If Palo Alto were to accept tens of millions of dollars from a donor to construct a new gym, it would also have to expedite the approval process for the project and give the donor full say when it comes to selection of a contractor and the gym’s layout.
Those are the stipulations that the donor, billionaire developer and philanthropist John Arrillaga, has attached to his offer to give $30 million or more for construction of the gym, a project that has recently been identified by the city's Parks and Recreation Commission as a city priority. The city currently does not have a public gym, though it leases gym space at Cubberley Community Center from the Palo Alto Unified School District.
A report that the city released Thursday identifies Arrillaga for the first time as the donor who proposed contributing to the project last December. It also makes clear that if the city were to accept the gift, it would have to play by Arrillaga's rules. This means having Arrillaga contribute the basic design and footprint of the new gym and foregoing the typical bidding process for construction in favor of Arrillaga’s pre-selected contractor.
The city would also have to contribute about $10 million for the project, with Arrillaga footing the rest of the bill for what would be a two-story "wellness center" with an estimated price tag of $35 million to $40 million.
The proposed gym exceeds in some ways the facility that the Parks and Recreation Commission had in mind, which had an estimated cost of about $25 million, according to an analysis by the commission's ad hoc committee. In its recommendation, the commission called for a gym with three courts that could accommodate various sports, including basketball, volleyball, pickleball, indoor soccer, badminton and table tennis. The facility would also include exercise rooms for classes and smaller meeting rooms.
Jeff LaMere, a parks commissioner who served on the ad hoc committee, said during a November hearing on the project that the gym can be "an anchor of health and wellness for this community."
Palo Alto City Council member Tom DuBois, who spoke to Arrillaga in December about his offer, said the donor's proposal is very much aligned with this vision. The new report notes that the two-level design now being proposed by Arrillaga "would provide an opportunity to incorporate numerous other complimentary uses, such that the facility could be described as a 'wellness center' rather than simply a gymnasium."
Arrillaga is well known both for his philanthropy and for his hands-on approach to the projects he funds. He was a major private donor to the public gym in Menlo Park, which opened at the city's Civic Center in 2010, and he is known for contributing to numerous athletic facilities at Stanford University, many of which bear his name.
His hands-on approach hasn't always found favor in Palo Alto, however. In 2012, Arrillaga had proposed a project at 27 University Ave. that included four office towers and a theater. The proposal, which was pitched and developed behind closed doors, blew up once it became public, with many residents blasting the city for its lack of transparency. That view also was reflected in a scathing 2014 report from the Santa Clara County Grand Jury, which was titled "The City of Palo Alto's Actions Reduced Transparency and Inhibited Public Input and Scrutiny on Important Land Issues."
The city tried to avoid the same problem this time around by immediately announcing Arrillaga's offer, even though his identity was not revealed until this week. The new report from the city makes clear, however, that the donor has little patience for the city's typically lengthy approval and design process. The report notes that Arrillaga has "expressed a strong desire for the project to advance quickly."
"This would likely require expediting the selection of a preferred location, which would then be evaluated in detail concurrently with environmental clearance and community engagement on programming priorities," the report states. "Similarly, expediting design and other approvals could be considered, potentially with a goal of beginning construction within the coming year."
The council will consider the proposed gym at its Jan. 31 meeting. If it decides to play ball with Arrillaga, it would have to identify $10 million from the city's coffers to contribute to the project, as well as ways to pay for any consultants, utilities and furnishings.
The gym would likely compete for funding with other infrastructure projects that the city is looking to build, including a new skatepark, improvements to the city's animal shelter, new dog parks and park restrooms and a history museum on Homer Avenue.