She was knitting quietly during a meeting. Then she remarked that someone was going to need to step forward to lead the charge. It turns out that I was the one and now we have wonderful new and improved libraries in Palo Alto, despite all the people who said we couldn't get it done.
When I delivered a petition with over a thousand names on it to the mayor, she said my elementary school kids would be in college before we solved our library problem. When the polling said we didn't have enough votes, I practically begged the City Council to give our team a chance. When the Great Recession started, I looked on the brightest side I could find and said we'd pay a lower interest rate on the bond. And now I spend time on Thursday mornings at Ada's Cafe, looking at Mitchell Park Library which gets thousands of visitors every week. So Margaret Mead was right: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
It's time for another person to step forward, build a team, and lead the charge: this time, on behalf of Cubberley Community Center. Because the only thing that's going to force the school district and the city to keep working together to rebuild Cubberley and figure out how to pay for it is another positive, grassroots effort.
What's the problem we are trying to solve?
The problem is that the building, vintage 1955 and 64 years old, is in unacceptable condition. It simply does not meet the standards we expect in Palo Alto. We've rebuilt libraries and fire stations and upgraded Lucie Stern; we improve parks and repave roads every year; and we will build a new police station next year. But the city doesn't own most of the Cubberley site, so we can't redevelop it without the school district's participation. And while the school district recently passed a bond to continue to rebuild schools (which I supported), Cubberley was unfortunately not part of that plan.
Three years ago, then-City Manager Jim Keene and then-school district Superintendent Max McGee signed a Cubberley Futures Compact. You can practically hear the music swelling when you read their inspirational words: "We simply must get there. We must take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity." We have made excellent progress — the city and the school district split the funding for a talented and creative consultant, Concordia, who ran a collaborative and iterative process to co-create a new master plan using the input from hundreds of people — but there are many decisions to be made and hurdles to overcome. The five-year lease agreement the City Council recommended earlier this month (on a 6 to 1 vote with me opposed) unfortunately extends the time for making any real decisions by years.
Somewhere in Palo Alto, right now, there's a person or perhaps a small group of people, who can look at that beautiful master plan, with 70% more green space and almost double the amount of program space, and know how wonderful the new Cubberley will be for our whole community. I don't know who they are, but I am asking them to step forward and take on this challenge. Is this a big challenge? Absolutely. Is the status quo OK? Absolutely not.
What makes this complicated?
First, physical ownership is split between the school district and the city. Then the school district leases its space to the city, which subleases to all the tenants whom residents know and love. Second, rebuilding the site will need to happen in stages, accommodating current tenants and programs as we go. Third, this is going to be expensive. It's time to start figuring out the funding options, which might include some private sources.
Fourth, there's an important decision to be made about providing housing on the site. Should it be there? I say yes. And for whom? Teachers make sense, as many of the teachers who lived in Palo Alto and taught my children have retired and new teachers simply cannot afford to live here, even if they are partnered with someone in the tech industry.
Seniors who qualify for affordable housing would benefit from the amazing array of possible services and programs at this site — including those provided by the nonprofit Avenidas, Heart Fit for Life cardiac therapy and art studios and at the therapeutic swimming pool. Seniors would also have the opportunity to volunteer at a preschool or for the Friends of the Palo Alto Library, plus they'd have access to a grocery store and public transportation,
So, what's the path forward? Find a small group of people and band together. Read the citizens' report from 2012 and the robust, proposed master plan. Learn about the current tenants and think about who might be motivated to help them get wonderful new spaces. Start writing up FAQs (e.g., Is there space for a new school? Yes!). Come to council meetings and school board meetings to demand that decisions be made. We cannot make meaningful progress until and unless Palo Alto Unified decides the community can rebuild this space that the school district hasn't used in 40 years.
When we first walked into the new Mitchell Park Library, the library director said to me, "You know, when you die, they are going to name this after you." I said, "That's fine, but from now until then I'm going to enjoy it." Honestly, if I die tomorrow, I will know that I have left something for the next generation (aside from two wonderful young adults and one friendly but badly trained dog). So I am telling you, whoever you are, that this will be the most meaningful work you have ever done. It will require a relentlessly positive attitude, a willingness to dig into the details, the ability to keep twisting the Rubik's cube until all the colors line up for everyone, the knack for getting people to join you, and a refusal to take "no" for an answer.
Someone has to get up every day and look at their list and figure out what has to be done next so we can get this place rebuilt. Is it you?
Alison Cormack serves on the Palo Alto City Council and chaired the successful 2008 library bond measure. If you want to step forward to rebuild Cubberley, she can be reached at [email protected]