UPDATE: On Wednesday, June 17, the Palo Alto City Council reversed its decision on leasing space at Cubberley Community Center, where it agreed to a 54-month lease instead. Read the full story here.
Palo Alto's vision of a new and improved Cubberley Community Center filled with green spaces and new gyms and auditoriums faded on Monday night, when the City Council agreed to reduce the city's footprint in the popular but dilapidated complex.
By a 6-1 vote, with Councilman Greg Tanaka dissenting, the City Council approved a new lease with the Palo Alto Unified School District that effectively pulls the plug on more than seven years of community planning for the 35-acre south Palo Alto center at 4000 Middlefield Road. The new agreement reduces the city's annual lease payments to the school district from $5.4 million to $2.7 million annually in a year when the council is trying to find $40 million in budget cuts.
The new Cubberley deal also means that the city will no longer rent its entire 27-acre portion of Cubberley that is owned by the school district (the city owns the remaining 8 acres) but limit itself to about 1.5 acres (64,846 square feet) of rentable indoor space. This includes buildings that currently house HeartFit for Life and Friends of Palo Alto Library, as well as the auditorium, which is functioning as a temporary home for the Junior Museum and Zoo. The city will also continue to lease outdoor recreation areas, which make up close to 16 acres.
The council's decision to reduce its investment in Cubberley represents a complete turnaround from its position last year, when the city and the school district jointly conducted a planning process that brought hundreds of residents to the former high school for a series of meetings. The process, which concluded in May 2019, resulted in a vision of Cubberley as a "shared village" jointly operated by the city and the school district. At that time, officials and residents were considering rebuilding Cubberley's aged gyms and performing arts spaces and adding new community amenities, including pools and teacher housing.
Since then, however, the city and the school district have struggled to bring this vision to fruition. The last Cubberley lease expired at the end of 2019 and the city has been leasing space on a month-to-month basis ever since.
The city and the school district have long clashed over Cubberley's future, with the city pressing to redevelop the aged center and the district seeking to preserve space that may be needed for a future school. The city's economic crisis further frayed the relationship, resulting in a lease deal that neither side is particularly pleased about.
While the school board approved the deal last month, board President Todd Collins said it did so "reluctantly."
"I don't think the school board is enthusiastic about this," Collins said. "While we can put the space to use, we are reducing positions and drawing on reserves to balance the budget this year, and even more in future years. This is not a desired outcome for us."
Numerous community members also signaled their displeasure at the new direction for Cubberley. Among them was Diane Reklis, a former school board member who served on the Cubberley Community Advisory Committee, a citizens group that in 2013 issued a report that recommended a joint planning process between the city and the school district for Cubberley. Reklis chided city leaders Monday for effectively abandoning a creative, mutually beneficial solution and pursuing "selfish solutions while the community is distracted."
"Today, our city and district act like squabbling siblings, each trying to best each other, rather than wise parents seeking the common good," Reklis said.
Former Mayor Lanie Wheeler said the deal will hurt local nonprofits. One Cubberley tenant informed her that it will have "nowhere to go but out of business," she wrote to the council. The council should not be "complicit in these evictions unless you do have space identified into which these tenants can move," she wrote.
"We are also past the point in time where the city and the school district pledged to work together to propose and hopefully adopt a plan for long term joint use of the property," Wheeler wrote.
Now, she said, it seems like the city and the board are "further apart rather than closer to the finish line on that project."
"COVID-19 is not and should not be used as the excuse to sweep the years of planning away," Wheeler said.
Former mayors Pat Burt, Mike Cobb, Wheeler and community activist Penny Ellson argued that the new agreement abandons the city lease on much of the community facility with little public awareness or policy discussion by the council.
"Instead, a very significant change to community services is being made under the guise of a budgetary decision while the impacted Cubberley users, and the community, and the council are distracted by an avalanche of impacts on the city budget and personal impacts of the emergency," their letter states.
The council largely agreed with City Manager Ed Shikada that the new agreement, while less than ideal, is necessary because of the bleak budget picture. They disagreed with Shikada, however, on the proposed duration of the lease. While staff had proposed a lease that would expire at the end of 2024, several council members suggested leasing the space for only two or three years, thus giving both sides more flexibility to update terms based on post-pandemic conditions. The council settled on 30 months, an adjustment that will require fresh school board approval.
Councilwoman Alison Cormack, who enthusiastically participated in the planning exercise last year, said it's "incredibly disappointing to essentially be going backwards, which is what we're doing."
"I think it's understandable, given the situation we're in," she added.
Mayor Adrian Fine shared her sentiment.
"This is not where any of us want to be, but the circumstances are driving some of our decisions here," Fine said.
Despite its disappointment in the overall direction in the Cubberley planning process, the council was pleased to learn Monday that many of the tenants that currently occupy the community center will be able to remain there. In some cases, the school district has offered them leases. In others, the city was able to find space for them on the city's 8 acres.
Kristen O'Kane, director of the Community Services Department, said the Palo Alto Humane Society is still evaluating its option for a new Cubberley location, while the Palo Alto Community of Christ Church is looking for a location elsewhere.
"We have found space for the majority of the tenants," O'Kane said. "It may not in all cases be as big as the space they had before or as ideal as the space they had before, but our goal was to ensure they have the space to continue their operations."
Councilman Greg Tanaka, who dissented, suggested that the city shouldn't take funding away from the school district and proposed that the two parties go back to the negotiating table. He also said he would have preferred saving money in other ways, such as lowering the city's capital spending or cutting management at City Hall.
"I would've wanted a more collaborative (process), versus an ultimatum-type of negotiation," Tanaka said.