After years of planning for a joint future at Cubberley Community Center, the city of Palo Alto and the Palo Alto Unified School District are embarking on a new deal that may force nonprofit groups out of the popular community center.
As part of the new agreement, which the school board approved on Tuesday night and which the council has yet to fully discuss, the city will significantly decrease its footprint at Cubberley, a 35-acre campus at 4000 Middlefield Road in south Palo Alto. The school district owns 27 acres of Cubberley while the city owns 8 acres and leases the rest.
Instead of renting all of the district's land, the city will now switch to what City Manager Ed Shikada called an "a la carte" approach in which the city rents specific portions of Cubberley. The city will pay the district $208,300 per month for use of the theater, pavilion, gym A, gym B, rooms G5 and G8 (attached to a gym) and the fields. The rent from the Junior Museum and Zoo, which has been temporarily relocated to Cubberley's auditorium while its Rinconada Park facility is being renovated, will be $13,790 per month. The rent for the "S" building, adjacent to the auditorium, will be $5,650 per month.
Meanwhile, the district would take over the A, B and I buildings in the center of the campus, the Q building behind the Pavilion and three rooms in the G and M wings (the latter of which is attached to the theater). Those spaces for years have been supporting the city's nonprofit tenants.
The new lease is expected to save the city about $2.5 million annually at a time when it is facing a projected budget shortfall of nearly $40 million in the coming fiscal year. The four-year agreement also represents a $3.3 million decrease for the school district in rental revenue and city reimbursements of shared expenses.
It also marks a dramatic departure from the vision that the city, the district and the broader community were contemplating just a year ago, when they were wrapping up a series of meetings to develop a shared vision for Cubberley.
The exercise resulted in an ambitious concept plan that envisioned more green space, swimming pools and a performing arts center with a 550-seat theater. But the city's and district's mismatched pace and desire for redevelopment repeatedly caused friction and left Cubberley's future hazy.
The four-year agreement is also creating uncertainty for tenants with long-term leases on the portions of Cubberley now to be used by the district, including Avenidas, Chinese for Christ Church of Palo Alto, Friends of the Palo Alto Library, Genius Kids Room, Heart Fit for Life, Imagination School, Minority TV, the Palo Alto Humane Society and Silicon Valley Karate.
Carole Hyde, executive director at the Palo Alto Humane Society, told this news organization that she hopes the nonprofit will be able to remain at Cubberley, even if it means moving to a new location within the community center. She said the city notified her nonprofit earlier this month about the pending lease discussions with the district, and it wasn't clear at that time whether the nonprofit would be allowed to stay.
"It makes me a little wary," Hyde said. "You try to carry on in the midst of this situation now, where you have to make all these work-from-home adjustments, and I'm a little wary at the thought of having to move but very much hope we can stay at Cubberley."
Hyde recalled last year's planning process for Cubberley, during which hundreds of residents offered ideas about what they'd like to see in the former high school campus. Hyde noted that participants at these meetings ranked space for nonprofits as one of their highest priorities for Cubberley's future. Now, ironically, it looks like Cubberley is set to lose nonprofit space, Hyde said.
"I think the community really values its nonprofits," Hyde said. "I hope the city will value them."
Another of Cubberley's longtime tenants, the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra (PACO), pressed the school board on Tuesday to continue renting space, even at higher rates than the district charges for leases of facilities on other campuses.
"I implore you to consider your longtime tenants at Cubberley," said Will Betts, manager of PACO, a youth orchestra. "Paying district rates makes sense and would be fair, but if there's any way for longtime tenants to remain, especially if space isn't going to be used, we hope that" consideration would be made.
Michelle Baldonado, board president of PACO, also asked the city and the school district to allow the nonprofits to remain in their location.
"As some of the oldest tenants in the history of Cubberley, we would like to ask that the city and PAUSD prioritize the leases that we and other Cubberley-based organizations have in place," Baldonado wrote to the board. "We are part of the cultural fabric of Palo Alto and of the neighborhood identity of south Palo Alto."
