Just three months ago, the emerging conceptual designs for the redevelopment of the former Cubberley High School site on Middlefield Road in south Palo Alto were receiving universal praise for the elegance with which consultants seemed to have accommodated the diverse needs identified by community members after a series of public brainstorming sessions.
The plan envisioned the phased demolition and rebuilding of both the former high school buildings and the two adjacent smaller elementary school sites, Greendell School and the former school site now leased by Athena Academy fronting on San Antonio Road.
The concept drawings illustrated how a "shared village" could be created that would include gyms, swimming pools, a theater, a health and wellness facility and artist studios in the center, where they could be shared if and when a new middle or high school was needed by the school district. Open space could actually be increased by creating multistory buildings and either an underground or a multistory parking garage. All current uses could be accommodated. And an unspecified number of subsidized multistory housing units for teachers, seniors or others was also among the ideas considered in the developing plan.
None of these elements was or has now been fixed in concrete. They are simply the ones that will be studied as an environmental impact report is prepared in the months ahead so that the City Council and school board can make informed judgments on redevelopment options.
Unfortunately, a false narrative began circulating through the community that housing had been mysteriously sneaked into the plan when the latest draft was unveiled in May. That triggered a reaction that quickly led to a conflict between housing advocates, who are pushing for increased housing in Palo Alto at every opportunity, and those who consider Cubberley a place that should be exclusively for public use and for whom housing is viewed as competing with such uses.
Advocates of both views turned out their supporters in force at Monday night's City Council meeting, creating an all-too-familiar "us versus them" atmosphere. It was unnecessary and unproductive conflict and council members struggled to achieve a compromised middle ground. The issue before the council was simply the scope of what an environmental impact report should study over the next few months, not whether and how much housing should ultimately be included in the development. But fears over imagined trade-offs turned what should have been a universally applauded plan to be studied into a needless debate. Similarly untimely was the discussion over whether housing, if ultimately approved, should be reserved for school teachers, seniors or some other lower-income group.
In the end, on a 6-1 vote (Greg Tanaka dissenting) the council decided to study the impacts of building 112 housing units instead of 164 units, satisfying neither side. But it allows the environmental review process to move forward.
A much more complicated issue, around which everyone is tiptoeing, is the fact that the city only owns 8 acres of the 43 acres being discussed. Those 8 acres include the tennis courts behind the buildings and some classrooms. The rest of the property, including all the playing fields and the two contiguous elementary school sites, are owned by the school district.
Although the district agreed to split most of the cost of the current master planning process, it declined to pony up its half of developing a business plan for the redevelopment and has not explained how it will approach its own review of the overall project. In previous years, the district has steadfastly been unwilling to relinquish any of its flexibility for reusing the site for school purposes. That, and the fact the district has been financially benefiting from the millions of dollars in annual lease payments from the city to use the site as a community center, has caused the district to be less than enthusiastic about committing to any changes.
The City Council and school board have planned a joint study session in the fall, but it will take far more than that to negotiate the financial and other terms that will achieve both the district's potential future educational needs and the community's expectations for the site it has enjoyed as a community center for almost 40 years.
We're worried that all this effort is at risk of going nowhere, as has happened in previous efforts. The sooner the city and school district start a mediated public process of negotiating the myriad of ownership, financial and zoning issues, the more likely that both agencies will be in a better position to take serious action when the EIR for this ambitious master plan is completed.