Palo Alto's plan to build a new public gym received a major boost this week, with an anonymous donor proposing to give more than $30 million to the city to make the project a reality, Mayor Tom DuBois told the Weekly.
DuBois said the donor is looking to help the city build a gym along the lines of the one proposed by the Parks and Recreation Commission, which established a committee earlier this year to evaluate the need for a new gym for the city's residents. Last month, the commission voted unanimously to recommend advancing the project and exploring ways to fund it.
Jeff LaMere, a parks commissioner who served on the ad hoc committee, said at the Nov. 17 meeting that a gym is something that is "sorely lacking for a city of our stature, a city of our wealth."
"A gym can be an anchor of health and wellness for this community. I think it should be a priority for us," said LaMere, who coaches boys basketball at Palo Alto High.
While the city currently leases gym space at Cubberley Community Center, that facility is on land owned by the Palo Alto Unified School District. A prior proposal to create a new wellness center on Cubberley was included in a master plan for the south Palo Alto campus, though the idea of the city and the school district jointly building such a center has largely been abandoned over the past year. Instead, the school district is opting to preserve 20 acres of its land for a future high school and potentially transfer the rest of its acreage.
DuBois said the donor was inspired by the commission's discussion to contribute to a new gym. He noted, however, that the city hasn't yet discussed any of the key details, including the location of the proposed facility and whether additional funds would be needed. The parks commission had estimated that a new gym would cost about $25 million. The donor expressed an interest in contributing a sum somewhere in the range of $30 million to $35 million, DuBois said.
Under the commission's proposed concept, the new gym would include three courts capable of accommodating a variety of sports, including basketball, volleyball, pickleball, indoor soccer, badminton and table tennis, as well as exercise rooms and meeting rooms for small gatherings. The gym proposed by the donor, DuBois said, is consistent with the commission's vision.
DuBois said he learned about the proposal last week, when he received a phone call from the donor. On Thursday morning, the donor had initial discussions with city staff. DuBois said the plan will be fleshed out further early next year, when the full City Council gets its first chance to discuss the project.
Even so, DuBois said he wanted to notify the community about the proposed donation before plans advance too much further.
"I want to be very transparent," DuBois said. "I don't want to be in a situation where plans are developed for a long time and then are sprung on the public."
DuBois confirmed that the donor's proposal does not call for any other buildings besides the gym. It would also require the city to provide the land for the facility as well as some funding.
The parks commission has explored several potential locations for a new gym, which was identified as a community need in the city's 2017 parks master plan. The two most promising sites, according to the commission, are the Baylands Athletic Center, which includes a 10.5 acres that became available after the city reconfigured its golf course, and the Ventura neighborhood, which has long been identified as deficient in recreational amenities and is currently the focus of its own master plan process.
If the gym plan advances, Palo Alto's new recreational space would be the latest in a series of major projects that advanced because of major community donations. The Peery Foundation donated $24 million in 2013 to allow Palo Alto High School to build a new athletic center, which opened in 2017. The city's newly rebuilt Junior Museum and Zoo, which opened to the public last month, also benefited from a $15 million donation from the Peery family.