After watching its plan to rebuild Cubberley Community Center in a partnership with the school district go off the rails, the Palo Alto City Council on Monday agreed to pursue a new strategy for the dilapidated campus: going it alone.
By a unanimous vote, the council abandoned the vision that it helped forge two years ago for the sprawling, 35-acre center at 4000 Middlefield Road. That concept, which was jointly funded by the city and Palo Alto Unified School District, envisioned Cubberley as a modern community center with a new theater, wellness center, classrooms, athletic fields and other amenities shared by the two bodies.
Now, the city is thinking smaller. With the school district showing no appetite to proceed with a joint development, council members conceded on Monday that the plan is no longer feasible. And rather than focus on the entire community center, council members are now zeroing in on the roughly 8 acres of Cubberley that the city owns.
Frustrated by the school district's recent change of direction, council members opted Monday not to move ahead with an environmental analysis for a concept plan that they agreed is now doomed. Instead, the council agreed to develop a plan for the city's portion of Cubberley and to explore acquiring additional land at the community center from the school district. This could be done either by purchasing Cubberley land from the school district or through a land swap.
Palo Alto's plans for Cubberley have been in limbo for decades, with generations of council members talking about the need to fix up the former high school but consistently failing to do so. The 2019 plan, which was created over a series of well-attended community meetings, seemed to offer a possible path forward. But last October, the school board made it clear that it would rather save the land for a future school, effectively killing the concept plan.
Council member Alison Cormack, a longtime proponent of redeveloping Cubberley, said she had initially been optimistic about Cubberley's future. But given the school district's recent decision and the general lack of progress on the center's redevelopment, she is now on "Team Go It Alone." The city, she argued, has a responsibility to improve Cubberley, a treasured asset that she described as "dirty, dilapidated, decayed and degraded."
"Cubberley has become a community attic," Cormack said. "We put things up there that are broken, it's hard to get there. But it's also a place for imagination. We need to go up there and clean up that attic and shore it up."
Other council members and residents also indicated that their patience is in short supply. Deborah Simon, who heads the citizens group Friends of Cubberley, told this news organization in an interview that her group is increasingly concerned by the city's failure to make any progress on rebuilding the center.
"Our concern is the lack of action," Simon said.
Simon is well familiar with both Cubberley's importance and its shortcomings. A board member at Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, which leases space at Cubberley, she has been coming to the center for 45 years. The classroom her group is using, M2, has barely changed in all those years, she told the council Monday.
"The broken shelves are still broken, the floor tiles now have huge holes in them, the door knobs are the same door knobs that I used to enter M2 4 1/2 decades ago," Simon told the council. "Please act now."
Peter Giles, who lives near Cubberley and who regularly plays tennis there, also characterized the city's inability to reach an agreement with the school district on the concept plan as a lost opportunity.
"It's painful to see it go unrealized in its potential," Giles said.
While council members agreed that the redevelopment of Cubberley is long overdue, they also acknowledged that the city is severely constrained by the school board's decision last October to preserve 20 acres of Cubberley for a future high school. Given that the district owns 27 acres of Cubberley land, the decision effectively kills the joint vision and ensures that a good portion of the center will remain undeveloped for the foreseeable future.
But even as the school district closed the door to a joint redevelopment of Cubberley, it left open a window. At the October meeting, school board members suggested that they would be willing to sell or trade the remaining 7 acres of its Cubberley space. This leaves the city with two promising options: focusing exclusively on its own 8 acres or acquiring additional land and expanding its share of Cubberley to 15 acres.
In considering their options, school board members pointed to a major constraint that they face at Cubberley: unlike the city, the district cannot use bond funds for projects that don't have an immediate education component. That said, board members indicated that they'd be willing to deal, a major departure for a district that has historically been reluctant to give up valuable land. Board member Jesse Ladomirak said she would support working with the city to make sure it has the land it needs to build a community center.
"I think working with them to figure out how to transfer ownership of that acreage … I'm definitely in favor of that," Ladomirak said at the Oct. 19 meeting.
Board member Shounak Dharap agreed and said that he would be willing to reconsider the district's traditional opposition to selling its land.
"It's an opportunity to look at the space and look at how we can move forward in a way that we as board members can still do our duty to the district … while at the same time allowing and even supporting our partners in the city to go forward and do what they want to do at Cubberley in a way that's only going to benefit the people that we are also serving. … It's a great idea to continue these negotiations with the city."
One idea that came up Monday is swapping the school district's Cubberley land for Terman Park, a city-owned site adjacent to Fletcher Middle School that is dedicated as parkland and that is used as a playing field by the school. That plan would have its own complications — not the least of which is the need to "undedicate" the parkland by a vote of the people. Mayor Pat Burt suggested, however, that the obstacle need not be insurmountable, particularly if the two sides agree that the land will remain undeveloped and only used for fields.
The council unanimously agreed to pursue further conversations with the school district and to request a joint meeting with the Board of Education in the coming months. At the same time, council members braced for the possibility that the talks with the school district will not bear fruit and that the city may be forced to limit its Cubberley plans to its own 8 acres.
"I think we all wished it would be a fruitful partnership," council member Greer Stone said. "It seemed like it began that way, but it has fallen apart and we have very different views."
Stone concurred with Cormack that it may be time for the city to "go it alone" and said he was concerned that the city's negotiations with the school district would further delay the long-stalled planning process.
"I'm just concerned we'll continue to make the same mistake here," Stone said. "We'll go down this path, spend those significant resources and just find ourselves at another point where the district will pull out, get cold feet and not want to move forward.
"It reminds me of the proverb, 'Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.'"