Jon Keeling, chief instructor at Silicon Valley Karate, said some tenants, including himself, would be willing to pay a little bit more to stay at Cubberley. Keeling said the tenants constitute a real "community." Residents can drop off one child at a martial arts class and another at a dance studio or soccer practice. There is shared parking and bathrooms.
"It's so convenient for everyone," Keeling said. "This whole area is one community center. The only thing that's holding back Cubberley is that it's dilapidated."
Keeling said that he might be able to find another site in the area with similar rent. But that sense of community would be lost if the city and the district don't allow the nonprofits to remain. And while he said he would be interested in moving to the city-owned portion of Cubberley, he noted that space is tight and he does not expect his studio to take priority over some of the nonprofits that would similarly be displaced.
The new lease is just the latest setback in the long-standing partnership between the city and the school district. Even before the pandemic, the two sides were struggling to reach a compromise on a long-term agreement. The prior five-year lease expired in December, and while the City Council had directed staff to negotiate a new deal that would include jointly planned renovations to Cubberley, the two sides had not been able to close the deal. Instead, they have been operating on a month-to-month lease since the beginning of this year.
Kristen O'Kane, director of the Community Services Department, told the council Tuesday that staff at Cubberley have been looking at what might be available on the city's part of the property for tenants who would be displaced from their current locations.
"This includes talking to some of the tenants who have a lot of space on the city side and seeing if there is something they'd be willing to either consolidate, share or give up completely while still being able to operate their own programs," O'Kane said. "That's something we're doing very actively."
O'Kane told this news organization that the city is now surveying all space that it has available at Cubberley, including a room that is occasionally used by the city itself. Once that is done, she said, the city will reach out to tenants on the city-owned portion of Cubberley to see if accommodations can be made to relocate those groups displaced from the district-owned portion.
"We're doing our best, but it's a puzzle," O'Kane said. "We're trying to fit tenants where we can."
The council did not fully discuss the new arrangement, though several council members asked staff about what will happen to the nonprofits on the district-owned side of Cubberley. Vice Mayor Tom DuBois said he would like to see the city retain the ability to incrementally rent more space from the district if needed.
"I don't want us to be totally hands off and just abandon a lot of the people that were renting there," DuBois said.
When Councilwoman Alison Cormack asked at the Tuesday council meeting whether the school district will assist organizations whom the city is unable to help, O'Kane said that this would be up to the school district. Superintendent Don Austin, however, indicated at the school board meeting, which was taking place concurrently, that the district has no interest in being a landlord.
Austin and school trustees emphasized that the terms of the new lease were spurred by the city's financial situation.
"We are not buying a car. We're repossessing a car we once owned. We didn't ask for the car back," Austin said. "The city is in a position where they needed to, according to their finances, walk away from the car, in this case Cubberley, and we're taking parts of it back."
Outside groups that currently rent space from the city on property that the school district is resuming ownership of will be evicted, Austin said.
"The city has been made aware over and over again that PAUSD is not and will not supplement leases if any leases continue on our portion of the land that we're reclaiming," he said. "I know that sounds cold, but our district was not designed to do land management or to supplement leases."
On Thursday, however, after this article's publication, he said that he does expect to lease some space "once we figure out what we need for district business."
The district is now eyeing Cubberley as a means to enable socially distant learning if schools reopen in the fall. Teachers could give and film live lectures in larger rooms with space to accommodate more students, Austin said. He and district administrators have been walking the 35-acre campus and will soon draft plans for use of the district's share.
"There's no doubt that there's some space there that can benefit our district, especially in a time when social distancing is an issue," he said.
O'Kane said staff plans to bring the new lease to the council for approval in mid-June. If the council approves the lease, the district would take possession of its share of Cubberley on July 1.
"This wasn't something we looked for or invited or tried to bring about," board President Todd Collins said. "We would have been happy with the prior relationship, but the city needs to do what the city needs to do."