Eager to give Palo Alto residents a new space to compete, exercise and socialize, the Parks and Recreation Commission is leading the charge on major new infrastructure project: a public gym.
The gym, which has an estimated price tag of about $25 million, would include three courts capable of accommodating basketball, volleyball, pickleball, indoor soccer, badminton and table tennis, according to a proposal put forth by a group of commissioners. It would also include exercise rooms where visitors can take yoga and Zumba classes and meeting rooms for smaller gatherings. It would also feature restrooms, changing rooms and administrative offices.
The plan remains in its earliest phase, with several key questions remaining to be answered. These include: Who will pay for the gym's construction and for its operating costs? Where will the new gym be located? And is the demand for indoor exercise space strong enough to overcome residents' anxieties about new construction?
But notwithstanding the various uncertainties inherent in the project, the commission earlier this month unanimously and enthusiastically supported moving ahead with plans, which members suggested could be funded by private organizations. They pointed to the newly opened Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo as an example of a possible partnership between the city and private groups to enhance the city's recreational offerings.
Discussions of a new gym aren't entirely new. In 2017, Palo Alto approved a new parks and recreation master plan that identified a public gym as an important need for the community. While the city leases the main gym at Cubberley Community Center, which is owned by the Palo Alto Unified School District, it has no gymnasiums of its own, the plan notes.
"As (a) means of responding to growth and to maintain, expand and provide future programming, at least one multi-purpose gymnasium is recognized as a community need," the master plan states.
Commissioner Jeff LaMere, who served on the ad hoc committee that crafted the proposal, argued at the Nov. 17 meeting the project is well worth pursuing. Once built, the gym would accommodate a broad swath of Palo Alto residents, from toddlers to seniors.
"I see a city gym as something that is sorely lacking from a city of our stature, a city of our wealth," said LaMere, who coaches the boys basketball team at Palo Alto High School. "A gym can be an anchor of health and wellness for this community. I think it should be a priority for us."
In the past, talks of a new gym tended to center on Cubberley Community Center, a dilapidated campus in south Palo Alto that once housed a high school. The city, which owns 8 acres of the campus, has been exploring for years a redevelopment plan for Cubberley that would be undertaken in conjunction with the Palo Alto Unified School District, which owns the remaining 27 acres. But while the master plan that was completed for Cubberley in 2019 includes a new health and wellness center, the plan's vision is unlikely to be realized any time soon — if ever. The school district has been reluctant to pursue any major redevelopment with the city, opting instead to reserve 20 acres of the community center as a possible site for a future high school.
Commission Chair Anne Cribbs, a strong advocate for building a new gym, said it's time to look beyond Cubberley.
"We've all been waiting for a long time for Cubberley," Cribbs said. "We understand the reasons why we had to wait and why it hadn't worked out, but it's just too risky right now. We need to start a gym at a place where we can be pretty confident about the land."
Her colleagues offered a few alternative locations for a new gym. One is a 10.5-acre site near the Baylands Athletic Center that became available after the city reconfigured its municipal golf course, now known as Baylands Golf Links. Another is somewhere in Ventura, a south Palo Alto neighborhood that has been identified as lacking in recreational amenities and that is now undergoing its own master plan for future development.
Commissioner Keith Reckdahl, who is also part of the committee exploring the gym proposal, said the choice of location will depend on numerous factors, including accessibility for potential users, availability of existing recreational facilities and the willingness of neighbors in the chosen area to support the project.
"Are they going to embrace it or are they going to view it as just bringing more traffic?" Reckdahl asked.
Commissioners also agreed, however, that the city will need to do far more research before the project is ready for council consideration. Vice Chair Jeff Greenfield said that while he believes, based on anecdotes and personal experience, that the demand for a gym exists, the council would likely need to see quantitative data about usage at existing gyms to substantiate the commission's position.
"I remember when my daughter was playing YMCA basketball, sometimes we had to go to Foothills College to get gym space to play," Greenfield said. "I believe the need is there. I believe the demand is there. I believe the shortage is there."
Funding is also expected to be a major wild card. The city has just completed the construction of a $23 million bike bridge and is now in the process of building a new public safety building, which has an estimated cost of $118 million. Both projects were on the city's list of infrastructure priorities. A new gym is not.
The obstacle, however, is not insurmountable, commissioners agreed. Palo Alto residents have a track record of supporting recreational facilities, as the Junior Museum and Zoo project demonstrates. The city also has two separate groups that help the city raise money for park improvements: the Palo Alto Recreation Foundation and Friends of Palo Alto Parks.
Commissioner David Moss also floated the possibility of asking residents to approve a bond to pay for a new gym: a mechanism that the city used in 2008 when it approved the renovation of its library system.
"I know that times are tough but we're coming out of it," Moss said. "I don't think we should take (the bond) off the table."