Faced with conflicting arguments and clashing priorities, Palo Alto officials defied dozens of citizens Tuesday morning and decided to keep Cubberley Community Center in the running as a possible site for an expansion of Foothill College.
More than 40 dancers, artists and concerned parents attended the Palo Alto City Council meeting to ask the council not to sell the land to Foothill, which is considering the site for a major campus expansion. After a lengthy debate stretching well past midnight, the council voted 6-3, with councilmembers Greg Schmid, Karen Holman and Pat Burt dissenting, to send the Foothill-De Anza College District a letter expressing interest in a possible sale of the 8 acres at 4000 Middlefield Road.
Cubberley tenants argued, pleaded, waved signs and even staged a minute-long dance party inside the Council Chambers, hoping to sway the council not pursue a deal with Foothill. The parcel, they argued, should remain in the city's possession to ensure that the city would continue to have enough space to build necessary amenities and school facilities.
Foothill is considering the Cubberley site as one of several options for its proposed expansion. The community college already occupies five buildings at Cubberley. Its Middlefield Campus serves about 4,000 students.
The college district is looking to build a Foothill-De Anza Education Center and has issued a request for proposals for a new site. Its vision statements calls for a "state-of-the-art educational center serving Silicon Valley through programs and partnerships that seamlessly transition individuals from high school to community college to the university and the workplace as well as offering a rich array of lifelong opportunities." The college district has extended its request for proposals to Palo Alto and Sunnyvale and asked both cities to respond by the end of June.
Several Foothill officials asserted that the sale of the site would greatly benefit the city by providing brand new facilities that the college would be willing to share with Palo Alto students.
"This Foothill Center will offer us not only a state of the art community college that would be available to our high school students, even our middle school students," said Kathy Torgersen, member of the Foothill-De Anza Foundation board of directors. "It would also have the added benefit of being a community center."
But proponents of the sale were vastly outnumbered by opponents, including Cubberley's artist tenants, performers from the DanceVisions dance studio, and former school board members and members. Artists talked about the site's important contributions to Palo Altos culture. Dancers held up signs that said, "Save Space for Us," and broke out into a dance after the dance studio's president, Laura Zweig, urged the council not to give up the city's portion of Cubberley.
The speakers includes two former mayors, Lanie Wheeler and Mike Cobb, both of whom said the city's burgeoning school population makes the space more valuable than ever.
Cobb said selling the land would "greatly compromise city services and needed options for the PAUSD (Palo Alto Unified School District)." Wheeler agreed and criticized the council process, which included several closed sessions followed by Monday's public meeting, as "totally contrary to the principles of open government."
"It's abundantly clear that every possible city- and school-owned land in south Palo Alto will be needed to provide classroom space and city infrastructure as well as to maintain quality of life," Wheeler said.
The site was once home to Cubberley High School, which was shuttered in 1979 because of diminished enrollment. The city then leased 8 acres from the school district, which continues to own the rest of Cubberley.
Larry Klein, who proposed directing staff to write a letter to Foothill signaling the city's willingness to negotiate, praised the Los Altos Hills-based community college, calling it an institution that "adds a great deal to our community." He agreed that the city should to focus on building educational facilities, but he argued that Foothill fits the bill. He said he would hate to see Foothill leave the community.
"Foothill College is a school," Klein said. "It's not like we're considering selling this to a coal mine or a supermarket."
Mayor Sid Espinosa and Councilman Greg Scharff agreed with Klein. Espinosa called Foothill an "incredible asset to this community." But Espinosa said he'd be more open to discussing a long-term lease with Foothill, rather than a sale.
Scharff said if the city doesn't send a letter to Foothill expressing interest, it would essentially be allowing Foothill to leave the community. He seconded Klein's motion. The letter would not constitute a commitment from the city to sell the property or deal with the price.
"It's really important to recognize that we need to cut the Gordian knot of this issue and move forward on it," Scharff said.
Staff will return with the letter on July 11, at which time the council is scheduled to consider and possibly approve it.
Under a standing agreement with the Palo Alto school district, any city offer to sell the land would trigger a "first right of refusal" for the K-12 district, a city staff report noted. The district would have to act within 90 days, however.