 vote, the council supported a compromise proposal from Cormack, which set the limit of units at 112. The council also agreed to explore an option proposed by DuBois that would allow higher density on the school district sites, potentially to accommodate all 112 units.
Tanaka, the sole dissenter, argued against including any housing until the council gets a better understanding of both the school district's plans and the impacts of recreational services on the new residences.
Even with the council's agreement, no one is expecting the Cubberley transformation to take place any time soon. While Cormack stressed that the community center is dilapidated and needs urgent repairs, the school district has been proceeding on a slower pace, with no meetings on Cubberley scheduled until this fall.
The council is hoping to bridge the gap between the two landowners by scheduling a joint meeting with the school board in the coming months.
Filseth acknowledged that it will be a long time before anything gets built. He agreed with Cormack that Cubberley provides an opportunity for some housing, particularly for low-income seniors, but suggested that there may be better sites on San Antonio Road for new housing. He also noted that including housing in the environmental analysis in no way guarantees that the council will ultimately opt to advance that option.
Even if it does, funding remains a major wild card. The redevelopment plan, after all, would cost hundreds of millions of dollars under any scenario (the most ambitious one has an estimated price tag of about $800 million) and neither the city nor the school district has a funding plan in place. Even so, Filseth expressed some trepidation about going big on housing at the community center site.
"I worry that we got some exuberance here about doing this that isn't reflected in the community," Filseth said.