Palo Alto's meandering path toward a new lease at Cubberley Community Center took another twist on Wednesday, when the City Council agreed in a closed session to sign a 54-month lease with the Palo Alto Unified School District for space at the complex.
With the move, the council is reverting to the deal that city staff had negotiated with the school last month and that the school district's Board of Education subsequently approved. The council, however, voted on Monday night to change the length of the lease from 54 months to 30 months.
The Monday decision meant that the district would have to approve the new and shorter lease of the aged but popular community center at 4000 Middlefield Road.
The city, which owns 8 acres of Cubberley, has been leasing the remaining 27 acres from the school district for decades through a series of long-term leases, the last of which expired at the end of 2019. The city has been leasing space on a month-to-month basis ever since.
The new deal represents what City Manager Ed Shikada called an "a la carte" approach to Cubberley, with the city only renting those portions of the facility that are heavily used rather than the entire 27 acres. The city will continue to rent playing fields and about 1.5 acres of indoor space, including buildings that have for years housed the nonprofits Friends of the Palo Alto Library and HeartFit for Life.
The move will cut the city's annual expenditures on the Cubberley lease from $5.4 million to $2.7 million.
It is also, however, creating uncertainty for some Cubberley tenants. While the city has helped some of the tenants on the district's side of Cubberley find new space, several others now find themselves looking for new locations. The latter include the Palo Alto Humane Society and the Palo Alto Community of Christ Church.
Before the Wednesday closed session meeting, Leonor Delgado, education manager at the Palo Alto Humane Society, said she was concerned about the prospect of getting evicted during a pandemic. Given the county's shelter-at-home guidelines and the fact that the nonprofit's employees tend to be in the high-risk group for contracting COVID-19, moving to a new location will "put each one in danger," she said.
She also said she was worried that moving would curtail some of the nonprofit's offerings.
"That eviction at this point will be tantamount to destroying our organization or setting us back tremendously in terms of our programs and goals," Delgado said.
Several other residents also said they were unhappy with various components of the new lease. Jonathan Erman noted that under the new agreement, the city will continue to rent Cubberley's theater while the school district will be the landlord in the adjoining dressing rooms. The confusing arrangement will require theater users to make reservations with both agencies if they want to use both the theater and the dressing rooms.
"We have to look ahead and realize that at some point we'll be getting together again in spaces and community facilities are of incredible importance, not just to the city but to everyone," Erman said.
Fred Kohler, a resident of University South, said he was disappointed by the council's sudden shortening of the lease agreement on Monday night, which he said was done without adequate transparency.
"The proposed lease has been public for weeks and has been approved by PAUSD," Kohler said. "Without public discussion, the council proposed changing the terms."
The Wednesday decision to revert to the 54-month duration means that the board's original approval of the lease terms stands and the council can now approve the deal next week on its "consent calendar," with no further discussion.
Mayor Adrian Fine indicated on Wednesday that the council's decision to go back to the 54-month duration was made "based on feedback from school officials" about the Monday decision.
Vice Mayor Tom DuBois said the council has received conflicting messages from district leaders, with some saying they don't like the new lease and others indicating that they want to get Cubberley space back so that they can use it for classrooms. After the city decided to reduce the scope of the lease, one board member, Ken Dauber, likened the district's use of Cubberley space for education purposes to making "lemonade out of lemons."
DuBois said the council was interested in shortening the duration of the lease so that the city and the district can get through the COVID-19 pandemic and then re-evaluate the campus. The school district, he said, has indicated that it would like to get the lease in place sooner rather than later so that it can start making upgrades to the spaces that it plans to use. He also said that he hopes the two sides will continue to have broader discussions about Cubberley's future.
"I think several of us are still interested in working with the school board and seeing how we can redevelop Cubberley," DuBois said, referring to yearslong planning process that in 2019 resulted in a master plan for the campus but which is now on hold. "It's a discussion we want to keep having."
Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin told this news organization that he "appreciates the City Council decision to honor the agreement we negotiated."
"Like so many things right now, we are navigating a series of imperfect solutions to issues nobody imagined a year ago," Austin said. "We value our partnership with the city and look forward to times when we can look into a future of possibilities after weathering this storm."