With the Palo Alto City Council and the Palo Alto Unified School District struggling to forge a common vision for redeveloping Cubberley Community Center, a newly released master plan for the 35-acre complex in south Palo Alto offers a striking picture of what's possible.
The product of a yearlong "co-design" process that concluded in May, the master plan envisions a campus at 4000 Middlefield Road with ample green space, fewer parking lots, more multistory buildings, new swimming pools and a "shared village" consisting of gyms, event spaces, galleries and a performing art center with a new 550-seat theater — buildings that would be jointly used by the city and the school district.
The shared-village concept proved popular over a course of four community meetings, held between September 2018 and May 2019, with hundreds of residents weighing in and ranking it well above two other proposals from the city's consultant, Concordia. In one of the other options, the school district and the city would independently oversee clusters of buildings in different parts of the property. Under the second concept, nicknamed "building in the park," indoor space would be concentrated in dense buildings at the center of the campus, allowing for more green space elsewhere.
If the master plan gets implemented, the sprawling campus would see a 70% increase in green space and 46% less surface parking thanks to the construction of parking garages. With new two-story structures replacing the existing one-story buildings, the plan would allow for twice as much interior space while increasing the footprint of the buildings by just 18%, according to the document.
Yet for all its stated benefits, the shared-village concept has one drawback: It is unlikely to materialize any time in the near future, if ever.
Even though city and school district staff and elected officials took part in the co-design meetings, the two organizations' paths have further diverged since the exercise concluded.
The city, which owns 8 acres and leases the remaining 27 acres from the district, is still hoping to rebuild the popular but dilapidated community center while retaining the artists, dance studios and nonprofits that currently use it. The district, meanwhile, is less keen on constructing anything at Cubberley in the foreseeable future and is more focused on preserving space at the campus for a future school, should one become necessary.
The different priorities have created a tension between the two governing bodies. School board Vice President Todd Collins went so far as suggest at a June meeting that the district and the city no longer see themselves as partners but as "neighbors" when it comes to Cubberley, a pivot that would effectively shatter the "shared-use" vision championed in the master plan. More recently, Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin said that the district has no intention of rebuilding the six-decades-old gym and auditorium.
According to minutes from the Oct. 31 meeting of the City/School Liaison Committee, which includes council and school board members, Austin said that the board could not use bond funds to pay for buildings that are not intended for school purposes. Given there are no immediate plans to open a school at Cubberley, funding a community center would constitute an inappropriate use of the bond, Austin said, according to the minutes.
The master plan, by contrast, makes the case for demolishing the existing buildings — most of which were built in the 1950s and lack central air conditioning — and constructing new ones. The plan states that existing buildings are "reaching the end of their functional lifespan" and points to the fact that almost all of the groups that participated in the first community meetings rejected the idea of preserving any of the buildings.
"A reconfigured site with new multi-story buildings will provide far more options for indoor and outdoor program use and will create the possibility of increased interior area to accommodate the long-term vision of a new school and community center," the plan states.
Councilwoman Alison Cormack, the council's leading proponent of rebuilding Cubberley, expressed her reservations about the school board's approach on Oct. 7, when the council endorsed the framework created by Austin and City Manager Ed Shikada for negotiating a new lease once the existing one expires at the end of this year. Under the proposed lease terms, the district will have until December 2021 to decide whether it will build a new school at Cubberley and to submit a development application for teacher housing, should it choose to pursue such a development. Under the lease terms, the two sides will have until the end of 2022 to come up with cost-sharing options for redevelopment.
Cormack voted against the proposed terms of the five-year lease, which will be presented to the council and the school board in the next month.
"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 at the meeting.
Both the city and the school district are also still trying to figure out whether to include any housing as part of Cubberley's redevelopment, a proposal that generated significant opposition from residents at the fourth co-design meeting in May and pushback from the city's Parks and Recreation Commission. While residents generally backed the idea of building 32 units of teacher housing at 525 San Antonio Road, a site adjacent to Cubberley that is owned by the school district, many balked at some of the more ambitious alternatives on the table, which proposed between 64 and 164 units. The most ambitious alternative called for constructing 100 apartments on top of the community center itself, turning the two-story complex into a four-story one.
The council hasn't endorsed any of the four alternatives, though members agreed in June to explore having up to 112 units of housing at Cubberley as part of a forthcoming environmental analysis of the master plan. That analysis is scheduled to be completed by June 2020.
Despite the various disagreements between the Cubberley co-owners, Austin and Shikada tried to strike a more hopeful and conciliatory tone in the master plan's transmittal letter.
"Through creative sequencing and development options, we believe we can create a space for the residents and students of Palo Alto that reflect the community's needs of today while preserving land for potential educational needs of tomorrow," the letter states. "The Cubberley Master Plan is a vision for the future that can only be realized by continuing the path forward.
"With recognition that the city and school district may proceed at different paces or on our own paths, we commit to supporting one another as partners to realize this once in a generation opportunity and create a community and educational space as unique as Palo Alto itself," Shikada and Austin wrote.