An editorial published by the Palo Alto Weekly on June 7 stated that the emerging conceptual designs for the redevelopment of Cubberley Community Center 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."
I am one of the community members who assisted the city's consultant group Concordia at each of the four public meetings, which included a total of 545 Palo Alto citizens involved in planning the future of Cubberley.
The first meeting's agenda was to imagine preferred program elements, open space preferences and limitations on the height of buildings. By statistical analysis, after the group pasted sticky notes on a large drawing board, Concordia could rank the preferences.
This worked especially well on the programmatic elements, but was disorganized and less informative when the community was given blocks of wood, roughly representing buildings and parking modules, with the plan to create some semblance of site planning. This task, however, did create a consensus that green space was of prime importance, building heights should be limited, playing fields must be preserved, courtyards are desirable and parking should be underground or structured.
A more critical aspect of this study was developed during the second meeting when Concordia presented concepts for site planning with a diagram illustrating three possible design directions: a shared village; an independent campus; and building in a park. The community's overwhelming preference was a shared village.
While this description is certainly a cozy expression, it does not really connote a meaningful direction for planning a large community facility with a multiplicity of uses. Designing a complex relationship of various programs is a complicated and time-demanding process that usually requires an in-depth look at: diagrams of related activities; site constraints; topological considerations; neighborhood influences; circulation impacts and so on. It is not a simplistic exercise for review at a few community meetings.
To illustrate how complex this design process is at Cubberley — based on combining some of the major active community uses discussed during the co-design meetings — imagine: more than 1,400 cars requiring access to and from Cubberley each day along Middlefield Road; 15 afterschool soccer teams practicing simultaneously; many new adult education programs; a new emphasis on maker-space shared with the school; a youth symphony and active music program; several separate pre-schools with safe outdoor play space; multiple dance studios; a private organization to support the Palo Alto Library system; studio spaces for numerous artists; and a variety of offices for nonprofit organizations all operating at the site.
Now, add a school of undetermined size requiring the standard mix of large and small activities. This is a challenge requiring a high level of professional experience with complex planning and design issues. It cannot be adequately presented to a large community group with the expectation that they can make an informed selection. Co-design loses its meaning when the task becomes this complex.
In the third and fourth meetings, Concordia followed the will of the community by expanding on the shared village concept organized around a north-south pedestrian promenade from Middlefield to the soccer field. While it resembles the community's preference, it is a flawed exercise when you look closely at the various functional requirements, site access, parking demand and the logical internal circulation patterns.
Almost all community activities are crammed into one huge building that disregards the varying sizes or variety of program uses. Below it is an equally huge parking lot, so access would be disbursed from the parking directly to the specific programs above. Only occasional drop-offs or infrequent bus patrons will enter the circular entry court on the promenade at Middlefield. And the school structures, now several stories high surrounding a major courtyard, also have no purposeful connection to the promenade. The image of a shared village is lost because of the radical increase in scale to satisfy the program.
This would have been an opportunity to reset, to explore other options, but the study was scheduled for four meetings and no reasonable review of the co-design population was planned for.
Thanks to Concordia for the successful programming phase and determination of the public preferences for architectural styles and landscape design elements, however, it is time to search for consultants who can develop a more appropriate plan for Cubberley's future use. And it is time for the Palo Alto Weekly to reserve its accolades until a proper design is developed.
On a separate issue, the inclusion of housing on this site, a contentious issue to many, will be an added challenge. Up-zoning does not automatically create available sites. Owners who expect to maximize their return on investment will not consider affordable housing a priority. The most compelling reason to consider this site is that it is not privately owned. My preference would be to combine the 525 San Antonio Road site with a significant portion of the Greendell property — one of the City Council's options — and temporarily relocate Greendell at Cubbberley's Junior Museum building when the new zoo facility is completed.
David Hirsch is a fairly new Palo Alto resident who was an architect in New York City, designed schools and other public structures, and specialized in affordable/supportive housing. He serves as the most recently appointed member of the Architectural Review Board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.