Despite significant disagreements about a proposed redevelopment of Cubberley Community Center, the Palo Alto City Council endorsed on Monday night a new deal with Palo Alto Unified School District that would allow the city to continue using the center for the next five years.
By a 6-1 vote, with Councilwoman Alison Cormack dissenting, the council directed staff to move ahead with a proposed five-year extension for the 27 acres of Cubberley that the city has been leasing from the district since 1990. The city owns the remaining 8 acres of the widely used 35-acre community center at 4000 Middlefield Road. Both bodies plan to officially adopt the new lease before the current lease expires on Dec. 31.
The proposed agreement, which the school board discussed on Sept. 24, brings some near-term stability to the roughly 50 tenants – including artists and nonprofit groups – that currently use the center. It also seeks to advance the long-term redevelopment of the popular but run-down center, a former home to Cubberley High School.
The city and the school district embarked last year on a master plan for Cubberley, the draft of which was released in June after a series of "co-design" meetings that drew hundreds of residents.
The draft plan proposes replacing the sprawling parking lots with compact parking structures, a move that would allow an increase of green space by nearly 70%. It also suggests that the city and the district convert Cubberley into a "shared village," with the district occupying the portion of the center near Greendell School, a new Health and Wellness Center going up in the area near Charleston Shopping Center and a variety of gyms, classrooms and art spaces that would be shared by both entities throughout the center.
The most controversial aspect in the "co-design" process is the question of whether the new Cubberley should also include housing, a prospect that has polarized the community and spurred pushback from the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission. In June, the council agreed to evaluate as part of the master plan a scenario with up to 112 housing units. The school district, meanwhile, has indicated that while it’s interested in constructing housing for teachers near Cubberley, at 525 San Antonio Road, it has no interest in building housing inside the actual community center. School trustees had also indicated that they would like to relocate district facilities to Cubberley and to set aside land for a possible future school.
The pre-negotiation principles that were recently adopted by City Manager Ed Shikada and school district Superintendent Don Austin acknowledged that the two sides aren’t on the same page or schedule when it comes to Cubberley. The principles note that the "sense of urgency to settle the development plans at Cubberley is not calibrated between PAUSD and the City."
The lease extension aims to provide some calibration by creating a new ad hoc committee, consisting of two council members and two school board members, and by setting deadlines for key decisions pertaining to Cubberley’s future. The district, which for years has avoided answering the critical question of whether a new school should be built at Cubberley, would now have until December 2021 to give the city an answer.
And should the school district pursue housing for 525 San Antonio, it would be required to submit its development application by December 2021.
The city, for its part, will be required to complete an infrastructure assessment for Cubberley by December 2020 to determine what types of improvements would be needed for both the near-term and long-term development of the community center. The assessment would later be adjusted based on district’s plans for a new school and housing.
The city will also complete by December 2021 a conceptual design for the first phase of building improvements. The two sides would then discuss cost-sharing options and lot-line adjustments, which would be completed by December 2022.
The new lease will also carry forward some of the key provisions of the existing agreement. The city will continue to contribute $1.86 million annually toward the Cubberley Property Infrastructure Fund and it would continue to pay the district about $5.1 million annually for leasing the 27 acres. The lease extension will, however, eliminate a clause that escalates the city’s payments by 3% annually.
The city and the school district also plan to negotiate a separate agreement for the child care facilities at Cubberley, with the goal of approving the agreement by the end of this year.
The council approved the terms on its "consent calendar," with no debate or discussion. Cormack, however, voiced her disappointment with the proposed lease terms, which she said points to the inability of the city and the school district to work together.
"I just can’t begin to say how disappointed I am that it's going to take us many more years to make even minor progress on redesigning Cubberley," Cormack said.
She also cited one of the pre-negotiation principles that came out of the talks between Shikada and Austin: the idea that the school district has no interest in demolishing the Cubberley gymnasium or theater as part of the center's redevelopment.
This position, she said, is "definitely news and should have been communicated during the co-design process."
While the long-term vision for Cubberley will remain cloudy until at least June 2020, when the city and the school district plan to approve the final plan, the lease extension will ensure that the community center’s long-term tenants will be able to remain at Cubberley for the foreseeable future.
That is good news for residents like Joe Hirsch, who takes classes at the Cardiac Therapy Foundation, a nonprofit that offers exercise sessions and classes for people with heart conditions and that rents space at Cubberley.
Hirsch told the council at its Sept. 9 meeting said it’s "imperative" for the city to negotiate a lease extension as soon as possible. Like other nonprofits, the foundation benefits from the relatively low nonprofit rates at Cubberley, Hirsch said.
"There’s absolutely no way we could continue for very long if we had to go out into the for-profit rental market and find another location," Hirsch said.