For decades, the sprawling Cubberley Community Center on Middlefield Road has served as both a valuable hub for local artists, athletes and nonprofits and the place where local dreams go to die.
Owned jointly by the Palo Alto Unified School District and the city of Palo Alto, the dilapidated 35-acre campus was envisioned in a 2019 master plan as ripe for redevelopment. The master plan included a variety of new amenities, including a wellness center, a performing arts center and a swimming pool — additions that would complement the existing network of classrooms, studios and nonprofit spaces.
But Vice Mayor Greer Stone said Monday, May 15, that when he thinks about Cubberley, another image comes to mind.
"It keeps reminding me of the Peanuts cartoon of Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, and every time he runs up to the football, Lucy pulls it back," Stone said.
The reason for his frustration is understandable to the hundreds of residents who spent years dreaming of a better Cubberley, including those involved in the most recent master planning process. Like prior planning efforts, it fizzled in 2020 when the city, which owns 8 acres at Cubberley, hit an impasse in its negotiations with the school district, which owns the remaining 27 acres.
School leaders were adamant about preserving Cubberley land for a future school and categorically rejected the idea of redeveloping the existing gym or theater or of passing a bond for community amenities that are not directly related to education.
A new openness to negotiate
Now both sides are hoping to get the Cubberley negotiations back on track. On May 15, the City Council held its first discussion of a March 10 letter that the city had received from the school board, inviting the city to make a deal. Authored by Board Chair Shounak Dharap, the letter expresses the school board's support for the city's desire "to move forward on development of a portion of the site to realize the vision of a fully-fledged Cubberley Community Center." The letter stated that the district wants to preserve 20 acres for a future school but is open to a deal that transfers ownership or development control over at least 7 acres to the city, giving it 15 total acres for a new community center.
"The polished incarnation of this community gem will surely benefit our joint stakeholders and serve as a resource for the district's students and families," Dharap wrote.
For council members and community activists, the invitation elicited a mix of emotions, with some calling it a game changer and others, like Stone, citing recent history and curbing their enthusiasm accordingly. Penny Ellson, a bicycle advocate who was involved in putting together two different master plans for Cubberley, was underwhelmed by the lack of concrete goals for Cubberley, a critical site at a time when the city's looking to add thousands of new housing units to south Palo Alto.
"What I don't see here is a plan," Ellson said. "We're talking about purchasing a lot of land. What I don't know is what the city's intent is to do with it."
Everyone agrees, however, that the former high school's aged buildings and infrastructure need urgent repairs. The city's capital budget for Cubberley includes, among other items, funding for roof replacement and completion of a new restroom near the athletic fields. The city transfers $1.8 million annually from its general fund to a specially created Cubberley Infrastructure Fund to keep the aged center usable.
"It has not really been improved much since it was built in 1956 and really is in need of daily maintenance at this point to keep it functional and up and running," said Kristen O'Kane, director of the Community Services Department.
Council member Vicki Veenker pointed to the deteriorating conditions of the community center and argued that it's time to act so that the city is not in the "constant Charlie Brown cycle."
"The community is interested in some kind of community center that's operable, functional and that we can be proud of," Veenker said. "And I think it's important that we try to do something … streamlined, so that we can make a decision."
While the council didn't take any votes on Monday, members generally agreed that before they can determine what to build at Cubberley, they should figure out how much land they could obtain. Council members Ed Lauing and Pat Burt both supported initiating negotiations with the school district over a possible land swap or land purchase.
"The whole world has changed now from the last time we dealt with this because the school board is in an entirely different place, and they've opened the door wide for discussions on getting more land," Lauing said. "That's revolutionary compared to where we've ever been on Cubberley."
The negotiations will be led by city and school district staff, with input from a council ad hoc committee devoted to Cubberley. The committee will include Mayor Lydia Kou, Burt and council member Julie Lythcott-Haims. Burt said he was enthusiastic about the prospect of increasing the city's share of Cubberley. This could include swapping a city-owned park next to Fletcher Middle School, which the school uses for athletic fields, for Cubberley land.
"The need for the city to be able to control and own more than the 8 acres has been the linchpin on being able to move forward on Cubberley," Burt said. "I'm really excited about the letter we received from the district about their openness to a land swap."